The combined population of New London and Spicer in Kandiyohi County is about 2,600. If New London-Spicer product Brandon Zylstra can make the Vikings roster, he will be the high school’s first NFL player.
Zylstra has navigated a lot of leagues to get to the Vikings and he gave a lot of credit to Dan Essler, the Wildcats coach since 1987, whose son Jake Essler is a scout with the Vikings.
So far, Zylstra has impressed Vikings coaches throughout offseason workouts and training camp.
Earlier this year, offensive coordinator John DeFilippo said of Zylstra: “The more that he starts to understand the speed of the NFL game — he’s a big strong guy, people are going to have a hard time getting up in his face and pressing him. He has tremendous hands, he’s smart. He’s one of the guys that can line up anywhere, we could put him at any position. We’re very fortunate he’s on our football team.”
Zylstra, 25, said his graduating class had about 130 students. He was part of the only New London-Spicer squad to win a Prep Bowl, in 2009 in Class 3A.
As a senior in 2010, he caught 42 passes for 819 yards and nine touchdowns. He also averaged 22 yards on kick returns, made 86 tackles and kicked off.
“We had a lot of athletes from our school, my junior year, the year we won state, we had kids go everywhere for multiple sports,” Zylstra recalled. “We had a few football players that went D-II, a couple went D-III, a few went for baseball — a little bit of everything, to be honest.”
He enrolled at Division II Augustana in South Dakota before transferring to Division III Concordia (Moorhead). In 29 games with the Cobbers over three seasons, he caught 120 passes for 1,932 yards and 18 touchdowns under coach Terry Horan, who got Zylstra a huge tryout in March 2016.
Zylstra was able to participate in a pro day at the Fargodome that featured eventual No. 1 overall pick Carson Wentz. In attendance were the Chargers, Vikings, Jaguars and Eagles.
“You kind of have to have an NFL team vouch for you to get in,” Zylstra told the West Central Tribune after the workout. “Coach Horan’s friend with the Chargers got me in.”
Still, Zylstra didn’t get an invite to an NFL camp and instead wound up in the Canadian Football League.
“Just because I went to a D-III school and we ran a triple-option there, so you know a lot of NFL teams just kind of looked past me because I didn’t have the right film out there,” he said. “The CFL ended up giving me a chance. I got there by going to a few different CFL tryouts, they liked what they saw and signed me to a contract.”
Zylstra played six games for Edmonton in 2016, catching 34 passes for 508 yards and three touchdowns. Over 16 games in 2017, he caught 100 passes for 1,687 yards and five TDs.
“We had about 20 different NFL teams talking to my agent and I,” he said. “Then we set up a workout between the six of them and ended up choosing the Vikings out of those six.”
Asked if being from Minnesota was a factor, he said: “Hometown played into it, it’s close to family and friends, but honestly I just felt the most comfortable here,” he said. “I liked everything they were saying. It felt like it was going to be a good fit.”
Into Vikings camp
The 6-3, 220-pound Zylstra said the biggest difference between the CFL and NFL is the field dimensions.
“The speed might be a little faster down here and I think a little bit of that has to do with the field size — everything is a little bit smaller down here and more compact, which kind of speeds everybody up,” he said. “There’s less room. I’d say that’s one of the biggest differences. But playbook, everything else, it seems to have some similarities.”
He said he has gotten a chance to work a lot with Adam Thielen, another small-college state product.
“I reached out to him back when I was first trying out for the NFL, just asking for advice,” he said. “We have some family friends that knew each other. ... But when I actually signed I started talking to his trainer and had contact with him and started working out at a place called ETS in Oakdale. I think we started working out in January, February together. We spent a few months together running and lifting and doing routes.
“He’s a super good guy, obviously super smart and super talented, so he’s definitely a guy that I go to. When we’re in meetings and stuff, I’ll try to pick his brain as much as possible and try to get as much information as I can.”
Zylstra said the fact that he has played and excelled at special teams at every level gives him a chance to make the 53-man roster, but he knows he has a lot of work ahead.
Still, even though he’s a small-town, small-school player, he is not letting the moment overwhelm him.
“It’s definitely a dream come true,” he said. “I haven’t been star-struck or anything yet, because I am so focused on what I’m trying to do that I don’t let that factor kind of creep in, or that awe moment really startle me or anything.”
But he said that he knows it would be a great moment for his hometown if he could make the squad.
“We definitely have people reach out to me and my family all of the time,” Zylstra said. “The support we’ve had back home has been unreal.”
Sano breaks out
Since returning from his minor league demotion, Twins third baseman Miguel Sano has finally started hitting like his old self. In his past 10 games, he has gone 11-for-33 (.333) with four doubles, seven runs scored, four RBI and a one home run, a tying solo shot in the ninth inning on Wednesday night against the Indians.
And even though the Twins lost three of four in Cleveland, including another walkoff loss Thursday, the fact that Sano is hitting has to bring some relief to the front office.
“I feel good, you know, I got better down there working and I feel really good,” Sano said before the Twins left for Cleveland. “I was able to work out down there, lifting, running and working on different stuff. I feel good again now.”
Sano hit .328 in 19 games at Class A Fort Myers, but he said his ability to hit down there wasn’t the main point.
“I don’t focus on the pitching. I’m more focused on losing weight and trying to get stronger and come back and do my job here,” Sano said. “I played in that league a few years ago and I killed down there.”
Sano said he lost 26 pounds while in the minors, and he is trying to prove that he can again be an impact player for the Twins.
“Last year, you know I made the All-Star team and stuff, and this year I had been struggling,” he said. “But I never put my head down. I get up, put my head up and try to look out front and focus every day and forget what’s in the past.”