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How Adam Thielen went from a $500 D2 scholarship to record-setting NFL star

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Work, effort and an amazing story.

Minnesota Vikings v Green Bay Packers Photo by Joe Robbins/Getty Images

Adam Thielen’s road to the NFL took a bumpy, circuitous route through D2 football and the dental health industry, now the Vikings receiver is a record holder. On Sunday Thielen became the first receiver in league history to finish with 100 yards receiving in each of his team’s first five games.

Thielen has managed to carve a spot for himself and thrive in a league known for chewing up players and spitting them out. So how does a guy who barely had a chance of making an NFL roster become one of the best receivers in the league?

Thielen dreamed of being a member of the Vikings from a young age.

Born in Detroit Lakes, Minnesota, Thielen idolized the Vikings of the early-90s as a kid. He spent considerable time as a child in his backyard mimicking Cris Carter sideline catches — working on his footwork and trying to keep his toes inside bounds of imaginary sidelines.

However, it wasn’t always clear if football was going to be Thielen’s long-term pursuit. He was a multi-sport star in high school and excelled at golf, where he helped lead Detroit Lakes High School to a 2A state championship in the sport. He was also a talented basketball player, and thought that might be the better long-term pursuit for him.

When it came time for college only one team called.

College teams weren’t interested in Thielen despite receiving All-Conference and All-State honors in his senior year. He settled on the idea of playing DIII basketball and then he got a call from the only team willing to make him an offer: The Minnesota State Mavericks.

The term “offer” is accurate, but perhaps a little loose. Coaches at Minnesota State were willing to give him a $500 scholarship, which wasn’t even enough to cover books — but as Thielen said:

“I didn’t even know there was such a thing as a $500 scholarship. And that wasn’t even going to be enough to cover my books. But it was better than what I was being offered by anybody else, which was … nothing. So I didn’t even hesitate.”

At this point the idea of playing in the NFL wasn’t even on Thielen’s mind. He just wanted a chance to play football, and knew realistically that a $500 D2 offer wasn’t likely going to turn heads enough to get him to the NFL, regardless of how well he played.

It wasn’t until Thielen’s senior year that he really began thinking the NFL was a possibility. He’d had several middling seasons at Minnesota State by no fault of his own, but broke out in his final year, finishing with over 1,100 yards receiving and 8 touchdowns.

A combine, but not the combine.

Options for a player at a low-tier college are pretty limited if you’re looking to impress NFL teams. Thielen wasn’t invited to the scouting combine in Indianapolis, so he was forced to pay his own way to a regional combine in Chicago.

These events didn’t have NFL scouts, just organizers who recorded numbers and sent data to NFL teams. The aim for players at this point is to just put up numbers that are good enough to move onto the next level, a super-regional combine where actual NFL scouts might attend. More often than not this means that everything hinges on a 40 time.

Thielen found out he ran a 4.45 in the 40-yard-dash, good enough to attract the attention of regional scouts. They asked him to send them game film, and things were looking up — but then the draft came along and he wasn’t selected.

Two teams made Thielen offers, one was the Carolina Panthers and the other was the Vikings. The team he’d dreamed of playing for as a kid, but he was still concerned that the offers wouldn’t materialize — so he began to make plans for the future.

The dental health business.

Wanting a backup plan, Thielen went and interviewed for an internship with Patterson Dental, a medical sales company. It was during this interview that he told them he might not be able to accept a job offer, all because he had a pending tryout with the Vikings. They understood, and it turned out that his workout with the Vikings went well.

Thielen played through rookie mini camp and turned heads, playing well enough that the Vikings cut someone to make sure they could lock up Thielen.

Fast forward to today.

Now, three years later Thielen is one of the best receivers in the NFL. He’s second in yards, the Vikings are in the hunt in the NFC North, and hot off a win over the Philadelphia Eagles. A dream has been realized, and it all came from impossible odds. It’s proof that hard work pays off.