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'I'm just playing football': A humble Adam Thielen is the Vikings' feel-good story

Minnesota Vikings wide receiver Adam Thielen and quarterback Shaun Hill emerge from the smoke as the Vikings take to the field at the start of their game against the San Diego Chargers in the third quarter at U.S. Bank Stadium on Sunday, Aug. 28, 2016. John Autey / St. Paul Pioneer Press

MINNEAPOLIS - Six years ago almost to the day, the Minnesota Duluth football team closed the regular season with a 31-19 victory over Minnesota-State Mankato.

A crowd of 3,458 gathered at Malosky Stadium on a sunny and mild afternoon to watch as the defending national champion Bulldogs secured a berth in the NCAA Division II playoffs for the fourth straight year.

Lost somewhere in the box score was a rather nondescript performance by a fleet-footed receiver from Detroit Lakes, Minn., by the name of Adam Thielen, who caught six passes for 75 yards and no touchdowns. Oh, if we only knew then what we know now.

Thielen was a good small-college receiver, but nobody, not even him, could have predicted how he has taken off as a member of the Minnesota Vikings. The latest chapter in this storybook was written Sunday in the Vikings' 24-7 victory over the Los Angeles Rams at U.S. Bank Stadium.

Thielen caught six passes for 123 yards and a 65-yard touchdown where he turned on the jets, torching the Rams' secondary as if it was the Upper Iowa Peacocks.

Feel-good story? Try feel-fantastic story.

"It hasn't been surreal," Thielen said in the locker room afterward. "I'm just playing football. I love to play the game, and I love to come out here on Sundays. It doesn't feel any different from when I played high school and college football."

It sure looks different.

UMD fans, next time you're wavering on whether to attend a game or lay on the couch, keep in mind, it's pretty good football.

Danny Woodhead played his first college game at Malosky Stadium when he was with Chadron State. Future NFL tight end Zach Miller was a Nebraska-Omaha signal-caller when he played there. Stefan Logan whizzed around would-be tacklers at Malosky long before he whizzed around would-be tacklers with the Detroit Lions.

But of all the greats, Thielen has arguably developed into the greatest to have played there.

The numbers don't lie.

Thielen has 916 receiving yards, joining Randy Moss as the only Vikings to have topped 900 receiving yards through 10 games in a season.

"Randy is an idol of mine, a guy who made me want to play the game and made me want to play receiver," Thielen said. "I'm very thankful for what he did for me and this game, but I'm not really even thinking about stats right now or anything like that. I'm just trying to win games."

The Vikings have done plenty of that, improving to 8-2 after handling the Rams (7-3) in a contest billed as the game of the week. Next up, a Thanksgiving Day showdown with the Lions (6-4).

Thielen leads the NFC in receiving yards yet still gets disrespected.

An article in the Washington Post last week talked about how the Redskins' defense made the Vikings' receivers look like Pro Bowlers. Maybe that's because they are. Or will be. Thielen has now scored touchdowns in three straight games for the first time his career. After a breakout season last year, the Vikings awarded Thielen with a three-year, $27-million deal, and so far, he has not disappointed.

"I never thought, 'One day I'm going to be an NFL receiver,' " Thielen said. "I just take it one day at a time, and have fun doing it."

Thielen is one of four Minnesota natives on the roster, joining receiver Michael Floyd (St. Paul), return man Marcus Sherels (Rochester) and Duluth's own C.J. Ham. That can't hurt your following. Thielen probably received the loudest applause in pregame introductions.

"Adam is an unbelievable player. He has a lot of confidence in himself, and it shows on the field," Ham said.

Ham, a fullback in his second year with the Vikings, played against Thielen in high school at Duluth Denfeld and in college at Augustana. Like Thielen, Ham also played at Malosky Stadium. These two weren't good enough for "big-time" Division I programs but were good enough for the richest professional sports league on the planet.

There is a certain stigma with undrafted small-college guys, like they have to keep proving they belong, so Thielen and Ham keep proving they belong.

"We have the same story in that sense," Ham said. "We were both small-school guys, didn't get recruited highly, but it really doesn't matter where you come from. It's all about hard work. Adam works very hard and was a great inspiration to me last season."

And that inspiration is, if he can do it, I can, too. One can only imagine how many youngsters in the North Star State are dreaming to be them one day.

Thielen was asked if this was a statement game by the Vikings, and he responded in a way that easily could be applied to his daily approach on life.

"Every game is a statement game," he said.

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