Minnesota Vikings wide receiver Brandon Zylstra grew up in a house near Spicer that is perched next to a private lake. A short, curved driveway leads to the garage and front door. In the basement, Zylstra’s No. 15 high school football jersey is framed and hung on the wall.
In the frame, there’s a photo of Zylstra from his senior season at New London-Spicer with his arm around his grandpa, Gary Zylstra.
Brandon gave the jersey to Gary as a Christmas gift after his senior high school season. Gary’s family gave the jersey back to Brandon after Gary died in 2012.
“That’s something that means a lot to me,” Brandon said. "He was there for every single game. He was always my biggest fan."
Vonn Zylstra, Brandon’s father, said Gary would have relished his grandson’s journey from the NCAA Division III Concordia Cobbers to the Canadian Football League’s Edmonton Eskimos to the NFL.
“Gary would be so proud of him,” Vonn said. “This would have been a big deal to him. He would be the guy uptown running around telling everybody."
Gary lived in Hendricks, Minn., a small town about 190 miles south of Fargo, and routinely drove two hours one way to watch each of his grandsons’ games, including Brandon, during their high school careers.
In some ways, Brandon’s football journey has come full circle after he made the Vikings' 53-man roster this season.
Like high school, he’s again playing receiver and wearing No. 15 for a Minnesota team after stops with teams in Sioux Falls, S.D., Moorhead and Edmonton, Alberta, in between.
“I think it was wonderful because he’s home,” said Marcia Zylstra, Brandon’s mom. “It’s fun. It’s exciting and crazy.”
When the Vikings played at the Los Angeles Rams earlier this season, there was a viewing party at Johnny O’Neil’s bar and restaurant in Spicer and near the shores of Green Lake.
The event center was filled with people wearing purple T-shirts that had “Zylstra” and “15” printed on the back. O’Neil’s printed the Zylstra T-shirts and have sold around 1,700, said Michelle Olson, one of the owners. The proceeds from the T-shirt sales are being donated to the New London-Spicer booster club for the football team.
Olson said the initial order was for 300 shirts and those were gone the first day. Orders for the T-shirts have come from around the United States, Olson said, including Arizona, Connecticut and Kansas.
“It’s amazing having a local kid getting into the NFL, period,” Olson said. “Being on the Minnesota (Vikings) is awesome.”
Brandon has played primarily special teams this season for the Vikings, who received the opening kickoff against the Rams in Week 4. Brandon is on the kick-return unit so the crowd at O’Neil’s intently watched.
“There he is,” said one of the fans as Brandon flashed on the screen during the national broadcast as he jogged back to the sideline after the kickoff.
“You’re always looking for Zylstra out there,” Olson said.
Brandon said he's heard fans yell out "Concordia" or "Cobbers" during pregame warm-ups, including the game in Los Angeles against the Rams.
"I love it," Brandon said.
'I knew he was a difference-maker'
New London-Spicer assistant Chad Gustafson has coached football at the school for nearly 30 years and has served as the team’s offensive coordinator.
When Brandon was in high school, he reminded Gustafson of a then-Minnesota Gophers receiver, who would eventually make the NFL.
“The Gophers had Eric Decker at the time with (Tim) Brewster,” Gustafson said, referring to the former Minnesota head football coach. “We had made lots of comparisons. Obviously (Decker) was at a different level because he was already playing for the Gophers. We were like, ‘He reminds us of (Decker) in so many ways.’”
Decker played high school football at Rocori High School in Cold Spring, Minn., which is about a half-hour drive from New London-Spicer. After he finished with the Gophers, Decker went on to have a successful NFL career. Decker played in the NFL for eight seasons.
Brandon, however, didn’t garner much interest from D-I colleges coming out of high school. One of the reasons was he didn’t put up big receiving statistics as a junior, finishing with 18 catches for 280 yards and five touchdowns. Those numbers jumped during his senior season when he had 42 receptions for 819 yards and nine touchdowns.
New London-Spicer head football coach Dan Essler said Brandon was a good athlete as a junior, but took his ability to a higher level as a senior.
“He’s probably the most improved athlete we’ve ever had from a junior to his senior year,” said Essler, who has coached at the school for nearly 30 years. “When he was a senior, he was a big, physical guy who worked really hard. … He’s probably one of the top three or four athletes we’ve had come through our school in the past 30 years.”
When he made the Vikings roster, many compared Brandon to Pro Bowl wide receiver Adam Thielen, from Detroit Lakes, Minn. Both have similar back stories, playing at smaller colleges. Thielen played at Division II Minnesota State-Mankato.
"I think the Adam Thielen thing really helps, just that believability of an out-state Minnesota kid can do that," New London-Spicer athletic director John Vraa said.
Brandon started his college football career at Division II Augustana University in Sioux Falls.
“He was going to go to the highest level he could,” Vonn said of that decision.
Brandon redshirted during first season with the Vikings and had one catch for 17 yards in his second year in the program before Augustana had a coaching change.
“He didn’t want to start over,” Vonn said.
So Brandon reached out to Cobbers head football coach Terry Horan, who had initially recruited him out of high school. Justin Zylstra, Brandon’s older brother, had also played for Horan.
“I remember him making a comment after he left Augustana. He said, ‘I’m just going to go and tear it up. … And hopefully I get some recognition off of that,'” Vonn said.
“When he reached out to us, I was elated,” Horan recalled. “I knew he was a difference-maker.”
In his three seasons at Concordia, Zylstra had 120 catches for 1,932 yards and 18 touchdowns in a run-heavy, triple-option offense. He averaged 16.1 yards per catch during his career.
“It’s amazing,” Gustafson said. “I don’t know how many guys have gone from Division III to the NFL because it takes a tremendous amount of dedication. But there’s proof there if you’ve got some talent, if you work at it, you can make some things happen.”
Vraa said Brandon was a multi-dimensional athlete in high school, and excelled in any sport he tried.
"He could have played four or five positions on each side of the football, and you watch him water ski, he was just fantastic," Vraa said.
As Gustafson reflected on Brandon’s journey the NFL during a late September afternoon during football practice in New London, he looked out at New London-Spicer’s current players.
“Who knows? Maybe the next Brandon Zylstra is out here,” Gustafson said.
'We give each kid his time'
A purple Vikings flag hung from the Zylstras’ garage on a Thursday afternoon in late September, a customary sight on game days.
When Brandon plays, Marcia and Vonn fly their Vikings flag. They also have a Minnesota State-Mankato flag for days when the Mavericks are playing. Shane Zylstra, Brandon’s younger brother, is a junior wide receiver for MSU-Mankato, which made the Division II playoffs.
“We give each kid his time, his day,” Vonn said.
Their youngest son, Braden, is a sophomore at New London-Spicer and plays junior varsity and varsity football. The Wildcats lost in the section championship this season. That makes busy weeks in the fall for Marcia and Vonn.
“We had four games a week,” Vonn said. “We’ve got (Braden) who plays JV on Mondays, varsity on Fridays, Shane on Saturdays and Brandon on Sundays.”
Marcia and Vonn usually wear their purple “Zylstra” Vikings game jerseys for Brandon’s games. In the preseason, they first purchased T-shirts because they didn’t want to get a game jersey until they were sure Brandon made the team.
“We didn’t want to jinx it,” Vonn said.
Brandon said No. 15 and No. 84 were among his jersey number options. He didn't consider No. 84, which was worn by former Vikings receiving great Randy Moss, who was one of Brandon's childhood idols.
"I would never touch Moss' jersey, out of respect," Brandon said.
While Moss was Brandon's idol at a young age, Vonn said former Vikings receiving great Cris Carter was who his son tried to imitate growing up.
"He used to mimic Cris Carter toe-tap catches," Vonn said. "He'd practice how Cris Carter would be right on the sidelines and drag his toes."
Brandon made his first NFL catch against the New York Jets in Week 7. His 23-yard reception in the second quarter set up a Latavius Murray touchdown run in a 37-17 Vikings victory.
"That was so thrilling," Marcia said.
The Zylstras were Vikings fans even before Brandon made the team.
"We've always been fans and we've always watched every game," Vonn said. "Now we are watching the game differently. We have a vested interest."
'Go get mom'
Brandon started to water ski around 9 years old, Vonn said, and he was part of the Little Crow Ski Team, based in New London. Brandon excelled on the water, too, able to do some of the the more challenging tricks.
One of his toughest tricks is called a "bomb out," where you jump out of your skis at a high speed and then come down bare footing.
"It's a really hard act," Vonn said.
"I really think of him as a lake kid," Gustafson said. "He had so much raw talent."
Vonn was grilling Saturday, Sept. 1, the day the Vikings were finalizing their 53-man roster. He received a call from Brandon around noon.
"He said, 'Go get mom,'" Vonn said.
Brandon told his parents he made the 53-man roster via FaceTime, but an official announcement wouldn't be made until 3 p.m. That meant the Zylstras had to keep a secret for around three hours.
"It was long enough," Marcia said with a laugh.
"People were asking us," Vonn added. "I remember someone asking me at 2:58."
The Zylstras were boating with friends on Green Lake when the clock struck 3 p.m. They could finally break the news.
"There were loud cheers on the lake," Vonn said.
Later that night, the Zylstras ordered their purple No. 15 "Zylstra" Vikings game jerseys. Vonn said the well wishes poured in after Brandon made the 53-man roster.
"When he made the team, I think I had 66 text messages," Vonn said.
Marcia and Vonn don't talk football with Brandon (unless he wants to) when he calls, because Brandon's life is saturated with football. Brandon appreciates that his parents give him that release from the game.
"Whenever I meet up with friends, everyone wants to talk about my job," Brandon said. "It's nice to get away from that a little bit."
If Brandon talks football with a family member, it is usually with Shane, who is one of the top receivers in the Northern Sun Intercollegiate Conference.
"He's definitely my go-to football guy," Brandon said.
'I always think of him'
During the national anthem prior to his games, Brandon said he glances toward the sky to honor Gary. He started doing that in college.
"I will look up and start smiling," Brandon said. "I always think of him."
Brandon was part of two state championship teams while at New London-Spicer. In 2009, The Wildcats won the Minnesota Class 3A state football championship. New London-Spicer won the Class 2A boys basketball state title in 2010.
After a successful college career, Brandon spent two seasons with the Edmonton Eskimos in the CFL. In 2017, Zylstra led the league in receiving with 100 catches for 1,687 yards and five touchdowns. In 22 games with Edmonton, he had 134 catches for 2,195 yards and eight TDs.
"After he played in Canada, we knew he was going to play at that next level," Vonn said. "It ended up being the best thing for him. He loved Canada."
From a young age, the NFL was always a goal for Brandon.
Marcia ran a home daycare for more than 10 years, starting when Brandon was around 6 years old. There's a "Zylstra Zoo" metal sign near the Zylstras' front porch, the name for the daycare. Marcia said Brandon would often play backyard football with a group of kids from the daycare.
"There was always some sport going on at the house," Marcia said.
Brandon was about in fifth grade when he was in the car with Marcia. He then told his mom he was going to be an NFL player. Marcia didn't want to discourage a young Brandon, but also wanted him to have a backup plan, too.
"That's OK," Marcia said recalling the conversation with a smile. "But let's try to find something else to do, too."
Brandon didn't have to worry about a backup plan.
"He has already defied so many odds," Marcia said. "How many kids make (the NFL)?"