FARGO-The grade-school assignment was simple. Draw a picture of yourself of what you want to be when you grow up.
It didn't take very long for Brandon Zylstra to produce a picture that his mother would later display after his high school graduation. The artwork showed Zylstra wearing a No. 84, Minnesota Vikings purple-colored jersey.
Zylstra took one step closer to his childhood dream on Wednesday when he signed a reserve/future contract with the Vikings. The contract means Zylstra will be added to the Vikings' 90-man offseason roster once the 2018 league year begins in March.
Zylstra, the former Concordia College standout who was one of the top receivers in the Canadian Football League last season, knows there is a lot of work to be done before cracking the Vikings lineup for next season.
"Honestly, I've been kind of manifesting this dream ever since I was a little guy," Zylstra said, referring in part to his grade-school artwork. "Regardless if I am a receiver or just on special teams, I will take whatever role they will throw at me."
Growing up in Spicer, Minn.,-located just over 100 miles west of Minneapolis-Zylstra was a Vikings' fan idolizing the likes of receiver Randy Moss who wore the No. 84 that Zylstra drew in his picture. Moss was the inspiration for him to switch from running back to wide receiver when he was a freshman at New London-Spicer High School.
Zylstra's story rings similar to another Minnesotan who came out of nowhere and became a Vikings wide receiver. That is Adam Thielen of Detroit Lakes who this season became a Pro Bowl receiver for a Vikings team that is preparing for the NFL playoffs.
"He kind of paved the way for unknown and undrafted guys," Zylstra said.
Zylstra reached out to Thielen for advice on how to become a professional football player. Zylstra's quarterback at Concordia, Michael Herzog, was good friends with the Thielen family. Zylstra, who ran into Thielen after his workout with the Vikings last month, now has the same agent as Thielen and plans to work out with him this spring in the Minneapolis suburb of Oakdale.
"He told me two years ago to do as many workouts as you can," Zylstra said. "I took his advice and ran with it. I just had to get my name out there."
After college at Concordia, Zylstra moved to Arizona to train with former Cobbers teammate Griffin Neal. That's where he attracted the interest of CFL teams and was eventually signed to a two-year contract with the Edmonton Eskimos.
Ironically, his contract with the Eskimos prevented him from a workout the Vikings had requested after the 2016 NFL Draft. The Vikings noticed Zylstra during a Pro Day at the Fargodome that included former North Dakota State and current Philadelphia Eagles quarterback Carson Wentz.
Since the Vikings did not sign Zylstra to any kind of contract at that time, it prevented them from working him out because of his Edmonton contract.
"I know Brandon was extremely disappointed not getting that chance to work out with the Vikings," said Concordia head coach Terry Horan. "I just told him to go make a name for yourself in the CFL. That league is a perfect place for him because they chuck the ball all over the place."
Zylstra certainly made a name for himself. After catching 34 passes for 508 yards in six games during his first season with Edmonton, Zylstra led the CFL with 1,687 receiving yards this past season and became a CFL All-Star.
NFL teams took notice. Zylstra and his agent put together a list of teams to schedule workouts. That's why Zylstra moved in with his uncle in Bloomington, to be close to the airport when he flew to workouts with the New York Jets, Arizona Cardinals, Detroit Lions and Indianapolis Colts.
But it eventually came down to the Vikings.
"Everybody talks about how close knit they are," Zylstra said, referring in part to conversations with current Vikings fullback C.J. Ham. Zylstra and Ham were part of the same recruiting class at Augustana College of Sioux Falls, S.D. Zylstra later transferred to Concordia-where he had 1,932 career receiving yards and 18 touchdowns.
"The Vikings are a proven team this year with a great, solid coaching staff. But first and foremost, it's back home to me."
Zylstra will report to the Vikings OTAs (organized team activities) in mid-April, with hopes of staying with the team until the next season begins.
"There is a lot of work to do now," he said. "I've always felt I could play in this league. I'm grateful they have given me the chance. Now, it's up to me to prove that I belong in this league."
It won't be easy. The Vikings currently have Thielen and fellow receivers Jarius Wright, Stefon Diggs, Laquon Treadwell and Stacy Coley under contract through at least next season.
Horan certainly believes Zylstra can become the next Adam Thielen story.
"And he's bigger," Horan said of the 6-foot-2, 215-pound Zylstra, who cleared 6 feet, 10 inches as a high jumper for the Concordia track team and was once a professional barefoot water skier. "He is so athletic ... he's a freak. This is another Thielen story. He is pretty special."