MANKATO, Minn. — As a homegrown, Minnesota youngster, Adam Thielen spent hours trying to replicate Cris Carter’s sideline-tightrope skills, stretching for receptions from his father and tumbling into a large beanbag chair at the family’s Detroit Lakes house.
LaMark Brown, meanwhile, used the youth fields of suburban St. Louis to work on emulating former Rams star Isaac Bruce and his field-stretching abilities.
Years later, both circumstance and a common willingness to navigate a humble path brought them both to a mutual proving ground. This NFL preseason, the Minnesota State stars-turned-Vikings wide receiver hopefuls find themselves united at the same destination once again.
And while the training camp existence of a fringe professional prospect can be a lonely, isolated one, Thielen and Brown feel right at home in Mankato, where their old stomping grounds’ signage and architectural trim match their purple Nike practice jerseys.
“Coming into pro football, it’s new,” Vikings receivers coach George Stewart said when asked about the pair’s training-camp comfort level. “You walk in the dressing room the first time, there’s Adrian Peterson, that’s Jared (Allen), it’s new.
“They have found a niche.”
Brown cracked the initial fall roster following a long, arduous rookie season that took him to four different NFL cities, all without dressing for a single game. An undrafted free agent like his former college teammate, Thielen worked the regional combine circuit for his shot.
Thielen appears to have a leg up in competing for what’s essentially the final receiver spot on Minnesota’s active roster. Greg Jennings, Jerome Simpson, Jarius Wright and first-round draft pick Cordarrelle Patterson’s positions are pretty much guaranteed, and Thielen and Brown have converted quarterback Joe Webb, Stephen Burton and a handful of others with which to contend if they hope to avoid practice-squad relegation or being waived outright.
But neither Brown nor Thielen view it as a personal battle, at least not between each other.
“I don’t think either of us think of it as a competition,” Thielen said. “We’re both just going out there and showing what we’ve got.”
Said Brown: “We’re rooting for each other.”
Very few undrafted Division II products realize the objective both Thielen and Brown are after.
But they’re plenty accustomed to swooping in unnoticed.
The tandem was first united when Brown transferred to Minnesota State in 2010. Ranked as the No. 1 prep prospect in the St. Louis metro area, the Hazelwood West graduate felt he wasn’t given his due in three years at Kansas State. Coach Bill Snyder moved the receiver to running back his sophomore year, then back to wideout his junior season.During his time in Manhattan, Kan., Brown caught 45 passes for 426 yards, rushed 118 times for 412 yards and scored eight touchdowns.
That wasn’t enough, by Brown’s estimation. Things only got worse when Snyder refused to grant his release, meaning Brown would have to sit out a year — a course of action he intended to avoid by switching to Division II.
“I was disappointed in the whole thing,” Brown said. “You take a step back and sort of kinda start to appreciate everything a lot more. Any chance that you’re given to do anything, it really becomes a blessing for you.”
Admittedly, though, it was a hacked-off, slightly overwhelmed Brown that packed his bags and headed north.
That changed almost immediately when he met a jovial, outgoing sophomore named Adam Thielen.
Coming out of Detroit Lakes High School, Thielen wasn’t nearly the college recruit Brown was; Minnesota State was the only school to offer him a scholarship. He redshirted in 2008 and had earned a starting job by 2010.
Enthused at the notion of lining up alongside a BCS-caliber player, Thielen was the first Maverick to greet Brown upon his arrival in Mankato. The two clicked instantly, and their friendship made Brown’s season on the sidelines a bit more acceptable.
“I just remember being like, ‘Oh, this is going to be awesome,'” said Thielen, who led the team in receiving yardage his sophomore season. “‘Us together could be something special.'”
He was right.
Recharged after a year off, Brown proved the perfect complement to Thielen. The duo combined for 93 catches and 1,120 yards receiving on the way to a 9-3 finish and a victory in the Mineral Water Bowl.
It would prove the closest thing to constancy Brown’s experienced since his high school days.
The 6-foot-4, 220-pounder finished the 2012 season on the Vikings’ practice squad after spending training camp in Atlanta and in-season practice stints in Buffalo and Tampa Bay. Both teams tried to convert him to tight end, but Brown struggled to adapt.
“That whole transition period was rough and too much back-and-forth,” Brown said, “but it’s a reality check for you, because you know how this league works and how this game is once you get to the professional level.”
Thielen, meanwhile, put forth an absolutely sensational senior campaign, hauling in 74 catches for 1,176 yards and eight touchdowns. Under rookie head coach Aaron Keen, Minnesota State went 13-1 and reached the Division II semifinals, the best finish in program history.
But Thielen was once again overlooked. A strong showing at the Chicago regional combine earned him an invite to the NFL Super Regional Combine, the destination for underrated players hailing from obscure roots.
There, he posted a 4.45 40-yard dash and ultimately gleaned an invite to Minnesota’s rookie camp. His sharp route-running and above-average hands impressed enough there to earn him a training camp contract, and he and Brown hooked up in Mankato once again.
Since emerging for the Mavericks, Thielen never doubted he could make it this far.
He had no idea he’d be such a popular post-practice interview and autograph source, though.
“I definitely didn’t think I’d have this much attention on me, but it’s alright,” said Thielen, who’s sharing a dorm room with Patterson. “I’ve just got to learn how to deal with it.”
Part of that has been showing fellow Vikings newcomers around Mankato, especially when it comes to dining destinations. Thielen’s most-endorsed eatery is Tav on the Ave, though he and Brown make an effort to cater to their teammates’ specific cuisine desires.
“Me and Adam both, we have our own things we do,” Brown said. “But for the most part, we sort of kind of tell everybody, if they ask a question about places around here, we can kind of direct them.”
On the field, Thielen’s had the more impressive camp. Both starting quarterback Christian Ponder and backup Matt Cassel said they’re impressed with the precision of his routes, and Stewart likes to point out his mental moxie.
“He’s always been a guy that you could say the chips are against him or the odds are against him,” Stewart said of the 6-2, 195-pound Thielen. “No. He’s coming in, he’s competing. … He’s smart. He’s competitive and he catches everything.”
Brown struggled to shed defenders early in camp. Once he improved in that category, he dropped a few passes.
Even one mistake can be costly when the chances to rectify it are in such short supply.
He hasn’t worked with the first-string special teams units enough to suggest he has a shot in that department, either, but that doesn’t signal the tail end of a short-lived professional career.
An optimistic realist, Brown carries an understanding that enough good plays on film in camp better his chances of sticking somewhere else, even if he doesn’t survive the first round of Vikings cuts between now and Aug. 27.
“It’s a numbers game, and it comes down to what you put on tape,” Brown said. “At the end of the day, if my best here wasn’t enough to get me in a spot here, if someone else is interested, of course I’m gonna go through it. I’m not gonna limit myself and say that if it doesn’t happen for this team this year, then I’m gonna stop.”
Brown and Thielen spent a good chunk of Wednesday afternoon’s scrimmage trading pointers. Friday night, they’ll both suit up for a game again, even if it’s just Minnesota’s preseason opener against Houston.
Their time together — and, possibly, the remainder of their football careers — may be short. But a few weeks back together in Mankato have limited the stressors associated with such a state of flux.
“It was really nice for the first couple weeks; just to know somebody made it a little bit more comfortable for me,” Thielen said.
“Overall, he’s just a fun guy,” Brown said of Thielen. “He loves to play this sport, and I’m lucky to have been on the same team with him once again.”