When Joe Mauer donned his gear one last time last Sunday, Adam Thielen watched, one great Minnesota catcher cheering another.
If Joe Mauer retires, Thielen will become the most prominent Minnesota-born athlete playing for a Minnesota pro sports team. Zach Parise qualifies for consideration, as well, but the NHL can’t compare to the NFL in popularity, and Parise is 34 and trying to reprise his glory years. Thielen is 28, coming off a breakout season and one of the most remarkable statistical months in Vikings history.
He’s a star who can’t fathom being described by the same word often applied to Mauer, providing a reminder that Mauer once felt the same way about comparisons to athletes like Paul Molitor and Kevin Garnett.
“It was a special thing for me to watch that on Sunday,” Thielen said. “I grew up watching him. He was a huge role model for me and someone who made me want to play sports at the highest level. Somebody who has been so great in all areas.
“He was a great athlete all around, starting in high school, playing three sports and playing them all successfully. He has been a phenomenal role model.”
Thielen played football, basketball, baseball and golf at Detroit Lakes High. He bought Latrell Sprewell Supreme Spinner basketball shoes. He loved Randy Moss, Torii Hunter, Brad Radke, Cris Carter.
He’d try to replicate Carter’s sideline toe-tap catches in his backyard, and today he plays similarly to Carter in terms of footwork, over-the-middle toughness and his conversational skills with referees.
“Joe was always so calm, always had such a great demeanor,” Thielen said with a smile. “That’s something I wish I did as well as him.”
In terms of on-field production, Thielen has transformed himself from a local-kid-makes-good story into a national star.
He is the third player in the Super Bowl era to record four straight 100-yard games to start a season. His four-game streak of 100 yards and at least five catches is tied for the most in Vikings history and seventh longest in league history. Calvin Johnson, who holds the record, did it eight straight games.
In a league full of spectacular receivers and prolific offenses, Thielen ranks second in catches, yards and yards per game. Like Mauer, he deflects praise like a caffeinated goalie.
“I’ve never been a numbers guy,” Thielen said. “Numbers don’t excite me. Winning games excites me. So that’s what is frustrating for me. Yeah, you might have good individual numbers, but what does that mean? A lot of it is dictated by opportunity, by the score of the game, by having to come from behind.
“For me, I’m just trying to keep getting better. It’s easy to sometimes get complacent when things are going well, and I just know there’s so much I need to work on and get better at to help this team win games, and that’s my No. 1 priority.”
Matt Birk once told me he had to stop drinking beer at this favorite St. Paul hangout because drunks started challenging him to fights. Joe Mauer would use back doors to enter private rooms at his favorite establishments.
Thielen is somehow becoming a star in the country’s most popular sport, and avoiding the worst trappings of fame. “I haven’t dealt with all of that, not really to that extent,” he said. “For us, we’re homebodies. My wife and I like to be at home with family. When we go out, we have our favorite places, and the great thing about Minnesota is that most Minnesotans are pretty respectful of your time when you’re with your family. It makes it easy on us.”
Sunday in Philadelphia, Thielen will bring a gaudy résumé onto the field where his team was embarrassed in January, against the defending Super Bowl champs.
Pressure? Stress? Hype? Thielen deals with those omnipresent sports challenges much like Mauer did.
See ball, hit ball?
See ball. Catch ball. Repeat.
Jim Souhan’s podcast can be heard at TalkNorth.com. On Twitter: @SouhanStrib