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– The fans at Zorbaz bar started heading for the exits midway through the third quarter. With 5 minutes left in the game, the giant room was almost empty, its 14 TV screens playing to nobody.

“We’re used to it. How many times has it happened?” said Rick Kennedy, a family friend of Vikings wide receiver Adam Thielen, who grew up in Detroit Lakes.

Even Kennedy’s No. 19 jersey — autographed front and back by Thielen — couldn’t fend off the team’s sixth straight NFC Championship Game loss.

“We’ve done it enough times. We know what we’re up against,” Kennedy said.

Thielen, the hometown hero, may have blossomed into an NFL star. He may have led his team to the doorstep of the Super Bowl.

But for many fans, that simply means one more chance for the Vikings to stub their toes on that doorstep.

“I’ve lived through a few Super Bowls. And I remember the Hail Mary,” said Eric Johnson, a retired pilot and lifelong area resident, as he waited for the game to begin.

Hometown hero

Detroit Lakes has been best known for WE Fest, one of the nation’s largest country music festivals, which draws about 150,000 people to the city each summer.

But this fall, its identity has morphed into the hometown of one of the NFL’s most unlikely success stories.

A high school star and then a lightly recruited Division II player at Minnesota State, Mankato who became a standout player at the college level, Thielen beat long odds to get that far.

The odds that he would make his hometown NFL team as an undrafted free agent — and not only play regularly, but be named to the Pro Bowl — were virtually incalculable.

Everyone in Detroit Lakes seemingly has a connection to Thielen. They went to school with him, or they know his parents, or their sister was friends with his sister.

“It’s just great to have him representing this town,” said lifelong Detroit Lakes resident Ernie Anderson. “It’s huge. It proves that a guy from a small town can make it.”

The kid once known on the playground as “Golden Hands,” who now wears golden gloves in the NFL, had a quiet day.

A couple of early catches for first downs had the crowd at Zorbaz screaming. But as the Eagles methodically crushed the life out of the Vikings — and the Zorbaz crowd — Thielen’s best chance to be the hero was snuffed out when he caught a touchdown pass that was overturned when a replay showed the ball hit the ground.

‘Nervous as hell’

Before the game, Chris Byron knew the team’s history. He had been let down before.

“I’m nervous as hell. Nervous as hell,” he said.

Wearing matching No. 19 Thielen jerseys, Byron and his wife, Julie, sipped their beers and watched a game that would bring every Vikings fan’s worst fears to vivid life on the barroom TV screens.

They had driven 203 miles from Edinburg, N.D., to watch the game at the Lakeside Tavern. Not everyone shared his view. Hope was running high in other places around town.

Twyla Reineccius and her son, 7-year-old Mason, tossed a football on Little Detroit Lake while her husband, Craig, pulled in northerns.

“We were just talking,” she said. “Craig was, ‘We gotta leave at 5. We gotta leave at 5.’ ”

They planned to watch on the big screen at home, “sit back with some tacos and scream and holler,” she said.

Farther out on the ice, Dee Murtagh, a retired factory worker, was in the third day of a three-day party at her fish house.

Along with her husband, Sean, and some family friends and relatives, she planned to watch the game on the fish house TV with a good supply of beer, chili and optimism.

Wearing a Thielen jersey and a horned hat, Murtagh showed off her homemade towels, bearing slogans such as “Bring It Home” and “Kings of the North.” Even Pork Chop, her ancient pit bull, wore a Vikings bandanna.

“We’re gonna do it!” she shouted. “It’s Purple Reign and Let’s Skol Crazy!” Yet by the middle of the third quarter, with the Vikings down 31-7, they had turned the game off.

“We thought maybe we were bad luck,” said Tanya Church, Murtagh’s niece.

Optimism, early on

At Zorbaz, the bar was filled with fans in Vikings gear, and they were in lively spirits as the kickoff drew near.

Brothers Juan and Victor Meza, 11 and 9 years old, wore matching Thielen jerseys. Both brothers play wide receiver in youth football, and Thielen is their idol.

“He’s my inspiration to play football,” said Juan. “Same here,” piped up Victor.

Now, Kennedy and many people in these parts will shift their allegiance to Philadelphia, because of another star player from the region, injured Eagles quarterback Carson Wentz.

“We’re going to have to root for the Eagles in our house!” Kennedy moaned.

Staff photographer Jeff Wheeler contributed to this report.

John Reinan • 612-673-7402