WARE, England — On Sunday, the Vikings will play their third game in London in the past nine years. Go searching for an image from their games there, and you're almost guaranteed to come across one of a touchdown celebration in their second game, from a player who was on the practice squad for the first game, is still on the team for the third one and probably wasn't supposed to be there for any of them.
After Adam Thielen caught an 18-yard touchdown pass from Case Keenum at Twickenham Stadium in 2017, he slid into the back of the end zone on his knees with both fists in the air, mimicking a soccer player after scoring a goal. It was Thielen's first touchdown of what would turn out to be a Pro Bowl season, and the seventh receiving TD of his career. He has caught 43 more since then, tying him for third among undrafted receivers in NFL history.
Thielen tied Wes Welker for third place on the list with his first touchdown catch of the season last Sunday. If Thielen scores again on Sunday, he will be behind only Antonio Gates (116 receiving TDs) and Rod Smith (68).
By now, the story of Thielen's rise — from Detroit Lakes to Minnesota State Mankato on a $500 scholarship, and then to the Vikings only after he caught their eye in a 2013 rookie minicamp tryout — is well-worn. And while the receiver still politely indulges questions about it, it's also clear he moved past his origin story a long time ago.
It's worth pausing, though, as Thielen climbs the ranks among undrafted free agents, to reflect on what a remarkable 10-season run it's been for him in Minnesota.
The receiver the Vikings cut to make room for Thielen — Nick Edwards — is now an offensive assistant with the Falcons. He works there with Cordarrelle Patterson, the receiver-turned-running back and kick returner for whom the Vikings traded four draft picks to move up and select in 2013. Greg Jennings, the receiver who got a five-year, $45 million deal from the Vikings in March 2013, played his final NFL game at age 32, the same age Thielen is now.
Laquon Treadwell, the receiver the Vikings took 23rd overall in 2016, is on his fourth NFL team with the Patriots. He has 104 career catches; Thielen became a starter the year the Vikings selected Treadwell, and has 477.
The Vikings have spent three first-round picks on receivers in Thielen's time in Minnesota. They signed Stefon Diggs to a five-year, $72 million deal in 2018. And yet Thielen has become the player the Vikings just couldn't let go, first earning a practice squad spot with an impressive training camp at his alma mater in 2013 and making the team the following year to play mostly on special teams.
He scored his first touchdown on a blocked punt return, caught his first TD pass in the 2014 season finale and bided his time for another season before he became a starter. He fashioned lasting friendships with receivers whose presence could have been perceived as threats, from Patterson to Diggs to Justin Jefferson, the budding superstar and former first-round pick who's keenly aware the NFL's economy makes Thielen's path to success much rockier than his own.
"It's tremendously different," Jefferson said. "Coming here as a free agent, your margin of error is very thin. You have to be a special-teams guy coming in. Being a first-rounder, you're expected to come play right away, [play] a main role on the team. It's definitely different, being in his situation and being in my situation. But he definitely grew to become pretty much like a first-rounder.
"I'm pretty sure nobody in the league thinks of him as a [undrafted] free agent now."
The receiver who paid his own way to a regional combine in 2013 has become one of the most popular athletes in Minnesota, who's now earned more than $58 million over his career from his home state team and signed a contract extension this spring that runs through 2024. He counts Aaron Rodgers and Steph Curry among his golf buddies from his now-annual trips to the American Century Championship celebrity tournament in Lake Tahoe. This week, he announced an endorsement deal with St. Paul-based athletic clothing company UNRL to benefit his charitable foundation that's donated $1.75 million in its four-year history.
With three more receiving TDs this season, Thielen would surpass Anthony Carter and Sammy White to rank third in Vikings history, behind only Hall of Famers Cris Carter and Randy Moss.
If he reaches that spot on the list, what a trio those three would make: The waiver pickup who came to the Vikings for $100 in 1990 and turned his life and career around. The transcendent talent who slid to 21st in the draft and made the league pay for doubting him. And the native Minnesotan who surprised even the Vikings, before fashioning a career that took him a world beyond Detroit Lakes.