PHILADELPHIA - Adam Thielen is the epitome of Minnesota Nice. The Vikings receiver from Detroit Lakes, Minn., is a stand-up guy in the team's locker room after wins and, more importantly, losses. He looks his inquisitors in the eye and tries to give thoughtful answers to what can, admittedly, be sometimes inane questions.
He appears to be what sports fans seek in their stars, both on and off the field: A genuinely nice guy.
"He really is a nice guy," Vikings quarterback Kirk Cousins said after Minnesota defeated Philadelphia 23-21 on Sunday, Oct. 7, at Lincoln Financial Field. "He really fits the whole Minnesota Nice vibe. He is a great spokesperson for this state and yet he is a competitor."
Ah yes, there it is. The competitive side of Thielen. The brutally competitive side. Underlying that smile and the humbleness that comes from being an undrafted free agent from an NCAA Division II school is an athlete as cold-blooded as they come.
For sure, you need that trait just to play in the NFL. Perhaps there's a little extra edge given Thielen's lack of pedigree. But in almost every Vikings game, there's a moment when Thielen turns from Boy Next Door to Rabid Snarling Hyena.
Against the Eagles, it came midway through the third quarter when Philadelphia cornerback Jalen Mills was a little too extracurricular after breaking up a short sideline pass directed at Thielen. Mills continued to poke, jostle and jaw after the ball fell to the ground and Thielen took exception.
Just like that, Thielen was facemask to facemask with Mills. There were pointing fingers and waving arms. It didn't appear they were exchanging tater-tot hotdish recipes. Thielen was animated and angry. When asked about it in the celebratory Vikings locker room after the game, he downplayed the incident while delivering a wicked jab to Mills.
"It's just football," Thielen said. "You get in the heat of the moment. I always love it when guys talk smack after making one play. But that's his game."
Note how Thielen used the word "one" and not "a." There was just the slightest, most subtle emphasis on the word. That's because four plays prior, Thielen burned Mills with a double move for a 68-yard play that moved the Vikings from their own 5 yard line to Philadelphia's 27.
Again, so Minnesotan with the passive-aggressive jab.
Thielen finished with seven catches for 116 yards and a nice touchdown grab from Cousins.
Thielen has become a bona fide star in the NFL this season. His 47 catches lead the league, at least prior to Monday night's game. His 589 yards are second behind DeAndre Hopkins of Houston. His 118 receiving yards a game are also second behind Hopkins.
You don't get to this point by being a wilting flower.
"He loves to compete," Cousins said. "He didn't want to take any days off in OTAs or in training camp. When he isn't involved in the offense for any amount of time, he gets frustrated because he wants to help the team. As a competitor, he wants to contribute."
Cousins trusts Thielen to make plays, as evidenced by the 68-yard play and a much less splashy five-yard completion earlier in the game. On both plays, Cousins was taking a brutal hit while delivering the pass. On both plays, he threw the ball in front of Thielen and let the receiver make a play.
Would Cousins show that trust in Laquon Treadwell?
"I think his deal is all heart. No. 1, he's got the biggest heart there is," Vikings coach Mike Zimmer said of Thielen. "No. 2, he's always talking about how he can get better. ... Even on the long one he caught he said, 'Man, I'm faster than that. I should have scored on that.' That's the kind of guy he is."
Still, the coach couldn't resist getting a fun jab at Thielen.
"The onside kick went to him and I told him to catch it the first time next time," Zimmer said.
When the Eagles tried an onside kick with 1:07 left in the game, Thielen had the ball bounce off his upper body before he jumped on it to assure the Vikings victory. Thielen ended up at the bottom of a desperate pile of Eagles.
"It was as fun as you can imagine," Thielen said. "There was a lot of pinching going on, a lot of body weight on top of me. I was just trying to hold on for dear life."
It was a mean, nasty, tough-guy play. Thielen, again, had proven ready for the task despite his Minnesota Nice exterior.