At some point in his life, Brandon Zylstra will probably tire of the Adam Thielen comparisons. Sure, both of them are small town Minnesota guys who went to small Minnesota schools. They were both ignored on draft day. But Zylstra’s story is a bit stranger even than that of his Pro-Bowl teammate. Brandon Zylstra grew up in Spicer, Minnesota (pop. 1,167 as of 2010) idolizing former Vikings legend Randy Moss. And he took a much more circuitous route to get where he is today. His journey may never have begun, except for a whole lot of luck, a pair of Concordia quarterbacks with connections, and some friendly advice from Adam Thielen himself.
Zylstra began his college career at Division II Augustana University, as part of the same recruiting class as current Vikings Fullback C.J. Ham. After a year, he transferred to Concordia College, in Moorhead, MN. It was there that Zylstra became a two-time All-MIAC Wide Receiver. The Cobbers, under Head Coach Terry Horan, run a triple-option offense, and earning All-Conference honors as a receiver in that type of run-first system is no small feat. When asked if he had any stories about Zylstra’s on-field performance, Coach Horan said,
“His first reception ever for us was a little 6 yard hitch route that he caught. 70 yards later he was in the end zone. My mouth literally dropped with the moves he made to score on that play.”
As a Cobbers player from 1985 to 1988, Terry Horan had himself set the school records for receptions, receiving yards, and touchdowns. When I asked him about whether Zylstra was ever a threat to any of his records, Coach Horan responded,
“We always joked around about records. I told him in all fun that if he would get close, we would be running the football. He would always point at my Hall of Fame ring and say ‘I want one of those.’ Well, pretty safe to say Brandon is the greatest receiver that I have ever coached and, in my opinion, the greatest to play for the Cobbers, too. So, when the day comes and Brandon Zylstra gets inducted into the Concordia Athletic Hall of Fame, I want a picture of the two of us showing our rings.”
Zylstra’s career at Concordia had begun with quarterback Griffin Neal, who had attended nearby Fargo South High School, throwing him the ball. After his senior season, Neal watched his former high school rival Carson Wentz get selected second overall by the Philadelphia Eagles. The Cobbers’ all-time leading passer, Neal had similar measurables as Wentz, and wasn’t quite ready to give up on his dream of playing professionally. He left the Red River Valley for Hildesheim, Germany, to play for a semi-pro team in the same league that produced former Vikings draft pick Moritz Boehringer.
In 2015, when Neal was beginning his career in Germany, a young man by the name of Michael Herzog became Brandon Zylstra’s quarterback at Concordia. Herzog, ironically, was the all-time leading scorer in the history of Detroit Lakes High School football. The same school, of course, that produced Adam Thielen, who at that time had just begun his own NFL underdog story. Herzog knew Thielen’s family, and through him, Zylstra reached out to Thielen, who advised the young player to work out for teams as much as he could, in order to get his name out there. One of the workouts Zylstra attended was the Pro Day for Carson Wentz, which took place at the Fargodome. The Minnesota Vikings’ scouts were in attendance and took a liking to Zylstra.
After his college career ended, Zylstra hooked back up with Griffin Neal, who was back from Germany. The two set off for Scottsdale, Arizona. They moved in with Neal’s grandmother, and began working out with former Tampa Bay Buccaneers Quarterback Rudy Carpenter. It was during this time that teams from the Canadian Football League became interested in Zylstra, who eventually signed a two-year contract with the Edmonton Eskimos. Neal, by the way, was signed by the New Orleans Saints and spent the 2016 season on their practice squad.
Zylstra’s contract with the Eskimos, however, prevented him from participating in a workout that the Vikings had requested after the 2016 draft, and he began his career in Edmonton. In 2016, his first season with the Eskimos, Zylstra caught 34 passes for over 500 yards and three touchdowns, and was named the Edmonton Eskimos’ Rookie of the Year. In his second year in Edmonton, he put up numbers that made not only the Minnesota Vikings, but several other NFL teams sit up and take notes. He caught 100 passes for 1,687 yards and 5 touchdowns, and was named a 2017 CFL All-Star for his efforts. Zylstra’s agent, Blake Baratz - who also represents Thielen, by the way - began setting up workouts for NFL teams, including the Arizona Cardinals, Detroit Lions, Indianapolis Colts, and the New York Jets.
Zylstra eventually chose to pursue his dream with the Minnesota Vikings, signing a Reserve/Futures contract with the team on January 3, 2018. Head Coach Mike Zimmer has stressed throughout his tenure that he wants a team full of high-character players. Cobbers Head Coach Terry Horan describes Zylstra as a “very humble, team player. Always praising others before him(self). A coach’s dream.” That would certainly seem to fit Zimmer’s mold, and he had praise for the young receiver, as well.
“So far, he has done an unbelievable job out here in our Phase II stuff. Running routes, catching the ball. He looks quick. Smart guy, tough. He is out here today. I asked him, “Are you going to play special teams or are you just going to try to be a receiver?” He said “No, he is going to play.” I said “Ok, we’ll see.” That will be a big thing for him, too, is to learn how to play special teams. He has been impressive so far.”
I asked Coach Horan if he ever envisioned Zylstra having the success he has had in the CFL, and potentially the NFL. His response should leave Vikings fans excited about what might be in store for the team - and especially for Brandon Zylstra:
“Absolutely…he was a difference maker for us – he was a higher level athlete that we were blessed to get. I haven’t seen many work harder than Brandon. He has an amazing work ethic. Freaky talent too – the way he runs his routes, his hands, his vertical, his acrobatic type catches, his yards after catch. Student of the game. He will study and study and study to be the best. He is relentless!”
Personally, I’m pulling for Zylstra to make the squad, and I think he has a real shot at it. He may never achieve the same level of success as Adam Thielen has achieved. But, then again, who could have predicted that, either?