Story by Marisa Jackels, Tellwell
In the summer, Detroit Lake is filled with boats and swimmers and the downtown boardwalk is crowded with families and young people on their way to grab pizza at the local Zorbaz. In the winter, a frozen castle glistens in the cold sun and at night, the lake is spotted with lights as friends fish through the ice.
This is Detroit Lakes, a lake town in northern Minnesota with a population just over 9,000, rising to nearly 13,000 in the summer months. It’s known as a summer destination location, the hub of Minnesota’s famous lakes country, with coastlines of restaurants, shops and charming lake homes.
In recent years, however, the popular lake town has seen the spotlight for another reason — the rising fame of one of its own: professional football star Adam Thielen.
By now, you probably know the story. Adam excels in basketball and football as a Detroit Lakes “Laker,” accepts a $500 scholarship to Mankato for football, graduates undrafted, road trips to Chicago to pay for his own tryouts and gets noticed by the Minnesota professional football team.
Fast forward a few years, and he most recently wrapped up the 2018-2019 season with 113 receptions, 1,373 yards and nine touchdowns, securing his place as one of the greatest wide receivers in the nation.
But the story really begins in a house on the outskirts of town, where Adam grew up with his two older sisters, Amanda and Angela, and his parents, Pete and Jayne. The family lived in a relatively secluded area on 20 acres of wooded land. In front of the house was a large yard, roughly 70’x100’, which Adam regularly turned into a football field for yard games; mowing the lawn and laying out string and cones for boundaries. His parents remember watching as one by one, the neighbor kids would show up to play.
“We had a front window with a ledge, and we’d just sit and watch them play sometimes,” Adam’s father Pete said. “Sometimes there’d be ten kids that would come to our yard, walking or riding bikes because we were in the country.”
“We became the neighborhood hang out,” Adam’s mom Jayne added.
Neighbor kids Janaye and her younger brother Davis Johnson carved a dirt path through the woods so they could make the quarter-mile walk to Adam’s house. Janaye was Adam’s age, and she usually played quarterback. Thielen, of course, played wide receiver. She’d practice her spiral while Adam practiced his toe drag, wearing his worn-out Randy Moss or Cris Carter jersey and imitating the moves he saw them make on Sundays.
“He was insane at backyard football,” Janaye said in an interview with the Duluth News Tribune. “He took it seriously.”
Now, Adam has joined his heroes in a league of the greats with chart-topping stats and a success story that has become legendary in lakes country, where his #19 jerseys can be spotted in shops, school hallways and all throughout town.
And yet, ask Adam about it now and he’s quick to deflect and exhibit a humility that has become characteristic of ‘Minnesota nice’ culture. In his Players’ Tribune story “Made in Minnesota,” Thielen wrote this:
“Minnesota is a blue-collar state. We don’t like the spotlight. We just like to work hard.”
“A Midwest State of Mind”
This ‘work hard, stay humble’ mentality traces back through the lives of his parents, Pete and Jayne, who also grew up in northern Minnesota. Pete worked at a gas station in Callaway, Minn. and Jayne grew up in Sebeka, Minn., before they attended high school together in Detroit Lakes. Growing up, they spent summers at the lake, gathering with family and spending long hours outside. They always loved the close-knit community of the area, the strength of the local church and the trust that your neighbors always had your back.
When starting their own family, they knew they wanted to give their kids a similar experience.
“We loved where we lived,” Jayne said. “We saw no reason to move away.”
So they built their house in the woods. And they bought a camper. And every summer weekend they could, they’d head out to camp near the lakes and spend quality family time together. They’d have campfires, fish, swim, play board games and just talk.
“When we went camping, there was no distraction at all,” Pete said. “We’d spend two or three hours by the campfire. Everyone sitting around and talking. You were out there just enjoying each other.”
In the winter, they went snowmobiling, downhill skiing and sometimes Pete would take Adam ice fishing. No matter the weather, be it a heat wave or a blizzard, Sundays were always family time.
“The rule was we’d turn off the TV, and no one could have friends over. And we’d play games or spend time together,” Jayne said. “We raised our kids in an age where a lot of family units were falling apart. So we worked really hard at keeping ours together.”
Hard work. It’s something Pete and Jayne grew up with; an understanding that work was not something to be skirted or avoided. It was something to be embraced, an inevitable part of achieving your goals.
“We both grew up in a culture that valued hard work,” Jayne said. “You worked for what you wanted — it wasn’t given to you.”
This work ethic is one Adam exhibited from the beginning, throughout a success story that is more about hard work and grit than it is serendipity.
“I like to think that Minnesota mentality has served me pretty well,” he wrote in The Players’ Tribune. “The odds have pretty much always been stacked against me, but I kept my head down, worked hard and trusted that the rest would take care of itself.”
In Adam’s case, it worked. What’s more, his success hasn’t seemed to change the attitude of humility and kindness that goes hand-in-hand with the work ethic of the Midwest; a kindness he saw growing up in the sweet lady next door who brought over cookies when they moved in (and to every new neighbor), in his grandfather who spent much of his time volunteering or visiting the nursing home, in his parents who always put the emphasis on family time first.
“That’s the kind of mindset I want to have,” Thielen said in a Star Tribune article. “And if I do lose that mindset, I want somebody to slap me in the face and say, ‘Hey, pick it up and get back to the roots.’”
This attitude has set Thielen apart both on and off the field. Even from the beginning, it wasn’t only his speed and ability that caught Coach Zimmer’s eye. It was only when he realized Thielen’s heart, Zimmer said in Duluth News Tribune, that he knew there was a chance.
Do The Right Thing
It’s that same heart that led Adam and his wife Caitlin to unveil a new initiative in September 2018: The Thielen Foundation.
The Thielen Foundation is actively creating programs to serve, educate and inspire youths so they’re “equipped and empowered to reach their full potential in life” — a mantra inspired by the Thielen’s own family motto to “achieve your full potential.”
“I’m very thankful for all the support that I’ve received to get where I am today. And it’s important to give thanks,” Theilen said. “But I know actions speak louder than words. That’s why Caitlin and I created the Thielen Foundation — to give back and help others, with a focus on youth development.”
The launch of the foundation was far from a surprise for Adam’s parents; the prospect has been on Adam and Caitlin’s hearts for years, they said.
“They talked about what they should do for at least three years,” said his dad, Pete. “They knew they wanted to give back, they just weren’t sure of the route. Then when they went and visited the hospitals, they saw a need.”
“They both have a heart for kids, and for addressing mental health,” Jayne added. “Through prayer, that kept coming back to them.”
With a clear route in mind, the first step for Adam and Caitlin in launching the Foundation was to seek out financial partners who believed in their mission. Not so far away, another organization with similar roots took notice.
Their values reflected those at the heart of the Thielen Foundation:
Work hard. Do the right thing.
Have a little fun.
Better the places we live.
Know when to ask for help and know when to offer it.
These are core values at Choice Bank, a community-focused bank that started in North Dakota and has now expanded into Minnesota. Much of their team comes from small towns not unlike Detroit Lakes, and the culture at each location holds the same Midwest work ethic and people-focused mentality of the Thielens.
It was because of these similarities that the two partnered when Adam and Caitlin decided to launch the Thielen Foundation.
“We’re proud to partner with Adam, Caitlin and the Thielen Foundation to support their mission and help them grow,” said Choice Bank CEO, Brian L. Johnson. “Hopefully our partnership and financial support will help attract others to focus on this foundation and what it can do for the community.”
For Adam and Caitlin, it was encouraging to see generous partners in the community who shared similar values. Their shared heart and values propelled the foundation to their launch date, and began garnering national attention.
“When you have partners and people that are committed to what you’re doing, that’s when you have success and that’s when you’re able to help people and make a difference,” Adam said. “At Choice Bank, they don’t just say ‘people first.’ They live it.”
Now that it’s launched, the Thielen Foundation has partnered with the Pediatric Behavioral Health unit at the University of Minnesota Masonic Children’s Hospital to help kids overcome adversity and offer support to kids managing mental health challenges. Already, Pete and Jayne are hearing stories of how the foundation is making an impact.
“We have people come up to us who have been touched by what they’ve done,” Jayne said. “They’re really just getting started.”
When asked how it feels as a parent to watch Adam’s story unfold, she paused.
“Honestly, we’re more proud of Adam for that part of it. That ‘off the field’ part,” she said. “I love the heart that he and Caitlin have, that they’re sharing what they have with others. I don’t know how a parent couldn’t be proud of it.”
The Thielen Legacy: More Than Football
This is the greatest joy for Pete and Jayne Thielen. They cheer from the sidelines as Adam’s biggest fans; but where they get the most excited is seeing their three kids live by the values they worked so hard to instill in their family.
“We’ve watched our kids learn the value of their faith and work hard. They know they have to make it on their own. And they know family is really important,” Jayne said. “You don’t always realize how that impacts generation to generation — that it’s not what we speak, it’s what we do that moves on to that next generation. And now, we’re starting to see them carry that on with their own kids.”
The next generation of Thielens is currently six grandchildren, all boys; the youngest being Adam and Caitlin’s son Hudson, born in January 2019. Each summer they gather at Pete and Jayne’s lake house to carry on the same summer traditions of generations before; fishing, swimming, campfires, game nights. Already the proud grandparents have started to see that same sparkle in the kids’ eyes when they come to the lake — the sense that this is a place of magic and memories.
“We want to give our grandkids the same things we hoped to give to our own children, the same that our parents gave us,” Pete said. “The importance of faith, of being good people, of working hard to achieve the goals and dreams you have.”
This is the true Thielen legacy. Adam’s prowess on the field will leave its mark on football history — and yet even he recognizes that true success is deeper than this, that it’s a matter of the heart, a matter of character. A matter of carrying on the values taught by his parents and grandparents; humility, kindness, love.
“Every day is an opportunity to get better,” Thielen said in his interview with Duluth News Tribune. “I’m just using the previous day to learn from and try to apply that to get better the next day. That doesn’t just come with football. That comes with life. You’re trying to be the best husband, trying to be the best father… learning from mistakes and getting better the next day.”