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Larson Column: Zylstra's NFL road still long one

Brandon Zylstra1 / 2
Former Edmonton Eskimos wide receiver Brandon Zylstra, right, shakes a tackler during the Eskimos' Sept. 30, 2017 game against the Winnipeg Blue Bombers. Zylstra, a former New London-Spicer star, signed a futures contract with the Minnesota Vikings earlier this month. Photo courtesy Edmonton Eskimos staff2 / 2

Family, friends and fans of Spicer's Brandon Zylstra were thrilled when the news broke last week that the former New London-Spicer and Concordia-Moorhead wide receiver signed a futures contract with the Minnesota Vikings.

Zylstra's phone surely buzzed constantly as kind words of congratulations and interview requests poured in. And it's good that people recognize the work Zylstra's put into pursuing his dream and that they wish him well.

But now, while no one wants to rain on his parade, everyone needs to do an Aaron Rodgers and R-E-L-A-X.

Fully aware of the tall task ahead of him, Zylstra especially might appreciate it if everyone pumped the brakes on hyping his future and comparing his quest to that of the Vikings' small-town, small-college phenom, 2017 All-Pro receiver Adam Thielen.

"I've gotten a lot of congratulations from people and it's really appreciated, but I tell them that they can congratulate me when I make the 52-man roster," Zylstra said. "This is just the first step, this is a stepping stone. I'm grateful for the opportunity and excited, but there's still a lot of work to do."

Zylstra will be added to Minnesota's 90-player offseason roster when the official NFL year begins in March. That almost half of those players won't be with the team when the 2018 season begins is a testament to how difficult it is to become a pro athlete in any sport, especially for those from small colleges.

According to NCAA research, the probability of making the jump from NCAA football prospect to NFL draft pick is 1.5 percent. Even when the Canadian and Arena football leagues are included, that number only jumps to 1.9 percent.

Last year, 73,660 players participated in NCAA football. Of those, 16,369 were NFL draft eligible and only 253 were actually picked in the draft.

At the start of the 2017 season, there were 90 NCAA Division II players on NFL rosters, including Thielen, a Detroit Lakes native out of Minnesota State-Mankato, and fellow Viking C.J. Ham, a Duluthian and a former teammate of Zylstra's when he started his college career at Augustana.

Zylstra finished his college career at Concordia, an NCAA Division III program. As of September 2017, only seven former Division III players were on NFL rosters.

But Zylstra's odds aren't nearly as long as they were two years ago, when he was an untested prospect invited to workout for NFL scouts as part of Carson Wentz' pro day in Fargo. That's thanks to the two years he spent showcasing his skills with the CFL's Edmonton Eskimos.

He played only eight games in his first CFL season in 2016 but still made 40 catches for 621 yards and three touchdowns. The Eskimos were 6-2 after Zylstra broke into the lineup, with two wins in the playoffs.

This past season, Zylstra became a bona fide CFL star, leading the league with 1,687 receiving yards on 100 catches. He caught five TD passes and his 487 yards after the catch were second in the CFL.

"I can't take full credit for it because (the Eskimos) really are a team," Zylstra said. "I stayed healthy most of the year and we had an injury bug so I got more playing time."

The fast-paced and complicated CFL game helped him hone his skills, and the league's high standards helped him come to grips with the expectations of the pro game.

"I'm really thankful for the opportunity (the Eskimos) gave me," said Zylstra, who received many notes of congratulations from the team and Edmonton fans. "It taught me how to be a professional, on and off the field. The CFL is really underrated. The level of talent is really something. You get up there and you find out fast that a lot of these guys can really play."

Zylstra and his agent scheduled seven workouts with NFL teams after the CFL season and his two-year CFL contract ended in November. The fifth visit—which turned out to be his last—was with Minnesota.

He kept in contact with Ham and Thielen and they told him the Vikings were building something unique. Zylstra became a believer after his workouts and meetings with coaches and players in early December.

"You can see what they have done, but it's more than just the (on-field) success," Zylstra said of the Vikings, a 13-3 team that won the NFC North for the second time in three years and is the No. 2 seed in the NFC playoffs. "They have a great coaching staff, a stable environment and a good team atmosphere. I just felt like this is a locker room I want to be a part of. The team really has something special. It's a place that's different than the others."

Zylstra doesn't shy away from the Thielen parallels and said he's heeded advice from the undrafted free agent who signed with Minnesota in 2013.

"It's something really cool," Zylstra said. "He's proving that it doesn't matter where you come from if you have talent, determination and trust your work ethic. He got there first and I hope I can mimic his success."

Zylstra is anxious to get back to some warm Arizona weather and workouts in advance of the Vikings' Organized Team Activities beginning in April, then mini camp and training camp in the summer.

And despite the keen interest and anticipation of those who know him and follow his career, Zylstra's got an simple plan to begin writing his own Adam Thielen story.

"I'm going to get in there, work hard and keep my head down," Zylstra said. "I'm not taking anything for granted."

Tom Larson

Tom Larson is the sports editor of the West Central Tribune.

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