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BEYOND THE SPORTS DESK: Opening week of NFL free agency a win for the NSIC

MARSHALL – Amid all of the closures and cancellations of the past week, one thing that has remained on schedule is the start of the new league year and free agency for the National Football League.

While that has brought many changes to the NFL landscape near and far, there is one demographic close to home that stayed unaffected with the Minnesota Vikings extending the contract of fullback CJ Ham.

Most pro football fans in the Marshall area root for the Minnesota Vikings – and rightfully so. While they may not have the major hardware of other franchises, they are still the local team. One thing they’ve been known for over the past few decades is giving tryout opportunities to area small college prospects who were probably overlooked during the NFL Draft cycle. Those opportunities have unearthed a few gems for the Vikings in Ham and wide receiver Adam Thielen.

Thielen’s contract status hasn’t changed this offseason, but his spot arguably became more secured after the Vikings agreed to trade Stefon Diggs.

Not only are these two Pro Bowlers Minnesota born and bred, but they also both come out of Division II’s Northern Sun Intercollegiate Conference, of which Southwest Minnesota State University is a member. After graduating from Duluth Denfeld High School, Ham attended Augustana University in Sioux Falls, South Dakota, while Thielen attended Minnesota State University, Mankato for four years after graduating from Detroit Lakes High School.

The two became local legends at three levels – high school, college and professional.

While players who make the roster in camp after trying out for the team get their foot in the door, it’s often up to them to put in the hard work to stay at that level. Many flame out, but Ham and Thielen gained enough traction to make an impact on the league with the Vikings. They’ve earned second and even third contracts with the team. It’s no longer about giving local players a benefit of the doubt, they’ve both earned their keep.

Now, both are among the most experienced players in the Vikings locker room. And both are paid well for their services. Last offseason, Thielen signed a four-year, $64 million contract extension with $35 million guaranteed. This week, Ham signed a four-year extension reportedly worth $12.25 million.

Ham and Thielen have both been great representatives of the Vikings, the state of Minnesota and the NSIC in their pro careers. Now that they’ve established long careers, they can serve as examples to the rest of the NSIC players present and future of what hard work and perseverance can result in, even coming out of Division II.

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