Thielen delivered a powerful topspin return that sailed past his opponent for a point. A smile followed, for a brief moment replacing the intense focus on the face of the 33-year-old wide receiver.
“I’m a little competitive,’’ said Thielen, smiling again.
It’s that competitiveness that made it tough when the Minnesota Vikings, who play Carolina on Sunday (1 p.m. ET, Fox) in a battle of 0-3 teams, began deemphasizing Thielen’s role behind Justin Jefferson and others to the point they couldn’t justify his $19.9 million 2023 salary hit.
It’s that competitiveness that forced Thielen during the offseason to move away from Minnesota for the first time in his life so he could continue to play the game he’s loved since he was a kid, when Vikings receivers Randy Moss and Cris Carter were his favorite players.
It’s that competitiveness he hopes the Vikings see on film when they prepare to face him.
“I just needed a fresh start,’’ said Thielen, who grew up in Detroit Lakes, Minnesota, and went to Minnesota State Mankato. “Sometimes, when you’re in the same place the whole time, maybe both sides take for granted what’s going on. So sometimes you just need to be humbled a little bit, and to have to go prove it every day.
“That’s what I’m here doing.’’
Thielen proved he’s still capable of being a go-to receiver in Sunday’s 37-27 loss at the Seattle Seahawks. He caught 11 passes for 145 yards, the most for any wide receiver 33 years or older since Julian Edelman had 179 yards for the New England Patriots in 2020.
His receiving yards were the second most for a receiver 33 or older in the past five seasons, and his 11 catches were the fifth most for a receiver that age in the past 10 seasons.
But Thielen didn’t consider his performance to be validation that he still has it.
“There’s a lot of doubters out there, I can tell you that,’’ Thielen said. “As much as you say you don’t hear the noise, you hear it as a player. It puts that chip on your shoulder. There’s extra motivation for sure.
“But that’s not why I play this game.’’
He plays to win, and that’s what facing his former team is all about. It won’t be about the “blood and guts’’ former Carolina receiver Steve Smith Sr. promised the first time he faced the Panthers after being released during the 2014 offseason.
Smith, then 35, delivered with seven catches for 139 yards and two touchdowns in the Baltimore Ravens' 38-10 blowout win. He ended up with 1,065 yards to make him one of five receivers 33 or older with more than 1,000 yards receiving in the past 10 years.
But Thielen’s goal simply is to get a win for a team he publicly said in March could get him to the Super Bowl after signing a three-year, $25 million deal.
That’s why he loves the sense of urgency he hears in the voice of first-year Carolina coach Frank Reich.
“That’s why he’s a great leader,’’ Thielen said. “He talks about healthy tension. You can’t just talk about it. You have to embody it. ... We’re too good of a team to put on tape what we’re putting on tape.’’
Thielen has that same sense of urgency in his voice. It’s one of the many reasons Reich calls his 6-foot-2, 195-pound receiver another coach on the field and why he believes Thielen was the perfect choice to groom a room full of young receivers.
“He’s a phenomenal leader, and a phenomenal competitor,’’ Reich said.
Quarterback Bryce Young, the No. 1 overall pick of the draft, depended on Thielen often during his development in training camp.
“For me, as a young guy, having a safety net like that, where you know exactly where he’s gonna be, he understands the play ... that’s really important for me,’’ said Young, who is on track to return from an ankle injury that sidelined him in Week 3.
Thielen’s competitive nature already has had an impact on teammates.
“When you see somebody that competitive, you try to match it,’’ wide receiver Laviska Shenault Jr. said.
The Vikings know what that looks like. During his time in Minnesota (2014-22), Thielen compiled the third-most receptions (534) in team history behind Carter (1,004) and Moss (587). His 6,682 receiving yards are fourth most in team history.
Thielen was so embedded, he never imagined having to play for another team. While there were concerns over the way he was being used, helping the Vikings win a Super Bowl and helping Jefferson become a star were his goals.
“I love Justin to death,’’ Thielen said. “ ... Maybe it all didn’t end exactly the way everybody thought it would. So there were some tough points to that.
“But to be here in this [Panthers] locker room, I’m so thankful. It isn’t the start we wanted to have, but there is no panic.’’
Thielen’s oldest son, Asher, remains a big Jefferson fan as well. During a flag football game on Saturday -- for his team, which is also called the Vikings -- he did Jefferson’s “The Griddy’’ celebration after scoring a touchdown.
"When he found out he was on the Vikings, he’s like, ‘What? You can’t cheer for me now because I’m on the Vikings?’" said Thielen. “So I had to explain to him I could still cheer for him.’’
Thielen's 20 catches for 211 yards and two touchdowns have the two-time Pro Bowl selection on an early pace to top 100 catches and 1,000 yards for only the second time in his career. He had 113 catches for 1,373 yards in 2018.
If you’re wondering, Jerry Rice has the most catches (122) and receiving yards (1,848) in NFL history for a receiver 33 or older.
“I’m not worried about that,’’ Thielen said with a laugh. “I’m just trying to get better for this week.’’
That’s what Thielen hopes the Vikings see on Sunday.
“I feel like I’m a kid again,’’ Thielen said. “Definitely a fresh start for me. Reinvigorating. Refreshing. I needed it.’’