Charlie Hennigan's family watching as Vikings' Adam Thielen closes in on 57-year-old NFL record
HUFFMAN, Texas — Taylor Hennigan had never heard of Adam Thielen a week ago. Now, he's scrambling to read everything he can find about him.
That's because Thielen, the Vikings' fifth-year wide receiver, can tie Charlie Hennigan's NFL record of seven straight 100-yard receiving games to open a season. Hennigan, who died last year at age 82, accomplished the feat with the Houston Oilers of the American Football League in 1961, and AFL records were absorbed into the NFL when the leagues merged in 1970.
Hennigan's son Taylor, 40, lives in the Houston suburb of Huffman. While Sunday's Vikings-Jets game won't be available on local television, he, family members and friends are scouring the area to find a place to watch it.
Taylor Hennigan follows the Houston Texans but considers himself a casual NFL fan. He was going about his business last Sunday, Oct. 14, when suddenly messages poured in on his phone.
On the Fox telecast during Minnesota's 27-17 victory over Arizona, announcers noted that Thielen had recorded a sixth straight 100-yard game and was one game away from Hennigan's record. A picture of Hennigan popped up on the screen.
"My friends and family were all of a sudden hitting me up," said Taylor Hennigan, who has six brothers and sisters. "It was the first I've heard of it. Since then, I've been reading up on Thielen."
So does Taylor Hennigan want him to break his father's record?
"I'd like him to keep it, but at the same time, it seems like (Thielen is) a really good guy all around," Taylor said. "And this is giving my dad's legacy some exposure since it was so long ago that he played. He's had a lot of records that stood for decades."
Charlie Hennigan played for the Oilers from 1960-66, and appeared in five AFL All-Star Games. In 1961, he caught 82 passes for 1,746 yards, a pro record that stood until San Francisco's Jerry Rice had 1,848 yards in 1995. Hennigan caught 101 passes (for 1,546 yards) in 1964, a pro mark that lasted until Washington's Art Monk had 106 receptions in 1984.
Record? What record?
Despite those impressive numbers, Thielen said last week that he previously had never had heard of Hennigan. As for tying his record Sunday, Thielen shrugged that off.
"I'm not worried about it, honestly," he said. "Just trying to get better. ... Numbers sometimes mask how you're playing. It doesn't mean that you're playing well or playing bad, so you've got to look at the tape. You've got to get better. Teams are just going to have a target on your back now."
It's hard to deny, though, that Thielen is playing pretty darn well. He leads the NFL with 58 catches and 712 receiving yards.
If Thielen continues his torrid pace, Hennigan's isn't the only record in jeopardy. If his stats are projected over 16 games, Thielen would finish with 155 catches, breaking the NFL record of 143 by Indianapolis' Marvin Harrison in 2002. And he is on pace for 1,899 receiving yards, not far from the league record of 1,964 set by Detroit's Calvin Johnson in 2012.
"I'm not surprised at all, especially with how he prepares and how he gets ready each and every week," Vikings receiver Stefon Diggs said of Thielen's 100-yard streak. "It's been amazing to see."
Thielen has been a pillar of consistency. He has averaged 118.7 yards per game and has caught four touchdowns from quarterback Kirk Cousins.
"Consistency is a big part of being a great player in this league," Cousins said. "Not just doing it once or twice for one season but for being able to do it for the whole season and then stacking seasons together. I think that's when you start to realize you've got a special player, so that consistency is special, and we've got to continue to give (Thielen) opportunities."
Cousins is in his first season with the Vikings. And he arrived to much acclaim — and with a fully guaranteed, $84 million contract. Five years earlier, Thielen arrived undrafted out of Division II Minnesota State Mankato and went straight to a Vikings rookie tryout camp. That earned him a spot on the practice squad in 2013.
Thielen worked his way up to being a top special teams performer in 2014 and 2015 before becoming a starting receiver in 2016. He caught 69 passes for 967 yards in 2016 and 91 for 1,276 in 2017, when he made the Pro Bowl.
Taylor Hennigan sees Thielen's rise from obscurity as similar to his father's journey to pro football success. Charlie Hennigan played at a small school, Northwestern State in Natchitoches, La., before being undrafted.
After an unsuccessful tryout with the Edmonton Eskimos of the Canadian Football League, Hennigan returned to his native Louisiana and taught biology at Jonesboro-Hodge High School. Then he and running back Charlie Tolar heard about the Oilers conducting an open tryout camp in the first year of the AFL.
"He and Charlie Tolar got in a old VW bug and headed to Houston," Taylor Hennigan said. "Then the car broke down and they hitchhiked the rest of the way."
Hennigan made the Oilers' roster, signing for a salary of $7,500 a season. That seemed like a fortune compared with teaching high school, when his final monthly paycheck was for $270.62.
"He always kept his last paycheck stub from teaching school in his helmet, and when he needed motivation, he would look at it," said Taylor Hennigan, who has campaigned in recent years to get his father nominated for the Pro Football Hall of Fame as a senior candidate.
Charlie Hennigan was known for his speed, but Bill Groman, the other starting receiver on the 1961 Oilers, said he worked hard on his pass-catching skills.
"He had been a quarter-miler, and he could run forever," Groman said. "He had a finger that was kind of crooked that he had hurt when he was younger, but he ended up teaching himself how to trap the ball on his chest and even later he was able to catch it with his hands pretty good. We had George Blanda as our quarterback and he wanted to throw the ball."
During the pass-happy days of the AFL, Blanda, who is in the Hall of Fame, threw for a record 36 touchdowns in 1961, plus 3,330 yards, at the time the second-most in pro history. Groman had 50 catches for 1,175 yards that season, including seven straight 100-yard games of his own later in the season.
Wins, not records
This season, Cousins has been filling the air with footballs. He is second in the NFL with 185 completions and has thrown for 1,921 yards, fifth in the league.
Nearly a third of Cousins' completions have gone to Thielen. Despite defenses starting to key on him, Thielen hasn't slowed down.
"Adam has short-area quickness and the ability to change directions," Hall of Fame wide receiver and CBS analyst James Lofton said of Thielen's ability to get open. "In addition to that, he has a really good understanding of what the defenders are trying to do against him, where their leverage is, and working against their leverage, and also finding the holes in zone coverage."
During his streak, Thielen has had games of 102 yards against San Francisco, 131 at Green Bay, 105 against Buffalo, 135 at the Los Angeles Rams, 116 at Philadelphia and 123 against Arizona.
"That's outstanding," Jets coach Todd Bowles said. "He's one of the best in the league right now and the level he's playing at is really outstanding, and it says a lot to his intelligence, his preparation and his toughness."
Bowles' Jets will try to slow Thielen any way they can. But whatever happens, Thielen doesn't plan to measure his performance by statistics.
"It might sound cliche, but it's the truth," he said. "I could care less what my stats are as long as we're winning ball games."
Lofton, who played in the NFL from 1978-93 and twice led the league in average yards per catch, has met Thielen. For now, he buys what he's saying.
"All the records are great now," Lofton said. "But if you ask Adam about it, it's more important to get the win on Sunday. But when he's looking in the rear-view mirror 10 years from now, I think (records) will be important."