Zylstra brothers make childhood dream come true as Detroit Lions teammates

Shane Zylstra was mulling his college options in 2014 when he asked his brother, Brandon, for advice on where he should go to school.

A standout receiver and return man at New London-Spicer (Minn.) High, about two hours west of Minneapolis, Shane had dreamed of playing with his older brother since he was little, but their four-year age difference made that impossible in high school.

Now, as he sorted through a handful of offers from Division II and III schools, Shane had the chance to join Brandon — for one season at least — at tiny Concordia College.

Shane, left, and Brandon Zylstra as kids.

Shane, left, and Brandon Zylstra as kids.

Brandon had long embraced the thought of playing with his brother, too. But when it came time for Shane to pick a college, Brandon told him to take Concordia off his list.

The Cobbers ran a triple-option offense that did little to showcase receivers, and besides, Brandon told his brother, college isn’t the end of our dream.

“It just didn’t serve him the best way, and I knew how good he was and I was wanting him to succeed so I told him he’s got to go do something else,” Brandon recalled. “That’s what we kind of talked about, too. We’re just like, ‘Let’s go play in the NFL. This obviously didn’t work out, let’s go to the NFL instead.’ And so it’s been a journey to get here. We both kind of had unique paths, but we made it.”

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The Zylstras’ long road to the NFL included stops in the Canadian Football League and time spent working construction. Both signed their first NFL contract with the team they grew up rooting for, the Minnesota Vikings — albeit three years apart.

And earlier this month they made their boyhood dreams come true when they played their first game together at any level in the Detroit Lions‘ 15-9 win over the Green Bay Packers.

Brandon played five snaps on special teams and returned the opening kickoff 19 yards. Shane caught the only pass thrown either brother’s way for a 1-yard touchdown. And the two exchanged jerseys in an emotional moment after the game.

Detroit Lions center Frank Ragnow (77) spikes the ball after tight end Shane Zylstra's 1-yard reception for a touchdown during the first half of an NFL football game against the Green Bay Packers, Sunday, Nov.  6, 2022, in Detroit.  (AP Photo/Duane Burleson)

Detroit Lions center Frank Ragnow (77) spikes the ball after tight end Shane Zylstra’s 1-yard reception for a touchdown during the first half of an NFL football game against the Green Bay Packers, Sunday, Nov. 6, 2022, in Detroit. (AP Photo/Duane Burleson)

“There was definitely a different feeling going into that game,” Shane said. “Just the butterflies before, just for that reason of like, ‘All right, we finally did it.'”

Brandon’s non-traditional path to the NFL began as a pro in Canada, where he played two seasons for the Edmonton Eskimos and led the CFL in receiving yards in 2017.

He signed with the Vikings in January of 2018, played one season in Minnesota as a backup, then spent the next three years with the Carolina Panthers.

At various times early in his pro career, while Shane was on his way to becoming the leading receiver in Division II Minnesota State-Mankato history, Brandon called his little brother and told him he had the ability to play in the NFL.

That encouragement helped Shane soldier on when his own NFL career got off to an inauspicious start.

Shane played his last game at Minnesota State in 2019 and was part of the NFL’s COVID class of 2020. He did not have a pro day because of the pandemic, went undrafted that spring and spent the next year working for a family friend’s home improvement company while preparing for tryouts he wasn’t sure he was going to get.

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Shane, left, and Brandon Zylstra posing as wrestlers during their childhood.

Shane, left, and Brandon Zylstra posing as wrestlers during their childhood.

The Vikings signed Shane to a free agent deal in the spring of 2021, after Shane impressed in a pro day workout at Minnesota, and Shane spent most of last season on the Lions practice squad as a tight end.

“I knew how talented he was, obviously, and maybe I’m biased, but I’ve always seen the way he’s played and his competitive nature and just his overall dominance in football and I’ve always told him like since Day 1 I stepped in the NFL, I was just like, ‘Dude, you belong here. You’re better than half these guys,’” Brandon said. “I was like, ‘Once you get to the NFL, you’ll see that. I promise you, you’re good enough to play here.'”

When the NFL schedule came out this spring, Brandon fired off a text on the family group chat and invited everyone to his place for Christmas. The Lions were scheduled to play the Panthers on Christmas Eve, and although he and Shane weren’t teammates, Brandon figured getting to spend the holidays together, with family, was the next best thing.

Those plans were spoiled when the Panthers released Brandon at the end of training camp, and Brandon spent the next month on the NFL workout circuit.

He visited two teams before the Lions invited him for a tryout in early October, and he signed with the Lions after seeing his brother in the locker room that day.

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“It was in God’s plans for sure,” Shane said. “Just the fact that he worked out for other teams, didn’t get signed and then who knows, like he comes here to Detroit, does a workout, they sign him and it’s just crazy how everything works out. It’s crazy.”

Shane, left, and Brandon Zylstra get ready for some birthday cake as kids.

Shane, left, and Brandon Zylstra get ready for some birthday cake as kids.

For the past two months, the Zylstras have spent more time with each other than they have since they were teenagers. Brandon stayed at Shane’s Southfield townhouse when he first signed with the Lions, until he found his own pace, and he still makes regular visits there to see Shane’s wife, Gabriel, and the couple’s two kids.

“We never got to see each other cause for the last three years I’ve spent down in Carolina, I didn’t come back,” Brandon said., “Now I’m trying to take full advantage of it so every off day I’m pretty much going over there just to be in his kids’ lives, spend more time with his wife, cause she’s been around the family forever and she’s been part of the family. But I try to go over there and try to just help him out. I tell them to go do something, go grocery shopping or whatever, let me watch the kids. I don’t know if they trust me that much yet, but the offer’s always there.”

The Zylstras have had their share of pinch-me moments in practice, when they shared a huddle together or lined up next to each other on special teams. But it wasn’t until the Packers game that they felt like they truly achieved their dream.

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Brandon fielded the opening kick as Shane blocked on the other side of the field, and after Shane scored his first touchdown the brothers embraced on the sideline.

“The video of as soon as Shane came off the field to have his brother right there, that bearhug was something special,” said Shane and Brandon’s mother, Marcia. “I’ve maybe watched it more than once.”

Marcia traveled to Chicago for the Lions-Bears game earlier this month, but Shane and Brandon have not been on the field together since the Packers game. The Lions signed Shane to the 53-man roster after the Packers game, while Brandon remains on the practice squad awaiting his next call-up.

Shane said the jersey he got from his brother that game will have a special place in his man cave one day, and both already have a lifetime of memories for their two months together as teammates.

“I’ve been telling a lot of people here, I actually just had this conversation a few minutes ago saying that football’s really come full circle for me,” Brandon said. “First was playing for Minnesota. I grew up a huge Minnesota fan, watching Randy Moss, that’s why I became a receiver in general. So it was cool to kind of start there and kind of finish it out playing with Shane, it’s been awesome. I guess kind of still surreal right now.”

Contact Dave Birkett at dbirkett@freepress.com. Follow him on Twitter @davebirkett.

Next up: Bills

matchups: Lions (4-6) vs. Buffalo (7-3).

Kickoff: 12:30 pm Thursday; Ford Field, Detroit.

TV/Radio: CBS; WXYT-FM (97.1).

Lines: Bills by 9½.

This article originally appeared on Detroit Free Press: Zylstra brothers living childhood dream as Detroit Lions teammates

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