Going shirtless helped former Edmonton receiver Brandon Zylstra to become a CFL-to-NFL standout

Photo courtesy: Carolina Panthers

When in doubt, take off your clothes.

At least that was the strategy given to former Edmonton Football Team receiver Brandon Zylstra as he attempted to break into the pro ranks.

The six-foot-two, 215 pound pass catcher was a featured guest on NFL Network’s popular talk show Good Morning Football on Thursday when old shirtless videos from his draft prep days got the hosts waxing poetic about his chiseled physique.

Zylstra said it was a piece of advice given by his trainer in Arizona while he worked to make the jump to the NFL.

“The guy we were training with said you guys are super athletic, you need to do anything you can to try and stand out. You guys have a solid build, take off your shirt every time during a pro day. He said ‘Brandon you can do backflips, throw a backflip before your forty’. Really just show anything you can do,” Zylstra laughed.

“I wanted to play in the NFL so bad, I was willing to do anything.”

The Spicer, Minnesota native played his collegiate football at Division III Concordia College, finishing his career on the Moorhead campus with 120 receptions for 1,932 receiving yards and 18 touchdowns in 29 career games with the Cobbers, including a 16.1 yards per catch average.

Despite the production, Zylstra went undrafted and did whatever it took to get on the pro radar.

“I ended up creating this list of what had to be 150 or 200 emails and I would send that out every week, just like a little athlete resume if you will,” Zylstra said.

“Who knows how many emails I sent or how many weeks I actually did this, but I think I only ever got three replies. I just told myself that you have to do anything you can. You don’t have an agent, no teams know who you are so you’ve got to go above and beyond. If I got to the end of it and nothing happened, I wanted to say I did everything I could do.”

Apparently receiving shirtless pictures in their inbox did work for the Edmonton Football Team. He was signed by the club ahead of the 2016 season and  quickly emerged when activated, catching 34 passes for 508 yards and three touchdowns in six games. That built his confidence and Zylstra exploded in year two, which led to his career south of the border.

Zylstra led the CFL with 1,687 receiving yards on 100 receptions adding five touchdowns in 2017 with the Edmonton Football Team on the way to being named a league all-star. That season earned attention from a number of NFL franchises and led to Zylstra signing with Minnesota in January of 2018.

Playing in the CFL was never part of Zylstra’s plan but he wouldn’t trade his time in the league for anything.

“Not necessarily part of the plan but I’m so glad it happened. The CFL is some of the most fun football I’ve ever played,” he said about the three down league.

“Super high scoring game, fun and they give receivers a lot of love up there. The game is kind of based for receivers to succeed. I had a ton of fun up there.”

Zylstra spent that entire 2018 NFL season with the Vikings, playing in 16 games primarily in a special teams role. He returned four punts for 26 yards, one kick-off for 15 yards and caught one pass for 23 yards. Minnesota kept just four receivers on the active roster following training camp in 2019 and released Zylstra among the final roster cuts.

Zylstra was claimed on waivers by the Panthers one day later. He spent nearly that entire season on Carolina’s practice roster, earning his chance to be activated for the last game of the regular schedule when the athletic pass catcher recorded career highs of six receptions for 96 yards.

His role grew in 2020 when he dressed in all 16 games on special teams. Zylstra scored his first career NFL touchdown by recovering a muffed punt against Washington in a Week 16 Panthers win. In November, he caught a 28-yard pass on a fake punt, his longest career NFL reception.

The Panthers re-signed Zylstra to a one year extension in February, locking him down for 2021. None of it would have been possible without the CFL.

“I feel like that really taught me how to be a professional coming into the NFL,” he said. “I came from a D3 where things probably ran a lot different than a D1 program. I’m not going to say it was a huge adjustment but it was definitely an adjustment for me.”

While Zylstra may still have to fight to stick in the NFL, at least now he can keep his shirt on.