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You can count on K.J. Osborn
This offseason was an awakening for the Minnesota Vikings wide receiver. He saved a man's life. He witnessed miracles in Africa. Now, he'll bring this perspective to the football field.
This is the sixth installment of our 2023 NFL Kickoff features.
EAGAN, Minn. — Tattooed on his left hand is the daily reminder. Two simple words that will be impossible to miss throughout his day-to-day life.
The sun’s scorching rays at TCO Performance Center shine a beam of light directly onto the ink after one recent practice.
K.J. Osborn had this message etched permanently the day before training camp. When he wakes up in the morning, when he’s lifting weights, when he’s strapping on his gloves to catch passes for the Minnesota Vikings, he’ll gaze down at it and refocus. This 26-year-old from Ypsilanti, Mich., knows exactly who he is, too. A “hard-working man” who’s inspired to lead peers, family, younger and older teammates alike.
“All about serving and showing love,” Osborn says. “No matter who the person is.”
Visibly, he’s unique. From the sparkling nose ring to the dreadlocks to the neatly shaved lines in his left eyebrow, the wide receiver has distinct style. Then again, many receivers do. What makes Osborn truly unique is this urge to serve deep in his gut. Mom always raised him to live with “a God-like conscience” and Osborn took that to heart. If he was ever in dire need of help, Osborn knows he’d want help. So, whenever he sees someone else hurting? In any way? Osborn’s natural instinct is to do something about it.
Spiritually. Emotionally. Or, quite literally, physically.
Osborn refers to himself as a “helping hand.” It’s the understatement of the summer.
This tattoo will also be a reminder of the offseason that forever changed his life.
The night of March 5, Osborn was in the back of an Uber in Austin, Texas — head down, zoned out — when his driver saw an accident and started yelling. Underneath a bridge, another car had crashed into a pillar. It was on fire. There was a man inside. K.J. — being K.J. — helped save that man’s life. A few months later, he headed to Africa on a church mission and saw miracles performed right before his eyes. A blind child was given the ability to see. A woman who could barely walk with a bad back could suddenly stand up straight.
He is not exaggerating. The experience, he repeats several times, was “life-changing.”
Now, it’s back to football where he’s rapidly becoming one of the NFL’s finest go-to weapons in crunch time.
In 2021, Osborn supplied the walk-off touchdown in overtime vs. Carolina. He also hauled in 64- and 62-yard bombs for scores. In 2022, he was the receiver who jumpstarted the greatest comeback in NFL history with 157 yards on 10 receptions vs. the Colts. Down 33-0, he shocked the Vikings to life. Unsurprisingly, Osborn was a busy man through training camp. The firepower surrounding quarterback Kirk Cousins is one of the most ignored storylines this season. Justin Jefferson, the No. 1 pick in your fantasy league, is already a superstar. He’ll be historically rich soon. Tight end T.J. Hockenson signed the richest tight end contract in NFL history on Thursday. Rookie Jordan Addison was the story of camp, getting open at a jarring rate. Osborn, facing 1-on-1 coverage, will feast this contract year because Osborn is the player so often blinking into Cousins’ periphery with less than 2 minutes left. The player who executes the master plan Kevin O’Connell laid out last summer.
We’ll say it again: Those one-score wins here in the Twin Cities are no joke.
K.J. Osborn — a man who savors pressure — is the tangible proof and, now, he enters this 2023 NFL season fresh off a personal awakening.
It all started that near-fatal night in Austin, Texas.
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Sadly, this impulse is dead inside most Zoomers. Faced with a horrifying scene — fisticuffs on a sidewalk, bullying in school, a burning car off an expressway — the natural instinct is to go viral. To pull out the cell phone, hit record, bare witness through a lens of vanity. The urge is not to do exactly what Osborn did in Austin.
Of course… he feared the worst. The airbag was out and he didn’t see a body. Whoever was inside this burning vehicle, he initially thought, must’ve flown out of the car.
The Uber driver called 911 and Osborn sprinted toward the scene before reality hit. That car full of gasoline could blow up at any moment. Two other bystanders stopped to help and, soon, all four realized that there was a driver inside. Not only that. The driver was alive. By the sight of this man’s eyes, he was in a total “daze,” but he wasn’t quitting. The man — who turned out to be 34-year-old MTV personality Nelson Thomas — was, in fact, inching… inching… inching his way out of an opening on the passenger side. Only later did Osborn learn that Thomas woke up when he felt the fire on his legs.
At one point, the Uber driver went right down to see Thomas up close. (Fearlessness K.J. won’t forget.)
There’s no way to prepare for this fight-or-flight sensation, Osborn explains, “until you’re in it.” He never faced anything remotely close to this in his entire life. At first, he was stricken with an understandable sense of flight. His mind raced to his family. “What if,” Osborn remembers asking himself, “I try to save this man… and the car blows up? I went out being who I was, but it’s The End.”
“Those moments were clicking by,” recalls Osborn, snapping his fingers. “As I’m looking at this car, I’m thinking about who I am.”
Precious seconds ticked. It was decision time for all four.
Wait for firefighters to arrive. Or take action.
The four weren’t sure how close they should get to the car. One person would close in, and back up. Another person would close in, and back up again. This pulsating, “Should we go?” vacillation lasted about 1 minute and 30 seconds. Justifiably, they feared an explosion would kill them all, too. Thomas kept pushing, was able to lean his upper body over enough to stick his head out of the door, and it was time.
Two words rang loudest in Osborn’s head: Be You.
He refused to watch a man die before his eyes.
“I wouldn’t have been able to live just standing there,” Osborn says, “if the car did go into flames and blew up and there was time we could’ve done something.”
Two people originally tried pulling him out, but couldn’t. Osborn assisted. Osborn loaded Thomas over his shoulder and carried him 15 yards away from the flames as blood drenched his shirt. The process of actually pulling Thomas from that burning car was remarkably efficient. Lasted all of 5 to 10 seconds.
Firefighters arrived shortly after. Medics, too.
They informed the group that they saved Thomas’ life.
All a blur that felt like a movie scene.
When Osborn returned home that night, he texted a couple friends and told himself that he had one hell of a story to share with family tomorrow. He thought he’d be able to pass right out and sleep in total exhaustion. He was wrong. Laying in bed, his adrenaline was still pumping. The next day, he shared a “Right Place Right Time” tweet that included a picture with the three others who sprung to action.
The next 48 hours were a blur. On NFLN, Osborn noted that he was pursuing his masters in criminal justice. He wants to save more lives in the FBI or United States Secret Service one day. On set, Green Bay Packers running back Aaron Jones, a saint in his own right, admitted he probably would not have risked his own life in the same situation.
Thomas soon shared pictures of his own with his 276K+ followers on Instagram. The injuries sustained were grisly, but he survived:
Before leaving Austin, Osborn visited Thomas in the hospital and has kept in touch with the star of “The Challenge.” Without divulging details, he says he also has a surprise planned. As the events of that night took America by storm, Osborn’s mailboxes were soon flooded with well wishes. He couldn’t keep up with his IG inbox. What stood out most were the pictures drawn by kids portraying Osborn as a superhero.
Nonstop, Osborn was showered with two specific compliments: “You’re a hero” and “You’re an angel.” The latter gives him goosebumps.
To him, there are no lucky coincidences.
Osborn believes he was meant to be in that Uber precisely at that moment.
“We were Nelson’s angels that night,” he says. “God really used me to be a real-life angel. There wasn’t anybody else on that expressway besides me, Nelson, Abdul, Rita and Arthur. There was five of us. That was it on that highway. If we weren’t there, who knows? I don’t think Nelson would be here.”
Nobody else would’ve been around to call for help. Thomas would’ve died in that burning car. A cold reality Osborn admits give him “tingles inside.” Arthur, the man standing behind K.J. in the picture, had just moved to America three years prior. His actions were heroic, too. He smashed a back window at one point.
For Osborn, the life choice has always been to fight. Never to flee. That’s how he was raised.
The more he thinks about it, the more he knows why he was placed in harm’s way that night. He starts with Mom, the “backbone” of his family working two jobs to pay her way through dental hygiene school. There was hardly any money in the bank account. Valerie ran her own cleaning business, working most often at the Fischer Honda car dealership in Ypsilanti. Through sixth, seventh and eighth grade — after school, after sports games — K.J. would head directly to the dealership to help her out with his sister. Mom couldn’t help but cry while sweeping the floors.
Many nights, she worked until 2 a.m. The kids would pass out on the couch in the customer lounge.
Once she was done cleaning, it was off to Denny’s to study for her board exams. The situation, she later recalled, was “do or die.” The hardest thing she ever did in her life — and it all paid off. Today, Valerie is a dental hygienist and travels to every single one of her son’s games. Home and away.
“She persevered. She taught me and my sister that hard work,” says Osborn, who adds that Dad, remarried, has been in his life. He was a long-distance truck driver. They’re tight, too. “You’ve got to grind for what you want. You’ve got to work for it. It’s no secret. … Any time me and my sister go through any type of adversity? We’ve been through tough times.”
Football always mirrored life. Heck, Osborn was a backup on his youth football team at eight years old. A two-star recruit out of high school. A receiver — on to the University of Buffalo in the MAC — who needed to redshirt all of 2015 before playing a down. Even then, it took two injuries at receiver and two at punt returner to get his shot. After three seasons with the Bulls, he headed to Miami (Fla.) and caught 50 balls for 547 yards on a 6-7 Hurricanes team.
The previous Vikings regime, however, saw something. Perhaps it was Osborn’s game-winning touchdown against Pitt in the final minute. They took a chance on the 5-foot-11, 203-pounder in the fifth round and, after barely playing as a rookie in 2020, Osborn announced himself to the football world. In Game No. 1 that 2021 season, vs. Cincinnati, Cousins went to Osborn on a fourth and 4 with 37 seconds left to extend a drive that forced overtime. One month later, he had the OT winner against Carolina. (“Immediately,” he adds. “Kirk was coming to me in those 2-minute situations.) The following season was more of the same (60 catches for 650 yards with five scores), which means more of those Midwesterners shouting “Skol!” know who he is.
Yet, Osborn has one fear. He never wants to become anybody different than that overlooked 2-star, that kid grabbing Z’s at the dealership.. How he eats. How he trains. How he’s often the last player on the practice field, catching balls at the JUGS machine. In his mind, none of this can ever change.
Because when the pressure’s highest, he’s strikingly calm. He’s prepared.
Vikings wide receivers coach Keenan McCardell was not surprised to hear Osborn launched himself into action that night in Austin.
“That’s something he would do,” McCardell says. “He’s not going to run away from big situations. He’s going to step up to the moment in a big situation like he’s done on the field. … It’s a dire-need moment for a guy. Life or death. He stepped up and pulled him out of the car. Just like on the field. It’s a dire need for us to have a catch to win the game? He makes it in Carolina.”
Right around this time, in March, is also when McCardell issued Osborn a biting challenge.
Adam Thielen was released and Thielen also happened to be Minnesota’s homegrown son, a 10-year vet, the franchise’s fourth all-time leading receiver behind Cris Carter, Randy Moss and Anthony Carter. As the unforgettable fairy tale goes, Thielen was preparing for his own dental-related career. He accepted a job to sell dental equipment before the Vikings offered him a tryout. McCardell made a point to put as much pressure on Osborn as he could when the organization turned the page on this chapter. Told Osborn that those were big shoes to fill.
After initially asking him, “Can you do it?” McCardell corrected himself. He realized asking a question was the wrong tact. He needed to make a statement.
He told Osborn, “You’re going to do it.”
“Step up,” he said six months ago. “Fill those shoes and make them even bigger.”
Speaking one week before the Vikings’ season begins, the perfectionist McCardell is thrilled with Osborn’s response. He sees a human being with a completely new outlook on life, and it’s not all a result of saving someone’s life.
A trip to Africa is also to thank.
Rather than disappear to the Caribbean for one last hurrah or go full hermit with his family, Osborn spent much of the precious lull between OTAs and the start of training camp in Zimbabwe and South Africa as part of a church mission with his mentor/pastor Tim Timberlake of Celebration Church. An extra nudge helped. His best friend since sixth grade, former UB teammate, current Seattle Seahawks tight end and “accountability partner” in life, Tyler Mabry, invited him. Up close, Osborn saw people deal with “real problems.” Not trivial first-world problems we obsess over in the states. Day-to-day, life-and-death issues such as rampant homelessness. Ninety-five percent unemployment. Countless kids who didn’t even own shoes. Power blacking out at any moment. No drinking water. Where Osborn stayed, he was told to never swallow the water he showered in. His mission group brushed their teeth with bottled water.
The people they visited in Zimbabwe lacked a Bible in their language. As part of this conference, a group called Biblica delivered one that was translated.
This trip was every bit as “life changing” to Osborn as getting drafted into the NFL.
Mostly because of the surreal miracles he witnessed. “Crazy, crazy things” that still have Osborn in a visible state of shock.
Says Osborn: “If you saw it with your own eyes, you’d think it was magic.”
Inside a church, Timberlake prayed for various people in attendance. The pastor shared the story of how God healed a blind man, and then asked if anybody in the crowd needed a miracle. One man brought down his son. While Osborn refers to him as a baby in re-telling the story, he estimates the child was 2 years old. Maybe 3. The child’s eyes were “glossy” — pale white — staring up at the ceiling.
Only a few of Osborn’s closest friends have heard this story.
He tells it with more raw emotion than even saving a man’s life.
“Pastor Tim prayed for him,” he says, “put his hands over his eyes. And when he removed them, the baby had clear eyes. The baby started smiling. There was a Caucasian lady with us who the baby had never seen before and he jumped into the lady’s arms and was hugging her. Everybody was celebrating. They were really happy. It was the highlight of everybody’s trip — ‘What just happened?!’ If you were to see a blind person, it’d be the same reaction: ‘Wait. What?’ It took my faith to another level.
“It was amazing. Something I have never, ever seen in my life.
That wasn’t all. Another lady walked to the front with a severe limp. She couldn’t move her back at all. The pastor put his hands on her back and, Osborn says, she “sprung” straight up.
“She could touch her toes. She could spin. She could move. It was crazy. The scene was so intense.”
These images will remain at the forefront of his mind. He couldn’t believe how such arduous living conditions did nothing to deter the spirits of locals. Many kids needed to walk 2 to 3 hours to school where they’d get their only meal for the day, but families were simply happy to be together. Grateful doesn’t begin to describe the feeling that rushed through Osborn. Part of him wished he could take everyone back to America with him. In all honesty, though? He wanted to stay here. Osborn loved the fact that there was hardly any cell service. Away from a screen — ejected into an entirely new world — he gained a new zest for life. He already can’t wait to go back with his new church family.
Upon returning, Osborn got the “Be You” tattoo and headed into camp to prepare for the most important football season of his life. Entering the final year of his rookie deal, this is his chance to earn the kind of money that’ll set him up for life. His chance to repay a mother sweeping away inside that car dealership. He’s well aware that millions of dollars will be at stake every week.
Never before has Osborn faced this level of pressure in football. Thielen’s defection created an opportunity, but then the Vikings drafted USC’s Addison. Of course, he’s not concerned.
“I wouldn’t be myself if I looked at the result and not the process,” Osborn says. “If you want to talk about the contract — life-changing money — finish. You’ll get there. It’ll come when it comes. Worry about the game of football. Don’t worry about all of the off-the-field stuff. I have an amazing team to handle that stuff when the time comes. I just try to take it a day at a time and be where my feet are.”
When any NFL player sees the thin line between life and death firsthand, it can have a powerful effect. Zay Jones nearly threw himself out of a window 30 floors high five years ago. That night was a turning point. Depressed in Buffalo, the wideout learned to completely let go of expectations. By 2022, he was making clutch catches weekly through the Jacksonville Jaguars’ improbable sprint to the playoffs.
Now, Osborn brings his new perspective to third and 12, to the fourth quarter, to moments he cherishes. He wrote specific goals for this season on his mirror, goals he’d like to keep to himself. He’s his own biggest critic and holds himself to an extremely high standard, but can’t help but point out how demanding McCardell is on all Viking receivers. (“Good Lord. K-Mac gets on me!”) He knows it all comes from a place of love and is especially craving McCardell’s hard coaching at this critical juncture of his football life. With no wife, no kids, Osborn is married to the sport.
He does verbalize one team goal: To win the Super Bowl. Don’t let the loss of a few aging vets distract from the fact that the Vikings still intend to win. Osborn echoes Harrison Phillips in shooting down the DVOAified theory that last year’s 13-4 run was a total fluke. The Vikings were 11-0 in one-score games, he says, because they practiced for those specific moments. All the way back to “Phase 1” and “Phase 2” in OTAs.
“So when we get out there, we’re not guessing,” Osborn says. “We’ve been through it. When you hear Kobe and Michael Jordan talk about those game-winning shots, ‘I’ve shot that shot 1,000 times.’ I’ve caught that pass a lot of times. I’ve repped that a lot of times in my mind, in walkthrough, in practice.”
Defenses had a full offseason to meticulously dissect Jefferson’s 1,809-yard season. Bank on coordinators shading coverages his way. Extreme attention that should create more opportunities for Osborn wherever he’s lined up. Cousins deserves credit for forcing the issue. As the Buffalo Bills learned on fourth and 18, the QB will give Jefferson a shot in double coverage. But McCardell believes the Vikings have three legitimate starters in Jefferson, Addison and Osborn. They’ll cloud Jefferson with DBs at their own peril. Thus, the Vikings should be able to engage in shootouts with anyone in this wide-open NFC.
McCardell, the former Jaguar great, totaled 11,373 receiving yards over a 17-year career. He started on a Super Bowl team in Tampa Bay. Now, he has a burgeoning reputation as a coach with this new generation.
Told what Osborn said, he doesn’t hide. He doubles down. (“I am very demanding,” he says.) That’s how McCardell was coached from the likes of Joe Gibbs, Bill Belichick, Tom Coughlin and Jon Gruden. He tells his receivers in Minnesota all the time, “Good is the evil of great.”
“We have to understand that we can’t just be good,” McCardell continues. “We have to be great each and every play, each and every day. And it starts in practice. Being great in practice. You can’t just show up on Sundays and think you’re going to be great. … If you’re spot on in games, you’re probably going to be playing pretty well. At a high level. With their talents, that can mean greatness. That’s how demanding I am. I expect excellence every play.”
Osborn, an old soul, is passing McCardell’s test so far.
McCardell calls him “Mr. Consistent,” because he’s never rattled. He loves Osborn’s laser-beam demeanor. A personality that helps Osborn both save a man from a burning car and make that fourth-down catch with the game on the line. “He’s a guy who’s always there when you need him,” McCardell adds. “He’s always there.” The coach sees it the locker room. When a teammate’s somber — for whatever reason — Osborn’s the player who sits down to chat. The coach sees it on the field. When a receiver drops a ball, Osborn is the first player to speak to him.
Never high, never low. We think the best NFL players have Rob Zombie’s music blaring through their mind when it’s actually the calmer-than-calm players who excel. A state of Zen is far more advantageous in all those close games.
No moment seems too big for Osborn.
“They might be big moments for other people,” McCardell says. “But for him, it’s just natural. … It’s like time slows down. When that starts to happen for you as a player, you can do things that are special. You always know what’s going to happen.”
He’s seen other young wide receivers stray from who they are during games. The position itself can turn normal people into maniacs. So much is out of your control. McCardell finds himself telling his guys: “Go back to being who you are.” That’s never a problem for No. 17.
He’ll be tested next week. When the Vikings welcome the Tampa Bay Buccaneers into U.S. Bank Stadium, it’ll be more like opening the drawbridge to welcome a Lannister army. The Bucs have declared war on the rest of the NFL. Cornerback Carlton Davis will punch receivers at the line of scrimmage. Safety Antoine Winfield Jr. will shoot out of a cannon like his Dad. The rest of the world expects the Bucs to stink, but — in taking Davis’ cue — the Buccaneers fully aim to “wreck shit.”
First up: Minnesota.
Osborn will take a hard hit. Or two. There will be trash talk. Fists to the sternum off the line of scrimmage. Like every Vikings game in the history of mankind, this will probably boil down to the final zany seconds, and… Osborn will need to make a play. He’s a completely different character than Davis. One scowls with haunting eyes and NSFW language. The other smiles. This day, Osborn is devoid of any volatility whatsoever.
When it’s time to catch a pass on fourth down next week — and beyond — he won’t get flustered.
All K.J. Osborn ever needs to do is take one glove off and see those two words forever written on his hand.
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