Dan Arnold stood on the youth football field in Janesville, Wis., in fourth grade. He had told his dad he wanted to play in the NFL one day. Luke Arnold looked at Dan, his youngest son, and his two other sons and told them to look at the six football fields filled with youth football players.
He asked them how many of those players would play football in high school? How many of them would be starters in high school? How many would play football in college? How many would have a shot at the pros? Luke asked Dan, Nick and Tom if they were the best football players on that field. Luke, wanting to be realistic with his sons, told them it was a tall mountain to climb to get to the NFL.
"Daniel doesn't like being told he can't do something," Luke said.
Last Saturday, Luke was in a bar in Minneapolis with Nick to watch college football. He wasn't really watching college football. It was more the background noise, as Luke stared at his phone. The deadline had passed for NFL teams to make final cuts and he had no phone call from Dan. A call would've meant Dan, 23, was contacted to come in and told he was cut.
There was no call.
Dan, a Fargo Shanley High School graduate, had made the 53-man roster for the New Orleans Saints. The football player from NCAA Division III University of Wisconsin-Platteville, who told his dad in fourth grade he was going to play professional football, was in the NFL.
"We saw an article pop up from the local newspaper that they had cut the last tight end," Luke said. "I just looked at Nick and said, 'Oh, my God. This is actually happening.'"
'I think I need to find an agent'
Dan had been invited to walk on at the University of North Dakota and North Dakota State out of Shanley, but he was set on Platteville because he wanted to play immediately. It was December of 2016 when Dan came home for Christmas break. He had just wrapped up his senior season at Platteville, catching 65 passes for 1,176 yards and 16 touchdowns in 11 games.
"So I think I need to find an agent," Dan said to his parents.
Luke and Trish Arnold had begun to think the NFL could be a possibility during Dan's junior year of college. He had 24 NFL teams come watch him play during his college years. Luke and Trish went to every one of Dan's college games. Platteville is 500 miles from Fargo and nearly 700 miles from Bismarck, where the two moved Dan's senior college season. Their 2010 Chevy Avalanche has a lot of miles on it.
Trish called Dan a freak of nature because she was a track coach and watched him at 6-foot-5 run hurdles in high school. But football she wasn't sure about. Trish would watch people's reactions in the crowd to the way her son played. She thought there might be something special.
There still wasn't a lot of preparation for their youngest son wondering how to get an agent.
"Luke and I were like, 'How does one go about that?'" Trish said with a laugh.
Dan had decided to put his degree aside to pursue the NFL after his senior season at Platteville. He figured his parents wouldn't be too happy, but they told him to go for it while he still could. He got invited to the Wisconsin Pro Day, but went undrafted in the 2017 NFL draft. He was invited to rookie minicamps for the Kansas City Chiefs and Saints. He was given No. 25 at the minicamp in New Orleans. He already had a No. 25 New Orleans jersey at home because former Saints running back Reggie Bush was his favorite player growing up.
When his parents got a picture of him wearing the No. 25 jersey for New Orleans they were at a restaurant that had a framed picture of Bush in his Saints jersey on the wall. They held up the phone with the picture of Dan next to the picture of Bush and took a picture.
"I chuckled," Dan said. "It's weird to think back, watching Reggie Bush play when I was younger and going out and buying his jersey and idolizing what kind of a player he was. Being able to be in the same organization was cool."
That almost didn't happen. He didn't get an offer out of either minicamp. The Baltimore Ravens had called Dan right after the last name was called in the 2017 NFL draft. They had offered him a one-day tryout, but took it off the table less than two hours later. The Ravens came back with a contract offer after the minicamps in Kansas City and New Orleans ended with no contract.
He was in a hotel in Baltimore, ready to meet with the Ravens the next morning when he got a call about New Orleans. He got on a plane the next morning, flew to New Orleans and he signed with the Saints.
The joy didn't last long, as he suffered a posterior labral tear in his shoulder less than two weeks after signing. He was put on injured reserve, but was not released. Dan hated watching. He studied film, put together film packages and took in everything he could, but he wanted to be on the field. He was at his apartment watching New Orleans in the conference semifinals against the Minnesota Vikings last season. He was packing his bags to go in and start working on film of the Philadelphia Eagles for the conference championship game when Minnesota Vikings quarterback Case Keenum ended the season for the Saints with a 61-yard touchdown pass to Stefon Diggs on the final play.
"No player, no one in the organization ever wants to see that happen," Dan said. "You move on from it and try to get better for next season. That's the motto right now. We know there was
more in the tank from last year and we want to prove we can be a contender for a Super Bowl."
Switching from receiver to tight end
Dan was antsy to get back on the field, but the Saints added depth at wide receiver in the offseason. In late May, Dan Campbell, the tight ends coach for the Saints, told Dan if he wanted to make the team he'd have to move to tight end, a position he hadn't really played since Shanley.
Curveballs were nothing new to Dan. He won an Illinois Class 7A state football championship with Boylan High School (Rockford, Ill.) as a junior. Both his older brothers and his dad graduated from Boylan, yet, he was fine with moving to North Dakota for his senior year of high school when his dad got a job at Moore Engineering in West Fargo.
"He gave that up because he knew the family needed something better," Trish said. "That was tough for him."
In the 2012 North Dakota Class 2A state championship game, Dan moved from linebacker to defensive end for the Deacons. They won the state title. Throughout that season he would move to tight end when asked, amassing more than 1,000 receiving yards that season. He was also convinced to play basketball for the Deacons in his one year at Shanley. They won a Class A state basketball title as well.
"He was a kid that would do anything we asked of him," said former Shanley head football coach Rod Oksendahl. "He would do anything to help the team win. He was a great competitor. That was the thing that impressed me the most. That you can't coach."
Dan had dealt with change. The switch to tight end was just another change. He learned footwork and technique for blocking and put on 20 pounds, currently standing at 6-6 and around 237 pounds.
"I've definitely had a lot of change in my life," Dan said. "That's definitely a blessing. I think it's prepared me. Every new situation that has been thrown at me I've been able to adjust relatively well just because of the experiences I've had in my life. When you get a big monkey wrench thrown in your life you want to shut down and scream at the wall and it's not fair, but at the same time you got to be able to move on from it."
'I got to do my job or I'm packing my bags'
Dan admits he was awestruck last season when he'd see Saints quarterback Drew Brees or defensive end Cam Jordan or when he sat next to wide receiver Michael Thomas at meetings. He has a different mindset this season.
"I would say I got that out of my system," Dan said. "Now, going through training camp, you're here to do what you're asked by your coaches and you're going to try to do that with the best of your ability. At that point, you're not looking who is across the line from you. I got to do my job or I'm packing my bags and going home. It comes down to you have to make this happen no matter what."
Trish is studying to get her PH.D. She wanted some time alone, so was more than happy to have Luke go to Minneapolis to hang out with Nick last Saturday. She studied, but she said she never stared at her phone more in her life, waiting to find out if Dan made the Saints. He had always told her the NFL stands for "Not For Long," so she should just take it in stride and enjoy the ride.
"Your time here is special," Dan said. "The next day is not guaranteed and a lot of players know that. I could actually go to the facility tomorrow and they could say we're going to release you. That's just the reality of the situation. You have that thought in the back of your mind that drives you to keep playing and keep working your butt off."
Trish got a text from Luke saying Dan made the roster last Saturday. The boys in the family were all Green Bay Packers fans, but she immediately changed her allegiance from the Chicago Bears to the New Orleans Saints. She's not sure where the family will watch the Saints game Sunday in Bismarck, but they'll be sure to find a TV.
The excitement in Trish's voice could not be contained when she realized Dan was calling last Wednesday. She said he doesn't get a lot of free time, as she answered his call. When she hung up she said he was calling about the Verizon bill, trying to convince her to stay on the family plan because it's cheaper. She laughed. He's still her youngest son. He just has an interesting job.
"I have a really nice picture of Daniel and Drew Brees just sitting there getting ready to do their thing," Trish said. "What a great thing to share your office with Drew Brees."
Dan isn't sure when this whole thing will end. Perhaps one day he can get off the Verizon family plan. For now, he's just taking it all in.
"It gets real now," Dan said. "You're playing the highest level of football. It'll be something I hold onto for the rest of my life."