For Blue Bombers’ Schoen, persistence has paid off with chance at Grey Cup glory

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REGINA – Danny McManus came up with a well-thought out theory after watching Dalton Schoen at Kansas City Chiefs training camp back in 2021.

The former CFL quarterback and current assistant general manager and director of U.S. scouting of the Winnipeg Blue Bombers was quick to run that idea past Ted Godeiva, fellow AGM and director of player personnel.

“I thought this guy would be pretty good with a waggle,” McManus said in a telephone interview on Saturday afternoon. “Ted watched the tape, we talked about it and we both agreed that yes, if he’s interested, he would be a great guy to get into our building.”

What was it in particular in Schoen’s skill set that made McManus think he might flourish in the motion game that is so prevalent in the CFL?

Well, a conversation with his former Hamilton Tiger-Cats teammate, and current Chiefs director of player personnel/pro scouting Tim Terry was an important part of the equation.

“In talking with Tim at KC, it was Dalton’s intelligence. Being able to read coverages,” said McManus, noting Schoen was initially on the Blue Bombers radar when he was signed by the Los Angeles Chargers in 2020. “Knowing when to sit down in the zone area, when to get to the next window, when to run through an area in man (coverage). It just goes back into his ability to catch the football. How quiet it is when he catches the ball.

“There’s not a smack or a pop when the ball hits his hands. It’s very quiet. The more and more that I watched him, he was more elusive with the ball in his hands than I would think. I saw that on the bigger field, it would give him an advantage to be able to showcase that a little bit more.”

To say that McManus’ theory has proven to be accurate is a massive understatement.

Not only did Schoen make the Blue Bombers, the sure-handed wide receiver has become an integral piece of the offence that will go up against the Toronto Argonauts on Sunday at Mosaic Stadium in the 109th Grey Cup.

Earlier this week, Schoen captured CFL rookie of the year honours, a just reward after a smooth transition to the three-down game that included 70 receptions for 1,441 yards and 16 touchdowns.

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Schoen is quick to deflect credit and praise those around him, whether it’s the bond he quickly forged with quarterback Zach Collaros or the relationships built in the receivers room.

That’s part of how he became a trusted target and popular teammate.

Schoen did plenty of research before his arrival and spent six or seven weeks on familiarizing himself with the playbook and terminology before he arrived for training camp.

That allowed him to hit the ground running.

“He came up here hungry, with something to prove,” said Blue Bombers receiver Greg Ellingson. “He’s smart, he listens, he absorbs everything and he makes plays that will surprise you every week. Sometimes it’s different than the last, sometimes it’s something you didn’t expect him to do and he surprises you again. It makes you excited to watch a kid run around like that and play football.”

When you consider Schoen’s remarkable journey to get to the point he was ready to give the CFL a shot this past spring, it’s hardly a surprise he was able to make a smooth transition.

Schoen was a three-sport athlete in high school in Overland Park, Kansas, excelling in football, baseball and basketball, winning a pair of state championships on the hardwood.

When it came down to what sport he was going to choose to pursue into the collegiate ranks, Schoen felt football was the one with the highest ceiling.

Growing up a Kansas State Wildcats fan, Schoen was determined to go to that school and crack the squad as a walk-on.

Things didn’t come easy for Schoen, but his persistence allowed him to go from the scout team to one of the most reliable receivers on the roster.

“It took a lot of work,” said Schoen, noting the impact K-State receivers coach and former NFLer Andre Coleman had in the process. “My development over my first two years there, where I literally never saw the field, was immense. If you took tape of me Day 1 and compared the tape of me two years later, it was largely different.

“I don’t think it was a light bulb moment. Something Coach Schneider likes to talk about is intentional improvement. You just get a little bit better each and every day and you stack all of those little improvements and you’ve come this huge, great distance. Maybe you didn’t quite see it as much in the moment because you’re the one getting a little better each day. But if someone saw you and then left for two years, they’d be like ‘who is this guy?’ So, it was that and then I just tried to do that at every stage of my career.”

After being released by the Chargers, the Chiefs twice and the Washington Commanders, Schoen got a call from his agent, gauging his interest about giving the CFL a shot.

Winnipeg Blue Bombers wide receiver Dalton Schoen catches the football at Leibel Field in Regina. (Heywood Yu/CP)

A call with McManus and his agent followed.

“I don’t want to see you’re at the point of a divided highway of what your career is going to go to,” said McManus. “We’ve all been released. It’s like in every job, you’re hired to get fired. We’ve all been released, but it’s a matter of how many times you get released until you find the spot that fits you. He had the capabilities to be a very good receiver in our league. It’s just (a matter of) how quickly can he learn the offence and how quickly can he learn the game.

“Just looking at his background, you get an idea that he’s got a good work ethic. If an opportunity presents itself, he’s going to do everything he can to succeed. It’s not a surprise to me. If you look at his track record and his background, what he’s had to do to be successful, he has that in him. It’s his everyday way of life. This is nothing new for Dalton. In everything that he’s done, he tackles it full speed ahead and tries to be the best that he can at that each and every day.”

That’s not to say that dogged mentality wasn’t tested, especially during those first two seasons at K-State, when Schoen was stuck on the scout team and eventually made his mark by trying to upstage the starting defence in practice.

“It’s definitely tough, especially when you’re there as a walk-on and there’s no promise that you’re ever going to get an opportunity. There are plenty of guys who never even get that one shot,” said Schoen. “It’s definitely made me very appreciative of (the journey), especially when I look back at the last two years and the fact that I’ve been bouncing around some NFL teams, have never been on an active roster, never been with a team for a very long period of time.

“So, I think back to the last two years in the fall and I’m sitting on the couch and watching games on TV and so, it really makes me appreciate being up here and getting to play in front of 30,000 people or getting to play in a game like this, this weekend. It’s really special.”

Really special is a good way to describe the season Schoen put together, though Blue Bombers head coach Mike O’Shea – who is not prone to exaggeration – took it a step further.

“We’ve talked about this quite a bit and it’s good to talk about it because he’s done something exceptional,” said O’Shea. “You don’t know that he’s going to end up with those numbers, but you know that he’s going to be successful, just with the way he attacked training camp.

“He has all the attributes to be an excellent receiver. One of his best qualities – and he has many – is his humble approach to this new journey, to a new league and the nuances. He came in with the right mindset, prepared to learn.”

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Instead of getting bogged down by how many other players he would have to leapfrog on the depth chart to make the roster, Schoen was quick to ask questions of veterans that he didn’t know the answers to.

“It’s tough when you get caught looking too far ahead. But the mentality for me was just make the team,” said Schoen. “I had looked at the depth chart and looked around the receiver room when I showed up and there are 20-plus guys and there are three returning starters. A lot of good players. So it looks like an overwhelming task when you look at it like that.

“I’ve always been confident about myself as a player. I’ve always felt I could play the game,” said Schoen. “I always just felt like I needed a decent shot to prove myself and I feel like I was given that here. I’ve tried to just take advantage of each opportunity that I can. Part of that is all of the work that I put in before coming up here. Building those foundations, little by little so that when I got up here and I got the opportunity I’d make the most of it and that led to more.”

You can be sure the Argonauts are going to be paying close attention to Schoen on Sunday.

“He’s got a big tool box,” said Argonauts head coach Ryan Dinwiddie. “He can get down the field, he can kick through some tackles. He’s a strong kid. He blocks on the perimeter. He does everything that you can ask him to do. He’s a blue-collar kid, a good football player and he shows up every week and he’s a difference maker.”

As for being one game away from achieving his ultimate goal, Schoen preferred to keep most of those thoughts to himself.

There will be plenty of time for further reflection on his storybook season after Sunday.

“It exceeded expectations. It’s been more than I ever could have wanted,” said Schoen. “I didn’t want to think too much about it or set any individual goals or anything like that. My goal was always just to make the team and once I did that, the goal was to get here (to the Grey Cup).

“It’s special. Again, something I don’t like to think about too much. You don’t want to think about it before it happens. But I’m excited for the opportunity. Obviously, the biggest game of my career.”

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