November 18, 2022

Long Read | Dalton Schoen

REGINA – There will be a quiet, introspective moment before the 109th Grey Cup Sunday afternoon when Dalton Schoen grabs a black sharpie and pens ‘Street Dawg’ on his wrist tape.

The message is more than just a reminder for the Winnipeg Blue Bombers rookie receiver to stay hungry. It’s also essentially morphed over the years into a life motto built around the basic tenets of working hard, not limiting yourself and staying hungry.

‘Street Dawg’ – he uses the slang ‘Dawg’ instead of ‘Dog’ – comes from conversations he and his older brother Mason and sister Chandler had with their father Kelly during their high school days.

Chandler went on to become a nurse, FYI, while Mason – a basketball player – was a walk-on at Kansas State like Dalton and earned his finance degree while co-captaining the squad in his senior season, en route to being named to the Big 12 Commissioner’s Honor Roll for six straight semesters.

And Dalton’s accomplishments in his first Canadian Football League season have been piling up from the very first moment he pulled on his Blue Bombers #83 jersey.

He not only led the league with 1,441 receiving yards on 70 receptions this year, but he also tied for the lead in touchdowns with 16 while being named to the CFL All-Star Team. And Thursday night at the Conexus Art Centre, he was crowned as the league’s Most Outstanding Rookie.

Every accomplishment along the way became a testament to his hard work, ‘don’t limit yourself, stay hungry’ mantra. It also got us wondering this: Where, when and how were these ‘Street Dawg’ roots first planted? And how did it come to be such a powerful motivator?

Dalton’s grandfather Kenneth Schoen grew up on a farm not too far from Downs, Kansas, a tiny town of 800 just south of the Nebraska border and about 180 miles northwest of Wichita.

“And if you want to talk about the origins of Street Dawg, that’s a good place to start, with my grandfather,” explained Dalton. “My grandfather instilled such good family values for our family and our extended family. Whenever we’re all together my dad and my uncle will point out, ‘Look at everything that came from his sacrifice.’ It’s pretty special.”

Kenneth’s sacrifice was this: his father passed when he was 12 and after finishing eighth grade, he had a decision to make – stay in town with someone during the school year because there was no bus service to and from the farm, or quit so he could help his mother, brother and older sister keep the homestead operational.

He chose the latter and eventually Kenneth would raise a family on that farm, too, with Kelly – Dalton’s father – one of three brothers.

“When you’re on the farm you just have to show up and work every day,” began Kelly Schoen in a recent chat with “The livestock needs to be fed, the crops need tending and if you don’t show up and do your job, something’s going to die. That’s just the reality of it.”

“So, you just show up and do your job every day and sometimes you can’t see the end in sight of the job you’re doing. I had that mentality instilled at an early age – God gave you an ability to work and it’s an honour and an obligation to show up and do it.

“At the same time – and my dad never stated it, we just knew it was part of our process – we all knew we were going to college to get an education because he never had that opportunity.”

All four of the Kenneth Schoen boys did that, with Kelly earning a finance degree at K-State and then his MBA from Creighton University. Today he is the Managing Director with Frontier Investment Banking in Kansas City.

And here’s where that hard work and sacrifice transforms into the street dawg mentality: Kelly Schoen remembers vividly seeing wild dogs running the countryside in and around Downs and often wondered how they manage to survive. That image – so raw and real at the same time – stuck with him.

“Think about it – they had to go find their meal every single day,” he said. “When you’re a domesticated dog, everybody’s going to feed you. But a street dog has to go find its food every day.

“When we were raising our family in a suburban metropolitan area (Overland Park, KS) and there’s not enough chores for the kids, you try to instil in them every day the idea of growing up as a street dog with a drive and a hunger, whether that’s in your schoolwork, in your sports, in your relationships… you’re building a foundation that’s going to carry forward, but what you did today doesn’t ensure anything for tomorrow.

“I mention that to my children – your grandfather never had the chance to go to high school. When he was 16, he was working full-time and you’re messing around in high school having fun, so think about that when you have educational opportunities.

“And for whatever reason that resonated with Dalton, probably because it aligns with his mindset and his DNA. He embraced it and took it into every element of his life, whether it was in the classroom where he knew he was capable of making A’s.”

Dalton attended Blue Valley Northwest High School in Overland Park, and was a multi-sport star. He broke state records in receiving, including one game where he pulled in 12 passes for 390 yards and four TDs.

“He and my oldest son Zack started high school together in the ninth grade,” began Mike Zegunis, Schoen’s high school coach at Blue Valley back then and now a defensive coach at nearby Olathe West High School. “Dalton was a terrific multi-sport athlete. He just worked so hard he was one of those kids you rooted for and really wanted to see have success because he always tried to do things right.

“I’m not sure why he wasn’t more heavily recruited. He had good speed, but not that flat-out speed at the time. But he worked at it and got a lot faster.”

As college signing day came and went in his senior season and without a lot of nibbles – and little to no interest from K-State – Schoen sent a highlight video out to Power 5 schools with engineering programs, thinking he might get some academic money toward a scholarship and then attempt to walk-on.

The video went to Oklahoma State, Arkansas and Minnesota – schools with good engineering football programs – and the interest began to grow. Interestingly, it was Schoen’s high school basketball coach who called the football department at K-State – his dream school – with a warning: “this kid is going to go to Oklahoma State and end up playing against you guys, so if you have an interest…”

K-State offered him a walk-on opportunity, but at most schools that barely equates a foot in the door. It is essentially a longshot opportunity just to have a shot to wedge your foot in said door.

“Even then, once you get an opportunity, the likelihood of you even playing a meaningful role on the team is probably less than 10 percent,” said Kelly Schoen. “I remember telling both Dalton and Mason, ‘If you’re making the decision to go in as a walk-on, you have to be prepared to be the very best teammate you can be, be the very best student you can be, to be the very best in the training room that you can be knowing that you may never ever play a meaningful down.

“And if you can’t commit to that, you should go somewhere where you can play.”

Schoen redshirted in 2015 at K-State, played in his first game a year later and in 2017 made three starts. In 2018 he had his foot in the door and by 2019 he had kicked the thing off its hinges, leading the team in receptions, receiving yards and receiving touchdowns, earning Honorable Mention All-Big 12 honours.

And it was something he learned from legendary Wildcats head coach Bill Snyder – who has a famous ’16 Goals for Success’ – that just further fed his street dog mentality.

“My whole journey, my whole career has been people telling me I couldn’t do something,” Schoen said. “My senior year of high school I go out and set a state record for receiving yards and people are still telling me, ‘You’re not good enough to play D-1.’ You hear that enough and maybe you start believing that, too. And then there’s Goal No. 12 on Coach Snyder’s list – no self-limitations and expect more of yourself. That was always big for me.

“Then I go to K-State as a walk-on and all I hear is ‘It’s cool that you’re on the team, but you’re never actually going to play for real.’ But coach said no self-limitations. I didn’t and wouldn’t put those doubts on myself. His whole point was don’t buy in to what other people are saying and believe that you can do it. That continued to prove out at each stage of my career.”

A scene from his early days at K-State… Zegunis, his high school coach, is waiting on campus with another son who was being recruited by K-State, watching the team get off the bus. Schoen wasn’t on the bus, as walk-ons and redshirts couldn’t travel with the team.

“We did get to see his nameplate on his locker, though,” said Zegunis. “But I think about that moment. He’s on the team, but not getting to be with the team in a time like that. That must have been hard.

“And then later when he started playing and getting behind defenders and running by people and scoring touchdowns, boy, that was like icing on the cake to everything.

“That’s the thing with Dalton, he was always proving that he was a high-character kid. Those kids are coaches’ dreams because you know you can count on them to do things right and when the going gets tough, they’re going to be tough.

“Do me a favour,” added Zegunis. “Next time you see Dalton, tell him ‘Congratulations and that we’re still so very proud of him.’”

Schoen signed with the Los Angeles Chargers as an undrafted free agent in 2020 but was released following camp. He signed a futures contract with his hometown team, the Kansas City Chiefs, a year later and then bounced to Washington’s practice roster.

Cut adrift by the Commanders, he signed with the Blue Bombers in 2022. All the while the street dog mentality mixed with Coach Snyder’s no limitations commandment just further hardened Schoen’s desire.

“When he signed with Winnipeg this spring, he was the seventh receiver on the roster,” said Kelly. “We figured they keep six, with a seventh on the practice roster. By the time their rookie camp starts, there’s over 20 receivers on the roster.”

Undaunted, Schoen dove into learning about the CFL game – about the Waggle, using the space on the field effectively, reading defences – in a scene his dad and mother Kristi had seen before.

“During his rookie year with the Chargers – the COVID year – he was living with us before the season started,” said Kelly. “He had written out all these note cards and would quiz himself on the plays, constantly running through them over and over again.

“He built those processes along the way – this is how you prepare to be at the very best level you can be when you have your opportunity.”

Kenneth Schoen – the patriarch and the inspiration for ‘Street Dawg’ has recently settled into a retirement home not far from the Schoen’s base in Overland Park. And he has become a diehard fan of the Blue Bombers, and especially #83.

“He puts on the Bomber gear, and he tells every single person he sees in there about me,” Dalton said with a grin. “I’m sure they all think they know who I am because he’s always talking about me. Any person he sees while he’s wearing his Bomber hat and shirt, he’s telling them about his grandson. He’s proud of that. It’s special.”

“As a parent,” added Kelly, “it’s special when you get to see your kid play basketball or football in college. But it’s really special for the grandparents, and especially someone like my dad, who’s whole world was right there within 30 miles of that farm.

“When he saw two of his grandkids on the court or on the field at K-State it was unbelievable to him. And now to see Dalton as a professional… it’s hard not to get emotional about it. In the little community I grew up in you hear from people out there who are tuning in to Bombers games. That’s amazing.

“We’ve been to Winnipeg for some games and the first time we walked into the Bomber Store they had everybody else’s jersey up. Six weeks later his jersey is hanging there. I can tell you we snapped a photo of that and sent it out to the family. That’s overwhelming. But I will tell you, all of this won’t change Dalton.”

No, not when you’ve had to fight and scrap for every opportunity. Not when you’ve been told ‘no’ so often. Not when you had to move up 20-plus spots on the depth chart to land a starting gig. As the old saying goes, it’s harder to stay on top than it is to make the climb.

“Maybe it’s once you’ve been the dog on the street and even though someone has taken you in and is giving you a meal, you never completely believe there will be another meal there,” said Kelly. “It’s your instincts that say, ‘I’ve got to keep doing this because if I don’t somebody’s going to come and take my meal away.’ That’s how a street dog lives.”