CHARLOTTE — Three years of work. Three years of working out, building his body, cramming every calorie within reach into it. Three years of trying to prove people wrong, and Dan Arnold was left wondering if he was the one mistaken about his path.
So as he sat alone in his New Orleans apartment that night, hours after his latest pink slip from the Saints, he wondered if his football dream had ended.
But then something strange happened. The converted wide receiver from Division III Wisconsin-Platteville was summoned to Arizona, and showed up a changed man, and the events of that week helped set him on the path to a new home.
"When I got released by the Saints, I was heartbroken," Arnold admitted. "I just spent the last three years of my life here, this is where I grew up in the football world, so I was just sitting in my apartment in New Orleans before I left, and I was like, 'I don't know if this is something I want to continue doing,' because it's so stressful on my family, and myself, and I was like, 'This sucks.'"
Finding himself at his professional low point, Arnold was faced with a decision. He could stay there on the bottom, or he could push off and start swimming up.
"Eventually, I was like, 'I can't think like that, that mentality isn't going to get me anywhere, so we're going make the best of it,'" he said of the decision to go ahead to Arizona after being claimed off waivers. "And I had three of the best practices of my life when I got there. I just went off. They saw it, and I knew it was something I was capable of. And it pushed me to show all the other teams what I was capable."
The Panthers were certainly convinced, giving Arnold a two-year, $6 million contract to add a pass-catching element they've been missing at the tight end position.
But without that week in Arizona sparked by his pain, there's a chance none of it happened.
There was no real reason to expect him to suddenly blossom in the desert. He spent his rookie year with the Saints on injured reserve, and then worked to find his footing after converting to tight end. He had 12 catches for 150 yards and a touchdown in 2018, and he thought he was on the way to, well, something. But in 2019, he was released in final cuts, made it back to the practice squad, was promoted in October, and cut again in December.
With a few weeks left in the season, the Cardinals were in "what-the-heck" mode, claiming a guy with some flashes of potential. The guy they met on the practice field that week was different. The 6-foot-6 Arnold was out there leaping above starting defensive backs for deep balls, using his reach to go over the top of them.
"He was on the scout team and going up and just 'Mossing' people, and everybody's kind of 'oohing' and 'aahing,' and we didn't even know his name," Cardinals coach Kliff Kingsbury said, via Darren Urban of the Cardinals' official website.
That earned Arnold some notice, and some playing time. After catching a couple of passes in his late-season cameo, he made a huge leap last season, with 31 catches for 438 yards (14.1 yards per catch), and four touchdowns.