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Dan Arnold
Dan Arnold is hungry for bigger things
New Panthers tight end has grown into the job, after wondering if he could make it in the NFL.
By Darin Gantt Mar 23, 2021
Photographs By Brandon Todd

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.

"I definitely was on a different level that week because I was so mad," Arnold said. "At the same time, I was so ready to prove everybody wrong and make an impact."

After such a sudden shift in his professional arc, it's reasonable that it's taken a minute for it to dawn on Arnold the way it unfolded.

Tall, skinny wide receivers from Division III Wisconsin-Platteville don't make it in the NFL. They've had three players drafted to the league (in the 10th, 15th, and 12th rounds of the 1969-71 drafts), and their most famous athletic name was basketball coach Bo Ryan, who led the Pioneers to four D-III national championships before taking the Wisconsin job.

So when the phone started buzzing last Monday on his 26th birthday, the first day of the league's negotiation period, Arnold was at a bit of a loss.

"When you first come into the league as a small-school player, you're fighting every day to prove you belong," he said. "To have that role reversed, and it's like, 'Wow, people actually want me?' It's nice you can relax and see how the process unfolds. At that point, the hay's in the barn, you've done the work."

He said five or six teams called with varying degrees of interest, but the Panthers kept calling, and eventually, he knew this was where he wanted to be. The familiarity with offensive coordinator Joe Brady (who was with him in New Orleans) was a big part of it, but the chance at a defined role was, too.

That doesn't mean Arnold's not still developing, in many ways.

He laughed and said he gets a kick out of old official bios on the internet which list him at 220 pounds, since he hasn't been 220 for a few years.

"I love that because people think I'm smaller than I actually am," he said.

These days, he's somewhere in the 240-to-245-pound range, although the number is a matter of consternation and fluctuation. He's still at that age when a jack-rabbit metabolism makes keeping the pounds on to handle the physical rigors of the job a challenge.

"There are definitely times when I weigh myself in the morning and it's like, 'Oh hey, it's 242,' and then I practice and don't have anything to eat afterward, and I weigh 236, and it's like, 'What the hell?' It's insane. My friends see me eating whatever, and they're like, 'Aren't you supposed to be on a super-strict diet?'

"No. My dietary requirements are to literally to eat everything in front of you. Eat whatever you can."

That makes choosing a new home in Charlotte a strategic decision, to make sure the right stuff is nearby. He gets a light in his eyes when he starts talking about the Sonic Drive-In across the street from the Saints' facility in Metairie, La., which used to be his regular stop the day before weigh-ins (when the Saints' strength coach would always ask: "How light are you today?").

Dan Arnold with Saints

"I used to get a footlong chili cheese coney, and one of the large chili cheese tots, and a hamburger, and sit there and eat it after I left the facility," Arnold said, as if that was an amount of food a normal person would order.

Trying to pile on pounds had a practical application, as the challenges of blocking a guy like Saints defensive end Cameron Jordan who has 60 or 70 pounds on you are real.

"I was always a physical player, and I knew I was capable of making the change, but there was definitely some growing pains for sure," he said, pun not intended but certainly applicable. "And it was very tough at times. Sometimes I have flashbacks and wake up at night with nightmares from training camp my first year as a tight end, like, 'Oh my gosh.' Lining up across from guys like Cam Jordan, and it's like, 'OK, I'm supposed to block this guy? Let's see how this goes.'

"But it was one of those things, it gave me drive, it gave me motivation to be the best player I possibly could and work on the things I needed to work on. I enjoyed it."

Now that he's reached something resembling a stable weight, and a stable point in his career, those nightmares might recede.

That does not, however, means Arnold isn't still trying to get better.

Until he proves he can be a reliable blocker, and until he proves he can be a receiving threat for more than a season at a time, there's still going to be doubt. And for a guy who considered quitting football on a lonely December night in New Orleans in 2019, that's quite a journey.

"Eventually what I want to do, is to develop into a complete tight end, that's able to be on the field when they need to run outside zone," he said. "When they need a guy to get to the edge and be the point of attack. It's a challenge to myself. I'm not satisfied with just being what I am right now by any means.

"The biggest thing is taking baby steps at a time. It's going to get there, I know it is, because I have to. I want to play every snap of the game, that's just the kind of player I want to be. My goal is to be the player you can't take off the field."

View photos of tight end Dan Arnold during his time with Arizona (2019-20) and New Orleans (2017-19).

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