MANHATTAN — It was too good to be true.
That’s one of the thoughts that crossed Dalton Schoen’s mind after the Kansas State receiver caught a pass over the middle and rumbled 70 yards for a touchdown against Central Arkansas last week.
There was no other way to explain what just happened. Not after being overlooked as a football recruit at Blue Valley Northwest. Not after fighting just to make K-State’s roster as a walk-on. Not after toiling behind the scenes with the scout team. He thought he was about to wake up. Any minute now, the dream would fade away.
Doubt lingered throughout the night and continued into the next day. Truth be told, he’s still not convinced his first college start, catch and touchdown all came to fruition Saturday. He’s starting to believe, but it’s hard.
Not even his dreams are that much fun.
“Just to get a spot on the team was a dream come true,” Schoen said. “Then to actually go out there and get to play was even more of a dream come true. It was something I have been working for as long as I can remember. It felt good to come through and actually play on Saturday.
“I don’t even know where to put (the touchdown). It is still all kind of surreal, I guess, because I have been dreaming about this for as long as I can remember. To actually go out there and do it was unbelievable.”
Big plays and memorable games may eventually feel normal to Schoen. Though he arrived in Manhattan with little fanfare, he is now a legitimate playmaker. Few K-State football players have improved more in the past year. Coaches and teammates privately raved about the 6-foot-1, 205-pound sophomore during preseason camp, predicting him to not only play this season but to make an impact.
“The moment he got here, I could tell he was going to be special,” K-State defensive back Brogan Barry said. “Being a walk-on, people might not think he has as much talent as the other guys, but I knew he was going to be great. In (preseason) camp, he took that next step and was kind of dogging our first-team defense.”
What he showed Saturday wasn’t a dream. It was a start.
It takes a lot of work to play college football. It takes just as much work to major in mechanical engineering. Schoen does both.
If you think that sounds like too much for a 20-year old to handle, especially without the help of an athletic scholarship, you don’t know much about Schoen.
He is a born juggler. Schoen didn’t just play football in high school. He played baseball and basketball, too. Not content to focus on one sport per season, he set his alarm for 5 every morning and found time to visit the weight room, the basketball court, the football field and the batting cage on top of his academic schedule.
His father, Kelly, got used to hearing the sound of Schoen hitting baseballs off a tee in the family’s basement late at night -- after he finished his homework, of course. The only grade Schoen made in high school was an A.
He typically stayed up until midnight, getting just enough sleep to work hard the following day.
“He had a routine, and it worked for him,” Kelly Schoen said. “He didn’t want to give up any of those three sports, and he ended up with all-state accolades in all three as a senior, which was very humbling and rewarding for him. It showed him that with diligence and work he could do anything.”
Schoen has great memories from high school. He won two state championships as a shooting guard on the basketball team. He was an all-state centerfielder on the baseball team. And he shattered records on the football field.
His 380 receiving yards (and four touchdowns on 12 catches) against Bishop Miege stands as the most in a Kansas high school game. He also owns the Kansas Shrine Bowl record with 169 receiving yards.
Still, college coaches weren’t sold on him.
It wasn’t until he arrived at K-State and made head-turning plays in practice that the Wildcats realized they may have uncovered a hidden gem.
“Dalton has kind of surprised everybody,” K-State quarterback Jesse Ertz said. “He had a great camp and has come a long ways ... He’s definitely a factor, and you saw it (Saturday). He is a smart player with sure hands and he runs good routes. That is everything you want.”
He could have gone to Harvard. He could have walked on at Oklahoma State. He could have accepted an athletic scholarship at several Division II schools.
In all, Schoen toured 17 campuses before making his college choice.
Kansas State is where he wanted to be.
His parents were Wildcats. His uncles and aunts were Wildcats. His brother, Mason, is a Wildcat and plays basketball for Bruce Weber.
“You could say I grew up here,” Schoen said. “I’ve been a K-State fan my whole life.”
That’s not much of a stretch. Schoen has been attending K-State football games with his family since he was four, and he loved it from the start. While other children were asking for popcorn or sneaking away to play tag on the concourse, he was intently watching from his seat, talking strategy before every third down.
“This really is his dream, and it has been since he was young,” Mason Schoen said. “As far back as I can remember in elementary school, I told people I wanted to play basketball at K-State and he told people he wanted to play football at K-State. It’s kind of crazy how it all worked out.”
It almost didn’t.
K-State barely recruited Schoen. It wasn’t until he sent them video of his 380-yard game as a senior that they recruited him at all. Coaches liked what they saw, but not enough to offer a scholarship. At first, they didn’t even want him as a walk-on.
If not for some roster shakeups that spring, which left K-State looking to add receivers, Schoen would probably be playing football at Oklahoma State right now. His family was reluctantly prepared to wear orange instead of purple on Saturdays.
But K-State receivers coach Andre Coleman eventually called with good news: Schoen was welcome to join the team.
“It took him about two minutes to say yes,” Kelly Schoen said. “He had looked at the Ivy League and some FCS schools, but he decided he would rather try a little higher level at a place with a great engineering school. K-State was always his preferred school.”
As word began to spread that Schoen might be headed toward a big season, his family was none the wiser.
His brother was proud to learn he made K-State’s depth chart as a backup. His father was blown away when he took the field as a starter. His mother and sister and his extended family yelled until their lungs were sore when he scored.
“I probably got 100 texts and e-mails after that,” Kelly Schoen said, “and I am still getting some.”
Every time they asked Schoen about practice, he gave vague responses. After taping K-State coach Bill Snyder’s 16 Goals for Success to his mirror as a teenager, he wasn’t about to divulge team information. Not even when it was good news. Not even to his family.
The secret is out now, though. Charlotte mentioned Schoen on its scouting report of K-State and will know what he is capable of when he lines up against the 49ers on Saturday.
It’s not a dream. It’s his new reality.