When you make a career out of protecting people, recognition from others is replaced by pride in their accomplishments.
“As an offensive lineman, you don’t get a lot of attention. You learn to enjoy attention through others,” says Dan Loney, a former Cal Poly star and current center of the Arena Football League’s San Jose Sabercats.
Anonymity is valued over acknowledgment as a byproduct of the fact that the only time the media or average fan recognizes a blocker’s handiwork is when the quarterback is on the ground or a yellow flag is in the air.
But even Loney, a seven-year Sabercats veteran who attended Atascadero High School, is occasionally recognized on the streets of the Bay Area and around the Central Coast.
“The ESPN coverage the last two years has helped a lot,” Loney says.
Loney, one of about a dozen former Mustangs currently playing professional football, was an all-state selection and San Luis Obispo County Player of the Year at Atascadero when he was recruited by current Cal Poly defensive line coach Bill Tripp.
“He was a really good player, a really strong guy that had chances to go to bigger schools but wanted to stay close to home,” Tripp says.
At Cal Poly, Loney fulfilled his potential by becoming a three-year starter, including for the 1997 team that went 10-1 and had two running backs each rush for more than 1,000 yards.
When he received no professional offers following his senior year in 2000, he became a graduate assistant at Cal Poly and planned on entering a career of teaching and coaching.
His opportunity to continue playing football in the AFL came about by chance.
Tripp, who was an assistant head coach from 1989-98 before rejoining the staff in 2005, had joined the Sabercats coaching staff in 2001 and convinced the team to give Loney a tryout.
The Sabercats were impressed with his combination of strength and quickness, and signed him to the practice squad for the 2001 season. The next year, Loney was the backup center and moved into the starting lineup in 2005.
“He’s powerful, but Danny moves really well,” Tripp says. “Before the rule change in ’05 that made linemen going both ways obsolete, he was a pretty good defensive player, too. He was strong on both sides of the ball.”
During his time in San Jose, the Sabercats have won three ArenaBowl titles, and he’s played in the third-most games of any lineman in team history.
A memory he says stands out from his time in the league is last year’s ArenaBowl, a 55-33 victory over the Columbus Destroyers. The game was held in New Orleans, and was the first major sporting event to use the city as a venue after Hurricane Katrina.
He remembers being skeptical at first, but recalls how warmly the city welcomed the teams and how great the atmosphere was.
“Officials took us around and showed us the really hard-hit areas,” Loney says. “A lot of the guys were able to help out.”
Perhaps fittingly, Loney is quick to downplay his own contributions, rather playing up the charity of his teammates, some of whom traveled to local youth hospitals.
On the field, his biggest impact comes in protecting star quarterback Mark Grieb, but in limited defensive action, Loney has career totals of 24 tackles, two sacks, two forced fumbles and two fumble recoveries for touchdowns.
“I’ve never been too much of a vocal leader,” Loney says. “I try to lead by example. Just going out there and locking my guy down for the whole game, not letting him touch Mark. I just want to be known as a consistent player.”
Last week, Loney was inactive for a win over the Colorado Crush clinching San Jose’s ninth consecutive playoff bid. It marked the first time in 48 regular-season games that Loney was not in the starting lineup.
Tripp describes Loney as one of those “steady-eddie types,” adding, “Dan’s demeanor doesn’t change, but he is a fierce competitor – you can see it in his eyes.”
Loney describes the AFL as football with “tweaks” making the game faster and massive momentum swings commonplace.
“With the nets and speed of the game, the ball can take weird bounces and things can change like that,” he says. “No lead is safe.”
Both Loney and Tripp agree that the biggest misconception about the AFL is its skill level, citing the fact that most of the players had multiple years of NFL experience but were casualties of the cost to keep veteran players versus signing younger, less experienced ones.
The idea of leaving the game is one Loney is not looking forward to, but preparing for. In the offseason, he works as a substitute teacher and coach in Atascadero, and wants to continue in that capacity after his playing days are done.
“I love coaching, trying to give back some knowledge that I might have from the great coaches who have taught me,” Loney says. “I think I’m really going to miss the game when I’m done playing, so that’s one of the ways I can stick around it.”
For now, though, Loney is fully focused on the Sabercats’ upcoming playoff run, which commences after the league’s regular season concludes June 22.
“In San Jose, it’s almost a lost season if we don’t go all the way,” he says.
The Sabercats visit the Los Angeles Avengers at 7:30 p.m. Saturday.