Journey to NFL was always on track for Vikings WR Dan Chisena

Penn State wide receiver Dan Chisena reacts following a special-teams tackle during the third quarter against the Michigan Wolverines.

One glance at the Minnesota Vikings’ press release for their class of 2020 undrafted free-agent signees and you’ll find your typical UDFA characters — a tackling machine linebacker from a small school, a Division II lineman and a fullback.

And then there’s Dan Chisena.

A 6-foot-3 receiver from Penn State, Chisena’s collegiate numbers jump off the page. But not in the way you’d think.

He played in 14 career games with the Nittany Lions and compiled a total of just three catches for 66 yards — paltry numbers for an NFL-hopeful receiver. But here he is, in Minnesota, with a chance to make an NFL roster.

His journey to the league wasn’t conventional. But it was always on track.

Literally.

***

For Chisena, playing football at Penn State was always the ultimate goal. He grew up in Downingtown, Pa., about a three-hour drive away from Beaver Stadium, and always rooted for the Nittany Lions. His great-grandfather, grandparents and cousin all went to school there.

“It was the only place I ever really wanted to go,” Chisena said.

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Entering high school at Downingtown East with a small frame of 5-6, suiting up for the Blue and White might have seemed like a long shot for most. However, Chisena grew and worked his way up to varsity by his sophomore year. He caught passes from quarterback Kyle Lauletta, who went on to star at Richmond, was selected in the fourth round of the 2018 draft by the New York Giants and is now a backup signal-caller with the Philadelphia Eagles. As a junior, Chisena helped the team win the Ches-Mont Conference, one of the most dominant leagues in Pennsylvania District 1 football.

“We knew right away he was a tough competitor and really good,” Downingtown East head coach Michael Matta said. “When he got older and more mature, he started to stretch out and get taller and faster. He became a real weapon for us.”

Chisena’s athletic career took a turn after his sophomore season. He decided to sign up for track and field in the spring, something he hadn’t participated in since middle school. The purpose? To get faster for football.

“It turned out a lot better than I ever expected,” Chisena said.

He found a home as a sprinter, growing to love the 100- and 200-meter races. Chisena’s improved speed on the track eventually translated to the gridiron.

Chisena wrapped up his prep football career by hauling in 41 receptions for 553 yards and three scores as a senior — enough to receive all-conference, all-district and all-region honors.

The statistics and hardware were rolling in. The scholarship offers were not.

As the calendar flipped to the final semester of his senior year, Chisena had one offer — from FCS Delaware, where his father, Dave, played football in the early 1980s. Chisena ultimately turned it down.

“I entertained any opportunity that I could, but deep down I always knew I wanted to go to Penn State, whether that was as a walk-on or not,” Chisena said.

In January of 2015, Penn State gave Chisena what he wanted most — an opportunity. It was a spot on the team as a preferred walk-on, not on scholarship, but the receiver’s dream was one step closer to being realized.

“He was not as highly recruited as I thought he’d be,” Matta said. “A lot of people didn’t know how fast he was. Once they realized how fast he was, he already decided he wanted to go to Penn State.”

That moment would come during the 2015 Pennsylvania state championship meet.

In just his second season of prep track, Chisena sprinted his way to the state finals in the 100- and 200-meter dashes, as well as the 4×100-relay. He won all three events.

Chisena’s time of 10.52 seconds in the 100-meter dash was the third-best mark clocked at the state meet since 1980. That caught the attention of Penn State track coaches, who were in attendance and approached Chisena. Quickly learning of his plans to walk on and play football for head coach James Franklin, they nevertheless told the speedster there’d be a place for him on the Penn State track team.

So, Chisena entered his freshman year at Penn State in 2015 with plans to play football in the fall and run track in the winter and spring.

Like most walk-ons, he redshirted for the football team while getting baptized into the world of college football. This wasn’t high school anymore.

“I was a late bloomer,” Chisena said. “You come in as an 18-year-old and you’re going up against all of these older guys that are physically developed more than you. The biggest challenge was trying to get bigger in the weight room. Being a part of a big-time football program, you’re going to learn more about the game, develop your football IQ and watch more film.”

When Penn State’s 2015 football campaign ended with a 24-17 loss to Georgia in the TaxSlayer Gator Bowl, Chisena swapped out his cleats for track spikes.

The freshman made his collegiate track debut by competing in the 60- and 200-meter events at the indoor track on campus in February. It didn’t take long after that for the track team to realize Chisena’s potential and offer him a scholarship.

The problem? The NCAA doesn’t allow student-athletes to play football while on scholarship with a different sport — although it is allowed to be on a football scholarship and compete in other sports. Chisena would have to either pass on the scholarship and continue both sports or accept the offer and step away from Penn State football, the team and game he loved most.

“That was a really tough decision for me,” he said. “Playing football at Penn State was my dream growing up, my goal. I was living that and really enjoying it. It ultimately came down to a couple things for me. First and foremost, having the opportunity to help out my family financially. And also, I thought I could either be average at two sports or excel in one. At the time, I felt like track was the right route for me.”

Chisena turned in his playbook and continued his track career with the Nittany Lions. He rapidly found his niche as a 400-meter runner. In 2017, Chisena shattered the Penn State record books as part of two record-setting relays, running the second leg of the 4×100-meter race and leading off the 4×400-meter relay that set new program bests.

“It’s awesome, especially being at a school like Penn State where the program’s been around forever and some of those records have stood for a long time,” Chisena said. “To be a part of that was really special.”

In the spring of 2017, the Nittany Lions men’s track & field program clinched its first ever Big Ten outdoor championship, edging Ohio State by 14 points. Chisena, who called it “the highlight of my track career,” carried Penn State to the finish line by placing third in the open 400-meter race and finishing second in the 4×400-meter relay.

Even with all of the records and medals and Big Ten titles on the circuit, Chisena missed football. He missed it badly. While Chisena cheered from the stands, the Nittany Lions went 11-3 during his sophomore year and made a Rose Bowl appearance for the first time since 2008. In 2017, Penn State rode the coattails of Saquon Barkley’s near-2,000 total yard season en route to a second consecutive 11-win season.

“It was cool to watch and see the other side of it, but personally it made me miss it even more,” Chisena said.

Entering his junior year at Penn State, Chisena knew he wanted to play football again. His plan was to run track on scholarship as a junior and senior, then transfer to a different school for a fifth year where he could play football right away to get one more season in.

Plans quickly changed in March 2018. At the first meet of the outdoor track season, Chisena badly injured his hamstring while running the second leg of the 4×400-meter relay. He wouldn’t need surgery, but it was significant enough to sideline him for the rest of the spring season.

“It was tough, but that was ultimately what made me sit down and think about what I wanted the next year and a half of eligibility to look like,” Chisena said. “After a lot of thought and prayer, I felt in my heart that I didn’t want to transfer if I didn’t have to. I loved Penn State. All my friends were there. I didn’t want to have to go to a different school.”

After much contemplation, Chisena found the phone number of Franklin’s secretary that he still had from his time with the program. He set up a meeting with the head coach. Chisena sat down one-on-one with Franklin to ask for his spot back as a walk-on, an opportunity he abandoned three years earlier.

“I didn’t know what to expect walking in but, to my surprise, he was very positive and upbeat when he first saw me,” Chisena said, “That was really cool. That set the tone for the whole meeting. He didn’t have to do that, but he was gracious enough to hear me out.”

Chisena aired out all of his thoughts at the time — how much he missed football and how he wanted to play for Penn State, if it was possible, and nowhere else. Of course, it wasn’t that simple. Playing football would mean forfeiting the final season of his track scholarship. And it’s not like he would be guaranteed a single minute of playing time. Penn State finished the previous two seasons in the top 10 of the AP rankings. Chisena would be going back to the scout team.

And that’s exactly what he did. After speaking with Franklin, and later the special teams and wide receivers coaches, it was agreed that Chisena could return to the gridiron.

Considered a redshirt junior in 2018, Chisena embraced his role as one of the elder statesmen on the scout team. For someone who ran circles around a track instead of routes for the past three years, it was a big adjustment to get his body back to football shape. He loved the challenge, though, and got to line up against Penn State’s starting defense every day at practice.

“I took a lot of pride in it,” Chisena said. “For me, it was an opportunity to help our team and have a role — to prepare the starters and try to give them a better look than what they’d see on game days. That was the mindset they wanted every scout team guy to have.”

Chisena quickly gained the attention of coaches for his performance and work ethic at practice. He was named the scout team special teams player of the week in early September, and won it again — along with scout team offensive player of the week — three weeks later.

On Sept. 29, 2018, Chisena’s childhood dream became a reality. No. 9 Penn State was hosting fourth-ranked Ohio State for a Big Ten clash at Beaver Stadium. With his parents watching in the stands, Chisena played three snaps on special teams. The game wasn’t a blowout, either. Ohio State beat the Nittany Lions 27-26 on a late touchdown pass from Dwayne Haskins to K.J. Hill.

“That was insane,” Chisena said. “It means the world. In the moment, you’re not on the field taking it all in. You’ve got a job to do. But once you get off the field and can reflect on that, that’s cool. I was out there on the field and got to help my team.”

Chisena appeared in one more game that season, playing one special-teams snap against Maryland. He collected an additional two weekly scout team honors before the 2018 season concluded.

In the offseason, the Downingtown, Pa., product began to slowly climb up the depth chart. He earned a starting spot on special teams and showed enough to be included in the rotation at wide receiver. His college career would take another twist, however, in the spring game.

Late in the third quarter of the annual Blue vs. White spring football game at Beaver Stadium, Chisena broke free from single coverage on a go route. He hauled in a long pass down the sideline and strutted into the end zone for a 60-yard score. What really mattered, though, is what came next.

As Chisena was jogging back to the sidelines, Franklin took the microphone and announced to the entire stadium, “With that touchdown catch, Dan Chisena, you’re on full scholarship!”

Chisena threw his head back in surprise and was mobbed by his Penn State teammates. The kid who ditched a full track scholarship in pursuit of his football dreams was now back on scholarship.

“I was totally in shock; I never expected that,” Chisena recalled. “That was special to see how happy all the other guys were for me. It wasn’t just me in that moment. It was everyone celebrating that experience with me. I’m super thankful for all the guys in that locker room and for the coaches for believing in me that I’d earned that.”

The following fall, Chisena made his debut on offense at wide receiver. He hauled in his first collegiate reception — a 40-yard connection — during Penn State’s conference opener against Maryland. He added another six-yard reception vs. Purdue and caught a 20-yard pass against Minnesota at TCF Bank Stadium.

Chisena made the biggest impact, though, while playing on four units of special teams — kickoff, kickoff return, punt and punt return. He excelled as the gunner on the punt team, using his speed to fly down the sidelines and disrupt returns. Chisena was credited with four tackles on the year. Perhaps his biggest moment of the season was recovering a muffed punt in the third quarter of the Nittany Lions’ 28-7 win over Michigan State.

“If you had told me when I was running track that in a couple years I’d be a regular starter and getting in the rotation for Penn State, I would’ve told you that you’re crazy,” Chisena said.

At the end of the season, Chisena was named Penn State’s special teams MVP.

“For so many walk-ons, special teams is your way onto the field and is your first step in showing the coaches that they can trust you with a bigger role — whether that’s offense or defense,” Chisena said. “I took a lot of pride in that role and loved those units and loved the mindset.”

After his Penn State football career concluded, Chisena knew he wanted to give professional football a shot. He was invited to the Tropical Bowl in Deland, Fla., a game for seniors to showcase their skills in front of NFL scouts. Chisena turned on the burners. He finished the game with five receptions for 155 yards and two touchdowns and was named the Tropical Bowl MVP, putting himself on the radar of NFL teams.

Unfortunately for Chisena, the Pro Day at Penn State was canceled due to the coronavirus. He wasn’t able to run an official 40-yard dash. For a receiver with limited collegiate playing time who boasts speed as his main asset, it was tough to swallow — but out of his control.

The Sports Science department at Penn State stepped up. It captured data from players via GPS trackers that could measure max velocities, among other things, on the field during games. Chisena and his agent sent that data to NFL teams, and he started getting interest.

Chisena had several productive pre-draft talks with coaches from the Vikings, specifically receivers coach Andrew Janocko and special-teams coordinator Marwan Maalouf. When the draft came and went and the Vikings called with a reported offer of $60,000 in guaranteed money, Chisena signed as an undrafted free agent.

Once again, Chisena finds himself fighting for an opportunity and playing time as an underdog, an undrafted receiver — the professional version of a walk-on recruit. But there’s no better spot to prove you belong in the NFL than his favorite phase of the game.

“Initially, I’m trying to show I can make an impact on special teams,” Chisena said. “I didn’t have crazy numbers in college. I had one season of game time and even with that, it wasn’t the best numbers, especially compared to some of the guys they brought in. But I believe I can have an impact. That’s the conversations I’ve heard from (Vikings coaches) — try to compete and earn a spot on special teams and continue to develop as a wide receiver.”

The good news for Chisena is the Vikings seem to like an underdog story at the receiver position. Adam Thielen, of course, played Division II football, went undrafted and stuck around by performing on special teams. Olabisi Johnson, a seventh-round pick, earned significant playing time in 2019.

As for the three catches for 66 yards? Chisena has no doubt in his mind that the athletic roller coaster he rode through college at Penn State was the correct route to get where he is today.

“I still think that taking that time to go run track was the right decision, even though I was away from football for a couple years and lost some valuable time,” he said. “At the time, it’s what I thought was best for my family and for myself in terms of developing as an athlete and trying to succeed and not trying to juggle too many things.”

There’s a reason the Vikings gave Chisena $60,000 in guaranteed money — the third-most among their 12-player undrafted free agent class of 2020. His speed and work ethic speak for themselves.

Three catches for 66 yards?

Sometimes, a story is more complex than a box score.