From bouncer to NFL: How former West Des Moines Valley star Dominique Dafney got his shot
When the third floor elevator door to the bar 300 Craft and Rooftop in downtown Des Moines opens, a bouncer stands outside to check IDs. Last summer, that bouncer was often a man named Dominique Dafney.
“I was usually busy bartending, but I know all the girls talked about him,” said Laura Cateron, the bar’s assistant manager. “They all had a little crush on him.”
Dafney spent around a month working the bar while he waited and trained for an opportunity to play in the NFL. It eventually came and now, months after working at the bar, Dafney is playing a key role for a Super Bowl contender.
This Saturday, you can watch him play tight end for the Green Bay Packers when they take on the Los Angeles Rams in the divisional round of the NFL Playoffs.
“I’ve obviously been dreaming about playing in the NFL since I was a kid,” Dafney said. “To finally see it come to fruition, it’s great. It’s honestly more motivation for me to keep working and keep on the grind.”
Dafney’s dream of playing in the NFL took a lot of time and patience. The former West Des Moines Valley star was often overlooked — by college recruits and pro scouts. But that’s no longer the case for Dafney, who finds himself right in the middle of the playoff push by the Packers.
A challenging road in college
Dafney was a star receiver for Valley, an Iowa football powerhouse. During his junior season, he caught 33 passes for 445 yards and 10 touchdowns. A year later, he hauled in 58 passes for 898 yards and 12 touchdowns.
The problem was, few college coaches were impressed enough to offer a scholarship. Dafney said he was offered a chance to walk-on at Iowa State. Northern Iowa offered him a partial scholarship. The most attention he could garner was junior college powerhouse Iowa Western and some Division II and III schools.
“We worked really hard trying to get people interested in him,” Valley coach Gary Swenson said. “There was not much action at any level, going clear down into the Division III level. People just didn’t see the flatline speed that they were looking for.”
Dafney was a strong athlete but Swenson said he was missing most of the measurables that big-time college programs look for in wide receivers, such as elite speed and length. Dafney, as a high schooler, was 6-foot-1 and 200 pounds.
Dafney spent one season at Iowa Western but barely contributed. The best opportunity he got was a chance to walk-on at Iowa. Dafney spent two seasons with the Hawkeyes, playing mostly on special teams. The lack of playing time was getting to him. He thought about quitting football and focusing on getting his degree.
His mother, Lonnie, talked him out of it — multiple times.
“It’s his dream so (I said), '"Don't let someone else deter you from your dream,'" Lonnie said.
Dafney transferred to Indiana State and joined the team as a wide receiver. It was there that an opportunity finally opened up. It happened when quarterback Ryan Boyle, a former Dowling star, went down with a season-ending injury. The Sycamores staff got creative with its play-calling and used Dafney, by then a well-built 235 pounds, as a ball-carrier in a wildcat offense. He shined and finished the season ranked second on the team with 439 yards rushing and six touchdowns. Dafney also grabbed 15 passes for 196 yards.
It was a gratifying end to his college career.
"We thought that was awesome," Swenson said. "We kind of figured, 'OK, that was at least a good way for him to end his football career — he got on the field and got to play.'"
But Dafney wasn't done.
From bouncing to the pros in a day
When he finished up with school, Dafney moved back to his parents' house in West Des Moines. He held out hope that his strong showing his senior season would attract the attention of NFL teams who might be able to utilize his diverse skillset.
But no one came calling.
So while he waited for a shot from NFL teams, he ate and trained. He did that for about a week. But the days started to drag.
"That was kind of driving me crazy," Dafney said. "It was honestly just getting me a little depressed to be honest because there was nothing going for me."
Lonnie recommended he get a job. So one of Dafney's buddies got him a job at 300, a bar with an outdoor patio, working security. Dafney, who started on the Fourth of July weekend, worked Thursday through Sunday until bar close. He checked IDs, cleaned up tables, picked up glasses and made sure customers stayed out of trouble.
"I didn't really have that much trouble," Dafney said. "It was an older crowd and just a really relaxed vibe. The people I worked with were all goofy people who just liked to enjoy life. It was a pretty fun time."
Cateron said she and her employees quickly bonded with Dafney. They learned he was into bodybuilding. What they didn't know was why. Dafney was still trying to catch the attention of teams. When he wasn't working at the bar, he was training and trying to get the attention of NFL teams.
Dafney made a Pro Day video that showed him lifting weights, running and doing drills. Lonnie, along with some relatives, helped him record it before it got sent out to NFL teams. They made more videos during the summer to update teams on his progress. Dafney would lift with some friends in Grimes and catch passes from former Valley quarterback Peyton Long, a pitcher in the minors for the Milwaukee Brewers.
"He was putting up weight that we hadn't seen people put up and then we'd go throw to him and he'd be making catches and running routes and we're just like, 'Why is no one taking a chance on him because he's ready,'" Long said.
Dafney said he spent about a month working at the bar. Then, one night in August, he said, he got a call from the Indianapolis Colts. They wanted to bring him in the next day. Dafney, who was supposed to work at the bar that night, called his bosses and told them he couldn't come in.
"I told them it probably wouldn't be smart for me to come work tonight and I'd probably like to avoid any craziness or anything," Dafney said with a chuckle.
Dafney was told the job was always there if he needed it.
But a new opportunity awaited him.
Dafney breaks through to the NFL
Dafney, 23, was among the last cuts made by the Colts during training camp. The New England Patriots brought him in for a workout later in the summer but didn't offer him a contract. Then in October, he worked out for the Packers. A week later, they signed him to their practice squad.
"My motto, my mindset, was just to come in and do whatever you're asked to do," said Dafney, now 6-2 and 243 pounds.
So that's what he did. He worked out on special teams and played tight end. Dafney was so impressive in practice that he was moved to the team's active roster in October. During Green Bay's win over the Tennessee Titans in Week 16, he tallied his first career reception, a 13-yard catch from Aaron Rodgers. The following week, he reached the end zone with a 13-yard touchdown catch against the Chicago Bears.
"As a parent and obviously one of his biggest cheerleaders, just knowing the adversity and the struggles that he's had since high school, to see it all come to fruition is absolutely amazing," Lonnie said.
Now Dafney finds himself in the middle of Green Bay's playoff push along with Urbandale native Allen Lazard, a reliable receiver for Rodgers and the Packers.
"I've been overlooked, you could say," Dafney said. "But all that is just motivation for me to just keep working and keep proving people wrong and just keep fighting for more."
Tommy Birch, the Des Moines Register's sports enterprise and features reporter, has been working at the newspaper since 2008. He's the 2018 and 2020 Iowa Sportswriter of the Year. Reach him at email@example.com or 515-284-8468. Follow him on Twitter @TommyBirch.