LAWRENCE — Joe Dineen and Keith Loneker have dreaded this day for years.
The Kansas football senior linebackers, Lawrence natives and best friends will play their final game together at 11 a.m. Friday when the Jayhawks (3-8, 1-7 Big 12) host No. 11 Texas (8-3, 6-2) at David Booth Kansas Memorial Stadium. The regular-season finale is the collegiate swan song for the duo, who developed a kinship in youth football before moving on to careers at Free State High School. Twenty-three other seniors on the team’s active roster as well as five former Jayhawks will also be recognized Friday.
Loneker, who followed in the footsteps of his father, former Jayhawk standout offensive lineman Keith Loneker Sr., and inspired teammates with his resolve in the wake of Keith Sr.’s death in June 2017, is expecting the emotional floodgates to open at some point Friday.
“Last one, yeah. It’s kind of bittersweet — not really bittersweet, it kind of sucks,” Loneker admitted. “But yeah, I’m one of the guys that once it happens it really hits me. I’ve definitely thought about it but it’ll really hit me at the end of the game walking off that field for the last time.
"It sucks. I’ve played this game since I was in second grade. It’s going to be a big change.”
For Dineen, the Jayhawks’ all-time leader in tackles-for-loss (44.5) and the nation’s leader in solo tackles per game (8.8), Friday’s contest likely doesn’t represent his final time in pads — the 6-foot-2, 235-pound fifth-year senior is likely to be selected at some point in next spring’s NFL Draft.
Despite his wide-open future and the Jayhawks’ woeful 9-50 record across his five seasons, Dineen appears just as reflective as Loneker about his last appearance in crimson and blue.
“It’s been crazy,” Dineen said. “I just remember coming in here when I was a true freshman in the summer and throwing up all over the place my first workout. I was like, ‘Mom, I don’t know if I can do this for four or five years.’ And then obviously you start to get used to it, you get in a routine. Man, just looking back how far I’ve personally come and how far my friends and teammates have come, it’s pretty cool.”
Other notable seniors set to take a final bow Friday include defensive tackle Daniel Wise, wide receivers Steven Sims and Jeremiah Booker, quarterback Peyton Bender and kicker Gabriel Rui. The game also represents the last for outgoing head coach David Beaty, who was fired Nov. 4 but agreed to see out the remainder of the season.
Dineen acknowledged the dynamics involving Beaty have added to the week’s emotions.
“Us as seniors and obviously underclassmen owe it to him to let him leave here with a good taste in his mouth,” Dineen said. “(We need to) put the best game plan together and just go out and play as hard as we can just for him and for everything he’s done for us.”
If there’s one word Dineen would like associated with this senior class, he said it’s perseverance.
“We’ve obviously been through a lot. Haven’t had as many wins as we would’ve liked. That’ll haunt me,” Dineen said. “But I’ve met some of my best friends here. Just kind of going through it all with these guys has been pretty incredible and I think it’s something not a lot of guys get to go through that will make us lifelong friends and stay in touch wherever we go in life.”
When Friday’s final whistle blows, the transition to the Jayhawks’ incoming head coach Les Miles will be completed. While Dineen hadn’t gotten an opportunity to talk to the former national championship-winning coach as of Tuesday, he said he’s hopeful he will get that chance.
Asked his message to Miles, Dineen emphasized establishing a plan and staying the course.
“I don’t think our program is far away from being a really, really good Big 12 football team,” Dineen said. “I think we’ve got a ton of talent, a ton of younger talent, guys that want to be good. I’d just (tell Miles to) come in, obviously be patient, put your stuff in place, stick to it and don’t change. Get as many people familiar with the way you’re going to do things and stick to that. I think the sky is the limit obviously for some of the talent we have here.”
After Friday, Dineen said he has some “big-boy decisions” to make, which include hiring an agent and selecting a location to train for his pro day and a potential invitation to the NFL Draft combine.
For now, though, all that’s on his mind is Texas, the very program on the receiving end of the greatest moment this senior class authored, a 24-21 overtime victory over the Longhorns on Nov. 19, 2016.
“It’s been a long ride, but looking back now, it’s gone pretty quick,” Dineen said. “It was a great experience and it was a really fun time.”
While unwinding late at night in their shared living room, Dineen and Loneker have chatted at length about Friday's game, and those talks inevitably turned toward what comes next. There, Loneker made sure to remind Dineen of his friend's future on Sundays.
“I said, ‘Man, I can’t wait. Wherever you go I’ll be the first one to get a Dineen jersey.’ ” Loneker said.
When that happens, Loneker won’t have to worry about buying the jersey himself.
“Oh, I’ll spot him. I’ll spot him,” Dineen said with a laugh. “Anyone that wants to get a jersey I’m sure me or my mom will help them out.”