Glen Mason coached football for 35 years, and he never has had anyone quite like Keith Loneker Sr.
“He is the most powerful offensive lineman that I ever coached,” the former Kansas coach said in a phone interview Thursday.
Loneker, who played tackle for the KU football team from 1989-92 before establishing careers in the NFL and with film, died Thursday morning at age 46. His son, Keith Jr., posted on his Instagram page in December that his father had been diagnosed with cancer the previous month.
Mason credits Loneker as one reason for the Jayhawks’ turnaround in the early 1990s. The team’s most glaring deficiency was a lack of Big Eight-caliber offensive linemen, and that began to change the day assistant coach Reggie Mitchell told Mason his New Jersey nephew was a good football player.
KU’s coach didn’t understand. He only had one sister, and he knew that he didn’t have a nephew by the name of Keith Loneker.
Still, the kid’s film was impressive, and later, the mystery was solved: Loneker was Mason’s sister’s husband’s cousin’s son.
“Close enough,” Mason told Mitchell before the team offered a scholarship.
Loneker, who later earned all-Big Eight honors in his final season, proved his strength in winter workouts.
Mason remembers one drill where the team would put two players in a harness, tie a rope to it and have each person pull in the opposite direction. Loneker, on one particular day, was placed against defensive lineman Dana Stubblefield — a future first-round pick with the San Francisco 49ers.
After a whistle, Stubblefield nearly pulled Loneker over the end line before the offensive lineman laughed out loud. A few seconds later, Loneker overpowered Stubblefield the other way to win the one-on-one showdown.
“I remember Stubblefield saying, ‘I almost had him,’” Mason said with a laugh. “But everybody watching knew. It wasn’t even close. (Keith) was just playing with him.”
Loneker was a starter for the 1992 team that finished 8-4 and won the Aloha Bowl, a significant step for the program in an era with fewer postseason games. Former KU assistant athletic director and sports information director Doug Vance remembers the lineman as a “big-time player.”
“He brought a personality, kind of a persona on the field and off the field that was pretty significant,” Vance said.
Chip Budde, who hosted Loneker on his campus visit and played with him on the offensive line for two seasons, said the New Jersey native was “as much a part of Lawrence as anybody who has ever lived here.”
“I’ve been talking back and forth all day with guys, teammates of Keith and I and everybody is just … everybody is heartbroken,” Budde said. “He got about as much out of life in 46 years as anybody could hope to.”
The 6-foot-4 Loneker spent three seasons in the NFL after going undrafted, playing 19 games with the Los Angeles/St. Louis Rams from 1993-95 with five starts. He later received notoriety for his acting, which included roles in “Out of Sight,” “Superbad” and “Leatherheads.”
“He was really serious about doing this as his second career,” said Jon Niccum, a screenwriter who worked alongside Loneker on multiple films and also is a freelance writer for The Star. “He’s captivating. He’s just got a real good mix of charisma and work ethic.”
Niccum found only one problem when trying to talk to Keith Sr.: The two almost always were interrupted.
On one occasion, when the two were discussing an upcoming film — one written to put Loneker in the lead role — each conversation in Lawrence was cut short when an acquaintance came by to say hello.
“Keith knew everybody,” Niccum said. “It was unbelievable.”
Niccum, a writer for the movie, was inspired by Loneker’s aura. So, at the 9:48 mark of the 2012 flick “Rhino,” Loneker’s character Donny is stopped three times while talking to a friend as he walks down Massachusetts Street in Lawrence.
In those 60 seconds, Loneker truly is playing himself.
“It’s a sad day,” Niccum said. “He brought a lot to the Lawrence community and was just a generally good guy.”
Keith Jr., who is a junior linebacker on the KU football team, tweeted about his father’s death on Thursday, including the message: “Rest In Peace to my hero, warrior and idol.” Keith Sr. also is survived by his daughter, Kylee.
Mason said he had been inundated with text messages about Loneker’s health the past few days, which only proved a point he knew to be true.
“He was just one of those guys,” he said, “I really believe everybody on the team truly loved.”