The quiet and shy kid of a couple of years ago is more chatty and outgoing these days as he roams the football field wearing No. 47 for St. Vincent-St. Mary.
Dante Booker Jr. has always been nice and pleasant, but St. V-M coach Dan Boarman is noticing a mature and more comfortable 18-year-old player who is a vital linebacker in a Fighting Irish defense full of speed and strength.
“The thing that I have wanted [Booker] to do is to become not just a player, but also a leader,” St. V-M defensive coordinator Marcus Wattley said. “He has earned captain the past two years. I think a lot of people respect the way he carries himself. He is not a very vocal person. He cares about his team and he cares about everybody in a way where he doesn’t put himself in front of other people.”
Booker displayed his skills quickly at St. V-M as an underclassman and attracted college scouts from all over the country.
Now, as a senior he is two wins away from helping St. V-M win a second consecutive Division III state championship and is looking forward to a bright future at Ohio State University on a football scholarship.
Booker’s talent has gotten him selected for the U.S. Army All-American Bowl on Jan. 4 in the Alamodome in San Antonio, Texas, and it has earned him the title of 2013 Akron Beacon Journal Football Player of the Year. The Akron Beacon Journal high school sports staff that has covered nearly 50 games this season selected Booker and the 25-man all-star team.
“This senior season has been a real good season,” Booker said. “I feel like we have a real chance to top it off and it end it right with a second state championship. It has been a truly changing experience to spend this season with all of my brothers.
“I have built a really good relationship with these guys. Our whole team has been solid, and in particular the seniors. Parris Campbell Jr. is awesome, and my defensive teammates Newman Williams, the Adkins brothers [Aaron and Tony], Travonte Junius, Dr’ek Brumley and Vince Lockett have been great to play with.”
Booker accepted the player of the year honor but added that his friend Campbell is a worthy candidate.
“I know it was a hard decision for all of the guys to make with the player of the year thing, but I think Parris is equally deserving for this honor,” Booker said. “All these awards that I get, I think he should know that he is just as good. I am really looking forward to finishing this season right with Parris and all of my teammates.”
Boarman and Wattley smile when they talk about Booker’s unselfishness and growth.
“A lot of kids with the recognition and accolades that Dante has are often big-headed. Dante is one of the more humble kids you will find,” Wattley said. “He takes everything well and doesn’t brag about anything. He just smiles and says ‘That’s cool’ and goes on about his business.”
Booker, who is 6-foot-3 and 220 pounds, has earned first-team All-Ohio and first-team All-Northeast Ohio Inland District honors as a junior and senior. He held scholarship offers from more than a dozen Division I colleges, including Notre Dame, Michigan, Nebraska, Penn State, Illinois and Indiana before selecting to play at Ohio State with Campbell.
“I never envisioned my high school time to be this great,” Booker said. “The past four years have been a truly moving experience for me. Going out there and having practices, like we had [the other day] where snow is falling and we end up having a snowball fight. That shows the bond that everybody has developed. We have a special team here.”
Through 13 games this season, Booker has 113.5 tackles (22 for loss), 6.5 sacks, three touchdowns, two interceptions, two forced fumbles and two fumble recoveries. Booker made 90 tackles as a junior and had seven sacks, 14 tackles for loss, two interceptions, four forced fumbles and three fumble recoveries during a season limited due to injuries. He had 157 tackles, 11 sacks and three fumble recoveries as a sophomore.
“Dante works hard and puts it out on the line, 100 percent, all the time,” said Campbell, 16. “He is not a slacker at all. I am pretty sure that coaches definitely notice that. He is an amazing athlete and he can do things that some guys can’t. That is what puts him at the top. He is an amazing football player. Everyone knows that. If he keeps working hard, he will definitely be one of the names to remember down the road.”
Booker can trace a lot of his athletic ability to his parents. His father, Dante, played football at Ellet and Auburn, and played professionally in the Canadian Football League. His mother, Nicole Hartman, played basketball at Ellet.
“The thing with Dante that makes him so successful is his desire to get better and his work ethic to make himself better,” Wattley said. “Four years ago we moved him up [to the varsity team]. He was a kid with potential who fit a need that we had. He had some growing pains, but we knew the talent was there and down the road it would pay off.”
Wattley said Booker is on pace to graduate from St. V-M as its all-time leader in tackles.
“He is a kid who put his work in and his time in,” Wattley said. “Coaching him the past four years has been one of the better challenges of my career because a kid with that much potential, you want to see that he gets somewhere close to reaching that potential. I can only push him so far. I always tell him ‘I can only push you so far, greatness is something you have to go for.’ And he goes after it.
“I know he is enjoying this last ride. Getting in more time on offense, laughing and smiling more and just enjoying the whole senior year thing.”
Michael Beaven can be reached at 330-996-3829 or firstname.lastname@example.org. Read the high school blog at http://www.ohio.com/preps. Follow him on Twitter at http://twitter.com/MBeavenABJ and on Facebook at http://www.facebook.com/sports.abj.