By Rusty Miller
COLUMBUS: Saturday was a big day for the Booker family.
Dante Booker Jr., a star linebacker at St. Vincent-St. Mary, is headed to Ohio State. The Buckeyes went to Michigan and pulled off a dramatic, 42-41 victory over their rivals to remain unbeaten.
Later that evening, Auburn shocked two-time defending national champion Alabama 34-28 on Chris Davis’ 100-yard-plus return of a missed field goal in the Iron Bowl. Dante Booker Sr. played defensive line for the Tigers.
Asked which outcome was the biggest news in the family, the younger Booker laughed and said, “It was definitely close. They were about equal, I’d say that.”
More good news came on Wednesday.
Dante Booker Jr. was announced as the 27th winner of the Ohio Associated Press Mr. Football award, given annually to the best high school player in the state.
The 6-foot-4, 220-pound senior had 87½ tackles during the regular season, including 18 for minus yardage. He was also a force at tight end while leading St. Vincent-St. Mary to a No. 1 ranking in the AP’s regular-season poll, a perfect season and a spot in tonight’s Division III state championship game at Massillon’s Paul Brown Tiger Stadium. The Fighting Irish (14-0) are going for their second title in a row.
He becomes one of the few players to be honored as Mr. Football who is primarily a defensive player. Most are running backs who go for 2,000 yards or quarterbacks who pass for 40 touchdowns.
Booker’s coach, Dan Boarman, has been around. He coached another Mr. Football — 2005 winner Delone Carter — when he was coaching at Copley.
Yet Boarman has seen things out of Booker he has never seen before.
“His abilities are just amazing: his wingspan, his reach, his vertical,” Boarman said. “He went out for basketball for the first time last year and played on a state finals team. And you know the basketball here is pretty good.”
Oh, yeah. Basketball is “pretty good” at St. Vincent-St. Mary. You might have heard of an alumnus named LeBron James.
James, who was also an All-Ohio football player when he wasn’t winning three AP Mr. Basketball awards, is no stranger to Booker or the rest of the players at his old high school.
“Oh, he stays in touch,” Booker said of James. “We see him around every once in a while, just hanging out.”
Booker is doing his part to help the Fighting Irish become as much of a powerhouse on the gridiron as they have been on the court.
Heading into the championship game against Trotwood-Madison, in 14 games Booker has 122 tackles, 23 tackles for a loss, eight sacks, two interceptions (one for a touchdown), has forced two fumbles and recovered two (one for a touchdown), and has batted down four passes.
When he plays tight end, look out.
“He comes in in our big package,” Boarman said. “What he does is, he just collapses one side of the line.”
There is talk that Booker might end up being a down lineman at Ohio State because he’s still growing. But that’s for a later discussion.
“I think I bring versatility to linebacker,” he said. “Just tracking the ball down, getting where I need to go and getting to the ball. I have good football defensive instincts.”
Off the field or on, he’s a quiet, reserved kid who stays out of trouble, gets average grades, and is a fine example to younger students.
“You couldn’t ask for a better kid. He’s real quiet, low key,” Boarman said. “He doesn’t talk a whole heck of a lot, but when he speaks it does mean something.”
Booker is stumped for a minute when asked to pinpoint a play which would prove he’s deserving of being called the best player in this football-mad state.
“A play? Well, I could maybe go back to when I picked off a ball and returned it 100 yards,” he said, referring to a game earlier this season. “Or the Massillon-game touchdown off a fumble. There’s a few plays. It’s hard to pick one.”
And that’s why he’s Mr. Football.
Booker was selected by a vote of a state panel of media members.
Past winners include Heisman Trophy winner and longtime NFL star Charles Woodson, along with several other current and former NFL players.