The subject was “game-changing” situations.
Ohio State football coach Urban Meyer said that’s what sophomore linebacker Dante Booker Jr. had last Saturday night when he took over for injured star Joshua Perry and played well against Penn State.
“That’s a game-changer,” said Meyer. “That’s a career-changing experience.”
As for Dante Booker Sr., the OSU defender’s 38-year-old dad, a former Auburn University and Canadian Football League defensive tackle and now an Akron firefighter, he thought for a moment and then admitted: “I’ve had plenty of game-changers in my life.”
He could have focused on several moments:
• Like the time when, as a 12-year-old living in poverty in a single-parent home in Akron, he had the misguided plan to steal a lawnmower out of a neighbor’s garage only to have the old man confront him with a gun and leave him begging: “Please … please mister … don’t shoot me!”
• Or how, when he was an eighth-grader, he had the grandfather of an AAU teammate befriend him in the most novel way, using an unexpected athletic feat to win him over and then introduce him to another man who would mentor him for the rest of his life.
• And he could have mentioned some other back-slip moments in the roller-coaster ride he had early in life, or how he overcame a devastating knee injury once he finally found his way to junior college in Kansas, or even how he finally made it to the pros.
• But what stood out most to Dante Sr. when we spoke Thursday was the day Dante Jr. was born.
“I was just 17 when he was born,” Dante Sr. said. “I was still a boy myself. And his mother was just 16 or 17. The odds were so against us then. We were both kids and we were very immature in our dealings with each other.
“I look at some of the things I wrote in his baby book back then and I’ve got to laugh. I say, ‘Oh my gosh, the mindset I was in. I was just a boy without a clue.’ ”
“But after a while — with the help of some people who really cared — I knew I had to look to the future: What was the legacy I was going to leave my boy? I had to figure that out.
“That was my real game-changer.
“When you’re by yourself, you can keep going on like you are. You can feed yourself, even if it’s just red beans and rice for the rest of your life. But a little boy who bears your name, he needs you to show him things.
“I grew up without a father, so I knew what I had to be, even if I was living under a different roof than my son.”
He praised the job Dante Jr’s mom, Nicole Hartman, did raising their son when he went off to play college and pro football and since then. Although the two never wed — and now he has a wife and three young children — he said he’s tried to remain a positive and nearby touchstone for his son:
“You’ve got to set a good example. You want to show your boy something so one day he can say, ‘That’s my dad!’ ”
Football and fires
After practice Wednesday evening, Dante Jr. stood outside the dressing room at the Woody Hayes indoor facility and talked about his father:
“He had a tough situation growing up with way he was raised and everything he didn’t have.”
Dante. Sr. expounded on that later, saying there were times they didn’t have heat or lights or much food to eat. If pressed, he will tell you how his mom was forced to turn the oven on to try to heat the house or how he snuck over to his neighbor’s house, got the garden hose and used it to fill their bathtub because they had been unable to pay their water bill.
“We didn’t have new clothes to wear to school so that you felt proud and after a while I had a real chip on my shoulder,” Dante Sr. said. “I felt people looked down on me because of the way I dressed.”
There were times he got into trouble and his image was magnified because by the time he was in the eighth grade he said he was 6-foot-3 and 230 pounds.
Finally, he said his teammate’s grandfather, Sam Serves, heard about his struggles and approached him.
“He was an older guy, real old really, with gray hair and everything and he’s only about 5-foot-5,” Dante. Sr. laughed. “And he says to me, ‘How many free throws you think I can make?’ I said, ‘Oh, maybe 10.’ He told me he’d match me and I thought, ‘There’s no way this old guy can beat me.’
“Well, then he steps to the line and makes 100. And me? I made six!
“Right then he had my attention.”
After that Serves introduced him to John Saucier, who ran the Team JAM (Jesus Athletic Ministry) basketball program. Saucier soon became his tutor, mentor and lifelong friend.
“And Sam wanted me to be (academically) ready for high school so he told me if I got all As and Bs my last grading period of eighth grade, he’d buy me any shoes I wanted.
“I didn’t believe him — I had trouble trusting people — but I got the grades and sure enough he took me to the store and I got the most expensive Jordans.”
Although Dante Sr. only played freshman football in high school, he became an All-City basketball player in Akron and then — because he had grown to 280 pounds and Saucier made a recruiting tape of him and sent it to numerous colleges — he got an offer to play football at a Kansas junior college.
But during his second week of practice he suffered an ACL injury and was ready to pack up and come back home. But everyone with his best interests at heart told him to stay in school, rehab his knee and work on his grades.
He did, and then the following year he transferred to Maryland to be a little closer to his young son. He had a stellar year, registering 12 sacks, and that got him to Auburn.
After playing for the Tigers, he was a free-agent pickup by the Indianapolis Colts, and after being cut there, ended up playing three years in the Canadian Football League and a season of Arena League football.
Six years ago he joined the Akron fire department.
“It’s a job that I can equivocate to football,” he said. “There’s the camaraderie and the adrenaline rush. When you run out of the stadium tunnel — especially in a big football game — it’s pretty exciting.
“But it pales in comparison to running into a burning building and pulling somebody out of there or giving them CPR after a heart attack.”
Proud of his dad
After starring at Akron St Vincent-St Mary High School — where he was named Ohio’s Mr. Football in 2013, the first defensive player to win the award in 18 years — Dante Jr. was recruited by major colleges across the nation.
He chose OSU over the likes of Michigan, Notre Dame, Nebraska, Penn State, West Virginia, Tennessee, Maryland, Illinois and Louisville and last season played mostly special teams for the Buckeyes.
This year he played some against Maryland and then got his big break against Penn State.
“I couldn’t find someone to trade shifts with me, so I watched the game with the other guys at the fire station,” Dante Sr. said. “I think I scared some of the younger guys because I’m a bigger guy and they never heard me so loud. But I was so proud of my son.”
This week he’ll be at the Rutgers game and his son is again expected to get considerable playing time as Perry comes back from his ankle sprain.
Dante Jr. is glad his dad will be there, but he understands when duty calls:
“He’s out there saving lives. That’s way more important than what I’m doing — I’m proud of him.”
Just as Dante Sr. had long hoped, his boy was saying:
“That’s my dad.”