It was Dante Smith’s freshman year when Desert Ridge defensive coordinator Travis Jackson approached him during football practice with a proposition for him to wrestle after the season.
Smith, along with his parents, was hesitant at first. It was only his first year playing tackle football, but Jackson convinced the two-way lineman that wrestling would enhance his abilities on the field.
“With wrestling, they were kinda iffy about it,” Smith said. “Then, my coach was talking to my parents about how it can make me a way better football player. That really got their attention, and they let me play.”
Along with his duties as defensive coordinator, Jackson is the head coach of Desert Ridge’s wrestling team. Impressed by Smith’s size and athleticism, Jackson knew that he had to get him to try wrestling to maximize his potential.
“You’re always looking for big boys, and the wrestling team is the quickest way to score points,” Jackson said. “When you see an athlete like Dante, it’s like, oh, I can make this kid into something special.”
And Dante Smith is something special.
Listed at 6-foot-3, 290 pounds, the now senior lineman is incredibly athletic for his size. According to Jackson, Smith can do standing backflips and runs a 4.81 40-yard dash.
Additionally, as a wrestler and lineman, Smith takes pride in his strength. He benches 365 pounds, power cleans 319 pounds, and squats a whopping 530 pounds. With these three combined lifts, Smith set the school record for the highest combined weight, making him the strongest player in Desert Ridge history.
“I think it’s the number one thing you should have because without strength you can’t handle big dudes in front of you while you’re on the offensive line and even defensive line,” Smith said. “The stronger you are, the easier it is for you.”
During his junior year, Smith placed second in the state wrestling finals in the heavyweight division. Still, Smith is more focused on football, using wrestling more as a stepping stone to elevate his game on the field and improve himself as an overall athlete.
“If you have a big kid, wrestling is the best thing for him,” Desert Ridge defensive line coach Angelo Paffumi said. “It teaches you leverage, teaches you how to control your body, teaches you footwork when you’re making moves and tackling and putting moves on people. It goes hand in hand.”
Jackson believes wrestling has allowed Smith to become a true force on the field. Smith is a soft-spoken, humble kid with the ability to dominate when he chooses, per Jackson, and wrestling has made him more aggressive while improving his physical and mental toughness.
“Football’s hard, don’t get me wrong, but there’s something about a hard wrestling practice that can make or break a man’s soul,” Jackson said. “If it happens every day, you learn to push through things.”
That rings especially true for Smith this season.
With the ongoing pandemic, Smith made the most out of the situation to get himself ready for his senior season in any way possible. Over the summer, Smith prepared through various activities both at home and with the team in a safe manner. He lifted weights at home, went on runs and hikes with the team, and sometimes pushed a truck down the street to stay in shape.
This improved toughness and stamina gained from wrestling will be critical for the senior, as he will help lead the Jaguars this year on both the offensive line and defensive line.
“He is definitely our leader by action,” Paffumi said. “The kid is one of our few linemen that go both ways. He’s in every snap that he possibly can. He’d be much better if we just let him play one side of the ball, but we can’t afford it, so he’s got to play both sides.”
Jackson describes Smith as the ideal athlete and the type of player a coach wants on a team. He believes that Smith has an incredible work ethic and can compete with just about any wrestler in the state, which should intrigue college scouts.
“When college coaches come in, they’re gonna ask what sports you play, and college coaches love wrestlers, especially for D-linemen because they know they’re gonna be nasty,” Jackson said.
Smith hopes his wrestling experience has helped shape him into the best football player he can be, allowing him to attract more Division 1 offers and play at the next level.
Only time will tell if it pays off.
“I’ve had a lot of D-1 linemen,” Paffumi said. “I have kids that play some pro ball, and he’s just as good and in a lot of cases much better.”
Ian Garcia is a sports journalism student at Arizona State University covering Desert Ridge athletics.