You Want Grit? He’s All Grit
AYER -- Dante Sequeira’s world on the gridiron is filled with violent collisions.
A nose guard who dances to the rhythmic beat of a punishing anvil chorus, Sequeira knows the hits you never see coming hurt most.
Sequeira had run into some tough competition during his first season playing organized football on Ayer Shirley Regional High School’s freshman team in the fall of 2015. But nothing Sequeira encountered in the trenches prepared him for the collision on a ski slope that nearly ended his varsity football career before it even began.
In late January of 2016, Sequeira, who was 15 at the time, was skiing with some friends at the Wachusett Mountain Ski Area. Like any fun-loving defensive lineman, he was doing his best to tackle the mountain when his feet came out from under him during a downhill run. Sequeira hit a slick patch of terrain and went flying into an electrical post, snapping the femur bone in his left leg in half.
“I was playing around with some friends and was going down the hill a little too fast,” said Sequeira. “I hit a bump and it was icy. My legs kicked out so I was kind of sideways when I hit the electrical post full force.
“I tried getting up and once that didn’t work I knew I was hurt bad. Really, the pain was to the point where I couldn’t feel it, if that makes sense. It was just so bad I really can’t remember it. I tried to stand up but I couldn’t support myself and fell right back down.
“It took close to 20 minutes for someone to find me because my friends were in front of me,” continued Sequeira. “They didn’t see me fall. We were going to meet at the bottom. I had to be put on a sled (by ski patrol/medical personnel) and brought down the mountain and rushed to UMass (Memorial) Medical (Center).”
Sequeira’s leg may have shattered on that January day, but the fighting spirit he needed to recover from this terrible injury remained very much intact.
He has endured three surgeries, during which an iron rod, screws and plates were inserted into his left thigh/knee, and months of physical therapy as his leg took well over a year to heal.
DEFYING THE ODDS
There was a time when the odds were likely greater of him having a fourth surgery than suiting up to play football again for his beloved Ayer Shirley Panthers
After sitting out his sophomore season, during which he served as the Panthers’ student manager, Sequeira defied the odds and received clearance from his doctor to play football again in the summer of 2017. He spent his junior season playing on the junior varsity, getting spot time at the varsity level.
This past fall, Sequeira, 18, spent his senior campaign chasing down his dream of becoming a contributing member on the varsity. He earned a regular spot in Ayer Shirley’s defensive line rotation, proving there are no limits to the power of belief in oneself when you put your blood, sweat and tears into reaching a goal.
Sequeira, who stands 5-feet-11 and weighs 200 pounds, still can’t run at full speed and experiences consistent pain. But he managed to hobble and grind his way to a starting spot at nose guard, finishing the 2018 season with 10 tackles and one forced fumble while earning Ayer Shirley’s Most Improved Player Award.
“At first I just wanted to walk,” said Sequeira, who was on crutches for many months after breaking his leg. “I was wondering if I was ever going to walk normal. Would I ever have the full gait? I went through a couple of stages, I guess you could call it depression, during this time.
“It really took a serious toll on me. My mom and I went and got help. But after battling through that I didn’t really think I was going to come back. I didn’t see much hope of being able to play football again after a year of this. But my coaches, teammates and family never gave up on me. My teammates wanted me to come back and finish what we started together. They’re the reason I pushed myself so hard to come back.”
His efforts on the gridiron over the past two seasons were so inspiring that Sequeira has been chosen as one of 10 recipients of the Massachusetts High School Football Coaches Association’s prestigious Courageous Player Award. Sequeira will receive the award at the MHSFCA awards banquet at the DoubleTree By Hilton Hotel Boston-Westboro on Sunday, April 28.
“I don’t think he realized the type of example he set for the other kids in our program who were maybe working through difficulties of their own that pale in comparison to his,” said Ayer Shirley head football coach Phil Marchegiani. “I think he was in a position of leadership, not necessarily with that title, but he stood as a role model for others.
“They’d look at him and see that the issues, adversity, bumps and bruises they were experiencing didn’t compare with what he had gone through. When you see someone far off worse than you have it, courageously pushing through the pain to reach their goals, it makes you work that much harder. He was an absolute model of perseverance.”
FIGHTING FOR THE FIELD
There are plenty of clichés about team sports and the bonding that binds athletes. The day Sequeira returned to practice was a moment of triumph beyond measure for everyone associated with Ayer Shirley’s football program. The fact Sequeira could barely run on his bad leg, yet refused to walk away from the game is among the many reasons he is so admired by teammates.
“You could tell at times it was real difficult for him,” said Thomas Dentino, a senior two-way starter in football who was skiing with Sequeira the day he broke his leg. “But I couldn’t think of anyone who could have been able to have as positive an outlook as him. Especially, the fact he went through it for three years practically. Even today he’s not 100 percent but he, honestly, took it like a champ.
“I was the one who actually got him to play football originally as a freshman. After this happened it was so sad, but we kept pushing him to come back and he kept showing up for lifting and putting in more work than anybody else on the team. During summer workouts Dante would be there busting his butt. Some times he would just throw up because he was working so much harder than everyone else. It was just really awesome to watch him bounce back and get to play again.”
Marchegiani and defensive line coach Shane Brickley provided Sequeira with the encouragement and guidance needed to realize his dream of playing varsity football. Although Sequeira is a fearless competitor, there were times after rejoining the team when he wondered if his leg could withstand the rigors of the game.
“Even after playing my junior season, as a senior I still got scared to touch the field at times,” said Sequeira. “Like when I’d get hit a little too hard because it’s the sport, I’d wonder is my leg all right.
“It always took a few hits to get into the game. Those first few plays every game I was like this could go bad. My leg could give out. But eventually you start thinking about making hits instead of worrying about being hit.”
Sequeira lived in Lowell until he was in middle school. Although he didn’t play organized sports until high school, athletics has become a big part of his life. He not only plays football, Sequeira throws the shot put on the indoor track team and is a third baseman/outfielder in Ayer Shirley’s baseball program.
He also excels in the classroom where he is a National Honor Society student. Sequeira is a member of the Student Council and is on the Robotics team. He plans on attending UMass Amherst.
His parents, Paul and Heather, along with his sister, Cheyenne, provided the love and support Sequeira needed to navigate his painfully long, and still continuing, road to recovery.
“Dad and I are both very proud of him,” said Heather. “It wasn’t easy, especially with him not recovering the way that was expected. There was a lot of fights. There was a lot of ‘I don’t want to do this.’ But in the end, I think he finally realized he was the only one who was going to get himself fixed -- and it was through hard work. So we are extremely proud of him.
“He still lives in pain every day. Being busy helps him cope with the pain, as weird as that sounds because being busy is what causes the pain. But he loves to really be involved in all these activities and sports. There is something about being on a team, especially in football, that camaraderie really drives him and keeps him passionate about staying involved.”
CONQUERING THAT SLOPE
Part of Sequeira’s recovery included a return ski trip to Wachusett Mountain. Sequeira gathered up the courage to successfully ski down the same slope the accident took place.
“It wasn’t easy,” said Sequeira. “It took a lot to ski down the same slope. I wanted to make sure to ski that same area as sort of a final push off that mountain mentally for me. It helped me cope with everything. It was my way of putting the past behind me. After that everything was a new beginning.”
Sequeira never looked for sympathy. He just wanted his leg to heal so he could play football with his friends.
No one grows up wanting to play nose guard. But Sequeira lived for those scrums under the bright glare of Friday night lights. Smiling through the pain after every collision.
“This wasn’t a situation of a player just being happy to be in a uniform as a senior standing on the sideline,” said Marchegiani. “He actually came back from a horrific injury and was able to contribute, which was remarkable. He really achieved levels that were beyond anybody’s expectations.
“With Dante, there is no obstacle that he couldn’t overcome. When you see what he’s had to endure and the way he handled himself, the sky’s the limit with this kid.”
Follow Carmine Frongillo on Twitter @cwfrongi.