From Ranger to Razorback: Austin Cantrell
At the signing table: Brother Ryan, his daughter Blayklee, LaDonna, Austing and Kevin Cantrell with Roland coaches on signing day.
Roland, Okla., is proud of Austin Cantrell. When the 6-foot-4, 250-pound Ranger tight end signed a letter of intent last month to play football for the Arkansas Razorbacks, the common area of Roland High School was packed. It appeared he has friends. The Hogs were called and Austin became the first Roland Division I football signee since 1976, when Terry Jones signed with Oklahoma.
The website 247Sports reported that Arkansas’ tight end depth chart leads the nation. Recruits include C.J. O’Grady of Fayetteville High School, Will Gragg of Dumas High School and Austin, ranked second, sixth and seventh, respectively.
Austin’s signing was celebrated again later that day when 50-60 family members and friends gathered at a community center to eat chili dogs. One gets the idea that family and friends are very important to the Cantrells.
Austin was 6-foot-2 and 185 pounds in the seventh grade. By the time he was in ninth grade, colleges had begun jockeying for his attention. And, although football is his ticket, this quiet, unassuming young man is currently focused on Ranger basketball. Asked why he’s playing basketball, he said, “Because my mom likes to see me play.” He then shrugged, grinned and added, “It’s fun, too.”
Football looms large with the Cantrells. Austin’s dad, Kevin, who graduated in ’94, was a standout nose guard for Roland. Austin’s older brother, Ryan, followed suit in the same position.
Although Austin’s demeanor comes across as vanilla, vanilla is a potent bean.
His first letter came from UCLA. How many colleges have come after him in the past two years? "I don’t have a clue,” he said. “But I have a whole box of letters at the house.”
He could be Charles Bronson in Sergio Leone’s “Once Upon a Time in the West.” There’s not much variation in the facial expression, but there’s purpose in the eyes. All he needs is Ennio Morricone to provide the soundtrack. Perhaps that role will be played by Arkansas head coach Bret Bielema. Both men are master conductors.
Austin Cantrell is a success story still in the making.
The Rangers practiced for their state playoffs on the artificial turf at Fort Smith Northside’s field. Northside Coach Mike Falleur watched the practice and spotted Cantrell right off.
“I could just tell he was one of ‘those’ people,” Falleur said. He called Arkansas tight ends coach Barry Lunney Jr. and told him, “He’s worth a trip across the bridge.”
Lunney took it from there. After watching Austin on film, Arkansas offered him a visit. Four days after the visit, Arkansas offered him a scholarship.
During his visit to OU, Austin said, he was one of about 400 prospects. “It was kinda hard to get noticed,” he said. His visit to Oklahoma State University was even more disenchanting. At Fayetteville, Austin said, “It was just me. I got to talk to the coaches.”
It was Lunney who sold him on Arkansas. According to Austin’s mother, LaDonna, Austin “is a hunting and fishing fool. That’s where he connected with Barry.”
It turns out Lunney also is an avid outdoorsman.
“Austin and Coach Lunney send pictures of fish to each other,” LaDonna said with a laugh. “Coach Lunney has a fishing tournament for his tight ends. Some of them can’t even bait a hook.”
There is football, hunting and fishing. Then, there’s the fact that Fayetteville is more convenient for Austin’s parents to see him play. Again, family carries a lot of clout with Austin.
Track and field runs a close second to football for the young athlete. However, his road to winning two state championships in shot put had a precarious beginning. Motivated to join brother Ryan in the field event, Austin said, “We were both throwing 38 or 39 (feet). That’s not very good, you know.”
His freshman year at the state meet, “I got up there and got dead last. There were 16 guys and I got number 16.”
“I came back my sophomore year and started working on my form,” Austin said. “I started watching it on YouTube. You’ve just got to learn it.” He also got pointers from his English teacher, Keli Harrell, who ran track at OU.
The progress was remarkable: His put of 53-11 would earn him first place at the state meet. And it continued. “I won state my junior year with 55-something,” he said.
Austin also enjoys the atmosphere of track and field. “It’s not always competitive. It’s more competing with yourself. That’s what I like about it.” His longest put is 58-7, and his goal for his senior year is to beat the 4-A state record of 60-9.
There are areas where Austin is a pretty average high school senior: He likes to eat Asian Zing at Buffalo Wild Wings, listen to Chevelle and play “Call of Duty.” He has to think about his favorite NFL team for a bit. “I guess I’ll go with the Steelers.”
When Austin leaves for Fayetteville this summer, he will leave behind these football numbers, according to MaxPreps:
Roland Head Football Coach Jeff Streun said of Austin,“He was always a hard-working kid. He always set the bar high, trying to be better. A lot of that was his growing up. His work ethic is just how he was brought up.”
Dickson Street can be a slippery slope. But, there is hunting and fishing and his family is close enough to watch him play football.
This story appears in the March 2015 issue of Entertainment Fort Smith Magazine.