Wrestling is opening doors for Caesar Rodney’s Dean

Caesar Rodney’s Jackson Dean, top, and Lake Forest’s Seth Flemming wrestle in the 145-pound championship.

CAMDEN — It’s not like Philadelphia is right around the corner from Hartly.

Jackson Dean quickly realized that he was spending more time driving than he was on the wrestling mat.

“Three hours of driving for about an hour and a half of practice,” said the Caesar Rodney High senior. “A couple nights a week.”

But Jackson wouldn’t have traded the experience of off-season training in USA Wrestling’s Regional Training Center in Philadelphia for the world.

Growing up, Dean had idolized Olympic wrestlers Brandon Slay and Jackson Burroughs. At RTC, Slay was his coach.

“And I remember one practice, I was practicing right next to Jason Burroughs,” said Dean. “There’s no other wrestling room like it.”

Little did Dean know that the experience was also opening up a world beyond the wrestling mats.

Not only is Dean a three-time state champion in Delaware, but he’s going to be the first person in his family to go to college.

And not only is Dean going to college, but he’s going to an Ivy League school.

Some of the RTC sessions were held at the University of Pennsylvania. During his time there, Dean made connections with the Quakers’ coaches.

When colleges started recruiting Dean as a junior, committing to Penn was a no-brainer.

While Dean’s buddies might call out ‘Ivy League’ when they see him the hallways at school, Dean knows his hard work has given him a pretty special opportunity.

Dean admits there was a time when the idea of going to an Ivy League school would have intimidated him.

“I would never imagine me going to an Ivy League school,” he said. “It was absurd. Once my recruiting season opened, the first wave of schools that I got (recruited by) were all Ivy League — Brown, Princeton, Columbia, Cornell. … It was crazy to have these Division I Ivy League schools come knocking on my door.

“I don’t even know how to describe it,” Dean added. “It’s just literally going to change my life and my family’s life. It’s just such an opportunity.”

CR coach Dan Rigby first met Dean when he was in middle school. He said it was always pretty clear that the youngster was going to be a good wrestler.

Along with his three state and four Henlopen Conference titles, Dean has collected all kinds of awards from his showing at national and local tournaments. He was an All-American at some of the country’s biggest events — Fargo, Ironman and Beast of the East.

Dean finished with over 150 career victories and was ranked 11th nationally in his weight class as a senior.

But Rigby says to simply think of Dean as a great wrestler would be overlooking so many other things about the 18 year old.

“He’s so humble and down to earth,” said Rigby. “He doesn’t go out and beat on people and embarrass them. He walks off the mat the same way every single time, whether he wins or loses.

“As weird as it sounds — and I really mean this — it’s almost been an honor for me to coach him. I feel like he’s made me a better a person and coach. … His perspective on things is kind of unique and very mature. He’s a breath of fresh air for me to coach. His teachers all say the same thing.”

Rigby said any time there’s chance to work with CR’s young wrestlers after practice, Dean is always there. He’s the first to volunteer for community-service projects.

During Dean’s sophomore year, Rigby remembers sitting down with the youngster and his parents, Gregory and Courtney, to talk about college. They said right from the start that Penn was Jackson’s No. 1 choice.

But, after the first time Dean took the SATs, Penn’s coaches told him he’d need to raise his score by 100 points to get in.

“So he goes out and gets an app on his phone, he buys a review book and self teaches,” said Rigby. “And the next time he took them, he scored 110 points higher. When you tell him to do something, he’s going to do it … and he’s not going to stop until he gets there.”

A national honor society member with a 3.9 GPA, Dean said he’s always been able to set goals and then work hard to achieve them.

“Maybe it’s wrestling that’s instilled that in me,” he said. “You’ve got to work hard in wrestling.”

From second to eighth grade, Dean was in the Smyrna School District. When he first started learning the sport in Smyrna’s Little Wrestlers programs, one of his coaches was former Delaware wrestling great Damien Creighton.

Dean said he never forgot the way Creighton emphasized being a good student.

“He would pick somebody and say, ‘What did you learn in school today?’” Dean remembered. “And if you couldn’t give him something, you’d have to do push-ups or something like that.

“He was pushing that on kids early on — you’re a student-athlete. Student comes first before sports.”