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Ari Libenson: Precision on football field translates to dentistry

(Yejee Kim/Daily Bruin staff)

By Benjamin Royer

June 10, 2024 3:43 p.m.

Preparation can be meticulous.

From week zero to bowl season, the “who” is at the center of any team’s game plan. Becoming the “who,” however, is a reverse study.

Ari Libenson is no stranger to transforming into another.

He watches game films and studies the opposing wide receiver – searching for slight hesitations, little ticks and tells – it’s gridiron poker.

But he’s not playing for himself. UCLA football’s scout team is filled with walk-ons like the redshirt junior. In practice, Libenson plays for his 11 teammates lining up on defense.

“It’s (the scout team is) definitely an extremely important role,” Libenson said. “And you really have to take pride in it.”

Despite the minuscule chance of playing on game day, Libenson said the work helps better his peers and increases his team’s likelihood of winning. Practice makes perfect – whether on the field, in the classroom or even working on your pearly whites.

Next up for UCLA’s “Swiss army knife”: dental school.

“There’s really an alignment between the skills that are essential for an athlete,” he said. “Precision, in terms of what you have to do in terms of working with your hands, and teeth – there’s a very small margin for error, which is similar to football.”

Libenson drew parallels between any given possession at the Rose Bowl to the dynamics of being a dentist – an experience he’s built through shadowing Dr. Alexander McMahon.

McMahon earned a Doctor of Dental Surgery degree from UCLA and a Doctor of Oral & Maxillofacial Surgery medical degree from the David Geffen School of Medicine at UCLA in 2015 and 2019, respectively. The Santa Rosa, California-based oral surgeon performs dental implant placements, full-mouth reconstructions and wisdom teeth extraction procedures, among other dental surgeries.

“He came in with general inquiries about exposure to the field and wanted to get his foot in the door in dentistry to feel out if it was the right career for him,” McMahon said. “I just wanted to make sure – before you commit – that he’s actually going into a direction that’s something that would be a suitable career for his passion and his character.”

(Courtesy of Ari Libenson)

The variety of McMahon’s practice isn’t so far off from covering multiple roles on a football team – something Libenson handled from high school through his four seasons at UCLA.

Libenson converted his childhood dreams of playing for California men’s tennis to entering Westwood as a walk-on kicker and punter after filling the role in his final two years at Berkeley High School.

The 5-foot-10 history student joined UCLA’s roster in 2020 via a tryout and later added the wide receiver posistion to his repertoire after numerous Bruins tested positive for COVID-19 – leading the team to drop out of the 2021 Holiday Bowl.

“I just wanted to do whatever is best for the team,” Libenson said. “Because I knew my role, especially as a walk-on. … Whatever they asked me to do, I would do it and that’s a characteristic that I hold and is important and sums up my attitude.”

Brian Kowall, a redshirt junior running back and soon-to-be graduate, said Libenson always put in the extra effort in practice – despite constantly shifting between position groups.

“From a coaching aspect, you recognize a kid that is doing double the amount of work that the average player is doing,” Kowall said. “On top of that, with grades as well, he was probably one of the top-performing scholars on our team.”

(Courtesy of UCLA Athletics)

Libenson said teamwork requires seamless coordination to ensure everything functions smoothly – a philosophy that holds for the Berkeley local whether it be at Wasserman Football Center or the dentist’s office.

Back home in Northern California, Libenson began shadowing McMahon in March 2023 to get a firsthand look into the day-to-day inside a private practice. He said he’s now shadowed McMahon for over 100 hours.

“When I found out that he’s a student-athlete, I was thrilled,” McMahon said. “There’s just not much time for the extracurriculars that is required of the rigorous applicant to matriculate into dental school or medical school, and so I was thrilled that he had some interest to pursue an industry beyond college.”

During winter and summer breaks, the two weeks before fall football camp begins or whenever he could go home, Libenson took the 50-plus mile trek north from his home to better understand a dentist’s role.

Libenson watched McMahon perform oral surgeries, discussed the steps taken in procedures, examined X-rays and how and when to diagnose.

McMahon said it was clear Libenson wasn’t just there for tallying shadowing hours, but to learn and develop his skills – he researched what he learned in the office and returned with questions on the field.

“Scouting and preparing in that sense, that’s exactly what you do, right?” McMahon said. “You obtain primary objective information, you go home, you digest and you review and you try to integrate that into your teaching and knowledge for your own development and use.”

(Courtesy of UCLA Athletics)

Despite being years out from attaining his license and having yet to enter dental school, McMahon added that Libenson’s football career prepared him for the detailed nature of the dentistry world.

“Meticulous nature is something that a lot of students have to develop while they’re in dental school,” McMahon said. “And it was very obvious to me that Ari already had done that.”

Libenson said he is still undecided on where he’s attending dental school, considering the soonest he could apply is early June.

Despite entering the transfer portal as a graduate student in December, the former UCLA team captain added that his focus has been on applications. One school, in particular, would be his dream,

“I would love to continue my dental academics at UCLA,” Libenson said. “That’d be awesome.”

His mentor holds a similar sentiment.

While he was a dental student in Westwood, McMahon served on the UCLA dental school admissions committee – reviewing hundreds of applicants – and learned who is capable of enduring the rigor of dental school.

“It was within the first few hours that it was obvious that Ari would be the kind of person who can handle the dental school curriculum,” McMahon said. “I think he’s going to be an awesome addition to the field once he makes it in.”

Email Royer at [email protected] or tweet @thebenroyer.

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Benjamin Royer | Assistant Sports editor
Royer is the 2023-2024 Assistant Sports editor on the baseball, gymnastics and men's water polo beats and a reporter on the football beat. He was previously a staff writer on the baseball, football and gymnastics beats. He is also a fourth-year communication student.
Royer is the 2023-2024 Assistant Sports editor on the baseball, gymnastics and men's water polo beats and a reporter on the football beat. He was previously a staff writer on the baseball, football and gymnastics beats. He is also a fourth-year communication student.
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