Sean Callahan couldn't help but laugh a little last week when talking about his standout linebacker, Petey Smith.
The Armwood football coach was explaining how Smith had missed the last few days of summer conditioning drills with a virus when the chuckle broke through, and Callahan couldn't quite hide the humor in how the common cold was still fierce enough to sideline one of Hillsborough County's toughest defenders.
When Smith returned to summer workouts Monday, Callahan made sure to hit him with a little extra - verbally - in addition to the normal drills.
"I was joking with him," Callahan said. "Are we going to make it? Are you going to have a great year? Are you going to stay healthy?"
It was all in good fun. Callahan knows Smith can handle the adversity he was referring to, hence the reason for the jokes. After all, Callahan has witnessed Smith get over various speed bumps, including last season when an internal injury nearly ended Smith's junior year prematurely.
The bumpy road certainly has been worth it for Smith, who is entering his senior season as one of the nation's top linebacker recruits.
"I like being in this position. It's really easy to get caught up in it and get the big head, but I just try to stay humble," Smith said. "I'm just thankful for it, and I'm just enjoying it."
The enjoyment Smith has now for football wasn't always there. There was a time when he was ready to walk away from the sport altogether.
As a youth player with the Progress Village Panthers in the Tampa Bay Youth Football League, Smith twice had to sit out seasons because he exceeded the weight limit, including what would have been his final youth season.
As any kid would be, Smith was upset about not being allowed to play. To counter the loss, Smith pushed football to the background and turned his focus solely to another sport for which he had a passion: baseball.
"I was still playing baseball, and that's when I was traveling a lot playing AAU baseball," Smith said. "I was really liking baseball, so I really thought about never playing football again."
Those thoughts began to change shortly after watching his older brother, Eric, perform well with the Hawks as a freshman. With Eric's encouragement, Smith decided to give football a second chance when he was a freshman. It didn't take long for him to realize where he would make his mark.
"The first day we had pads, I went against all the seniors and the linemen, like Bert McBride, who is playing at Stanford right now. Eric just told me go against the best people and if you do good, Coach Cal will really like you," Smith said. "I did good."
Smith has since built a reputation as one of the area's hardest hitters and best defenders, and his play hasn't gone unnoticed. He's received 41 scholarship offers, many coming from some of the nation's top college football programs, along with multiple all-county and all-state honors.
But things weren't always as grand. Last season is a testament to that.
The morning following a Sept. 28 victory over Jefferson last season, Smith awoke with severe abdominal pain and was unable to urinate. A subsequent trip to the doctor revealed Smith's urethra had swollen, almost to the point it was closed, Smith said. Corrective surgery was needed, and Smith was forced to the sidelines indefinitely.
Smith watched as Armwood weathered the storm without him. The Hawks seemingly didn't miss a beat, winning all six games with their top tackler out of the lineup.
When Smith returned for Armwood's playoff push, however, his importance to the team became clear to those in the locker room. Callahan realized that much during a conversation with his son Casey, a rising senior linebacker at Armwood, following the Hawks' first playoff game last season. It's the reason Smith is held in such high regard.
"Casey said to me, 'Dad, it was so good having Petey back in the huddle,'" Callahan said. "Casey was the one who was filling in for Petey while he was out, but Casey realized, just like the rest of those cats, that Petey brings a lot to us, besides just being a player. We play at a higher level when he's in that huddle, no doubt about it.
"He's such a leader. He's the best leader I've ever had."