TF South's Michael Smith was a chubby middle-school soccer player when his mother set him on his true athletic course.
"I started playing football in seventh grade," the senior linebacker said. "It was just something that my mom put me into. ... She wanted me to lose weight."
Smith, who lived in Chicago Heights then, wasn't crazy about his new sport at first. But then the bonds of friendship grew with his Country Club Hills Cougars teammates, and he found his true calling on defense.
"They tried to put me on offense and I didn't like getting hit," Smith said with a smile. "I liked hitting people."
Now Smith — who moved into TF South's district before his freshman season — is heading into his third year as a starter and second year as a captain for the Rebels, who began preseason practice Monday morning.
South coach Bob Padjen considers him the best linebacker to come through the program since 2011 grad Rob Sterling, who went on to become a starting fullback at Northern Illinois.
"That feels great to me," Smith said. "I know I can't ever compare to Rob Sterling. I've seen his highlight tapes; he's amazing."
Sterling had a productive college football career despite being just 5-foot-10. Smith's also aiming to open the eyes of recruiters who might overlook him because he's 6-0 and 215 pounds.
"They're really evaluating his first three weeks because of his size," Padjen said. "They're like, 'If you're 6-2, you're a Big Ten linebacker. At 6 feet, we're going to watch you and see how you play — if you play big.'"
Smith plays fast, and did even last year when he was dealing with nagging ankle and hip injuries.
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"I feel I'm good sideline to sideline, but I need to make it to the line quicker," Smith said.
"He's a really strong kid," Padjen added. "He may not be the fastest kid, but he is quick. His ability to close on the football is phenomenal. He can catch the best backs, the best speed kids in the open."
Smith has been talking to a variety of colleges, from Division II (Grand Valley State, Minnesota State Mankato and Minnesota Crookston) to FBS (Eastern Illinois and North Dakota State) to FCS (Navy and Kansas State).
He's content to let recruiting take care of itself as he prepares for what he hopes will be a special season for himself and his team.
After piling up 107 tackles last season, Smith has 206 in his career and needs 98 more to set the program record. A two-way player, he also scored five touchdowns last season for the 6-4 Rebels.
This year, South has a variety of speedy playmakers on offense and Smith leading the defense. Just making the IHSA playoffs for the fourth straight season won't satisfy Smith.
"We want to win the (South Suburban Blue) conference championship," Smith said. "I want to play 14 games."
If that happens, it'll be the best season in program history. The Rebels' deepest playoff runs were trips to the state semifinals in 1994 and 2002.
South opens the season at Gavit on Aug. 30 and hosts Highland in its home opener on Sept. 6. Smith can't wait to get back on the field at full strength.
"That was probably the worst I ever felt in my life," he said of dealing with last year's injuries. "When we were losing and I couldn't do anything about it, it really hurt me. But (teammates) stayed with me through it all."