Ryan Callahan never thought about anything but his football team, friends said. So when he made a mistake that cost Old Mill High School eight wins last season, his spirits quickly plunged.
The mistake was innocent: Callahan had written his mother's out-of-district address on an athletic form in the winter instead of putting down the in-district address where he often lived with his aunt.
The consequences were severe: After a brief investigation, a county committee ruled that Callahan had attended school outside his area. He had to enroll at Glen Burnie High School, away from his friends and teachers. Old Mill was forced to forfeit all eight of its football wins.
Callahan's grades fell; his friendships faded. Usually quiet, he practically stopped talking. "I was so worried about him," said his mother, Sonya Gross. "He really was unhappy. He would say, 'Mom, no matter what, I'll make up for it. I'm going to make this right.' "
Consider him forgiven. Five games into the season, Callahan -- back at Old Mill with the county's approval -- has repented for his mistake. A spirited, 150-pound running back, he's carried for 1,145 yards this season, the most of any player in the state. He's also molded himself into the perfect team player, a superstar willing to sacrifice anything -- his physical well-being, his ego, his reputation -- to help Old Mill.
"I always knew that I wanted to get my team some of those wins back," Callahan said. "I don't think about all that stuff often, but it drives me. This is the year I've dreamed about."
It's a dream that helped him through some low moments.
Callahan had just finished a stellar sophomore football season when, in early December, his world tumbled down. While filling out paperwork for the track team, he wrote down his mom's Glen Burnie address instead of the local address where he usually lived with his aunt.
"It was just stupid," Callahan said. "But to tell you the truth, I didn't think it would be a huge deal. I thought I'd explain it, and that would be it."
Instead, two weeks of chaos followed. Callahan and his mom talked to school officials, dug up old housing paperwork and went to meetings. "We tried to explain over and over again, but it just felt hopeless," Gross said. "Nobody understood. Nothing worked."
Callahan spent two months among strangers at Glen Burnie before his mom moved into the Old Mill district -- a move that had been planned for a long time, Callahan said. He re-enrolled at Old Mill and was overwhelmed by supportive teammates. "They did everything for me, helping me through things," Callahan said. "I wanted to be great for them."
Even he didn't quite picture greatness this resounding. Old Mill is off to a 5-0 start, but it's Callahan everyone talks about. Each game, he leaves another defense feeling hopeless, another coach standing slack-jawed.
Callahan put on a one-man show last week against Severna Park, a team whose stingy defense had held Eleanor Roosevelt running back Derrick Williams, considered by some the nation's No. 1 prospect, to 80 rushing yards.
The diminutive Callahan, though, quadrupled that total, running for 341 yards and scoring three touchdowns. He also ran back a punt 55 yards for a score. "He's the best I've ever seen," said Andrew Ferris, a Severna Park safety. "It's almost impossible to tackle him."
Callahan runs the 40-yard dash in 4.3 seconds, but he seems even faster. He broke three runs of longer than 60 yards against the Falcons. "When he gets behind a defense," Old Mill Coach Mike Marcus said, "nobody is going to catch up."
"He's fun to block for," said Old Mill tight end Richard Lee. "He's so good, you get caught up watching him play. He's just so flashy."
After the game, though, the showiness disappears. Callahan usually does interviews with his helmet on. He deflects all credit to the offensive line. "The o-line, man," Callahan said. "That's why it's happening, right there. Those guys are the best. They open up holes anybody could run through."
But nobody else runs through them like this. Give Callahan a football, and he moves naturally. He spins, cuts and stutter steps -- all without slowing down. It's a phenomenon that's difficult to explain.
To Marcus, it's "really special, something you don't see too often." To Lee it's, "crazy, almost unreal." To Gross, Callahan's mom, it's "his gift. He's always had it, as far back as I can remember."
The question is, will it get him a college scholarship?
His size will scare away some major schools. "If anybody doesn't give him anything, they'd be nuts," Marcus said. "There's going to be a program out there that will say, 'Here's a football player, here's a kid that's going to grow and here's a kid we can use.' "
"I hope down the road I get that shot," Callahan said. "But I'm just enjoying being here and playing with these guys.
"I appreciate it a lot now, having been away. You know when something feels right, and this situation here feels almost perfect."