For all of the athletic prowess he displayed in a standout sports career at Schaumburg, what ended up separating Stacey Smith was simply determination.
A couple of weeks ago in the boys track and field state finals, that single-mindedness was put to the test after the Saxons had disqualified their 4x100-meter relay, which missed out on an opportunity to win a state championship in the event.
The weekend was far from over, though, as Smith and relay teammates Shandall Thomas, Tom Ciupka and Jarman McMillon had the top finals qualifying spot in the 4x200 relay.
"There was anger in all of us, but we just used that to help us get it done," Smith said. "If one person's down, that can mess things up for everybody. We stuck together and said, ‘We've just got to put it all into this one.' "
And the eventual result was the perfect capper to Smith's time at Schaumburg.
With Smith taking the leadoff leg at O'Brien Stadium on the campus at Eastern Illinois, the Saxons' quartet claimed a state title in the 4x200, winning in 1:26.13. The triumph marked the first time a Mid-Suburban League school had won a sprint relay at the boys track state meet.
A conference champion in football and a state champion in track in his senior year, Smith is the Daily Herald's choice as Male Athlete of the Year.
"He obviously had a set of physical tools that you don't see very often," said football coach Mark Stilling, who saw Smith excel as a slot receiver and all-around threat for two seasons before taking over at quarterback in the Saxons' triple-option scheme last fall. "He was able to make things happen on the football field on plays when, really, nothing should have happened.
"I think what made Stacey different is that he never quit. In the end, it wasn't just about his skills. It was about never giving up."
That was reflected in his jaw-dropping numbers on the gridiron. In his senior year, Smith ran for 1,963 yards on 191 carries and found the end zone 31 times.
Stilling's Saxons won the Mid-Suburban West and had the program's best overall season since the 1999 squad which finished as a state runner-up, and Smith captained the Daily Herald's all-area football team.
"We had a very talented group, and Stacey was a big part of our success," Stilling said. "As a coach, watching the way he developed, the biggest change was the way he became more about others. That was really a process for him, and he made great strides there between his junior and senior years."
And in an offense predicated on hurting defenses by involving multiple ball-carriers, Smith thrived.
"He became an incredibly unselfish decision maker," Stilling said. "That was the most enjoyable part for me."
In track, too, Smith leaves a legacy of group success under coach Ryan Senica.
Smith, Thomas, Ciupka and McMillon set conference records in both sprint relays at the MSL meet before their championship run downstate. And Smith finaled in both the long jump (21 feet, 11½ inches; ninth) and triple jump (44-9¾, 10th) individually.
"We worked so hard, starting back in February," Smith said. "We knew from our first meet of the year that winning should be what we were after. It was like, ‘Hey, we've really got a shot here.' So it's great that it worked out that way."
The next stop for Smith is Western Illinois, where he's being projected as a slot receiver -- at least to begin with. The position is a natural fit, but the Leathernecks have also noted Smith's return skills. His elusiveness, cutting ability and sheer speed could end up helping out in plenty of ways.
"I played slot for two years in high school, so that won't be too much of a change for me," Smith said. "It's something I think I can get used to pretty quick."
Schaumburg, though, may have a difficult time adjusting to sports without Smith.
"I know we talk a lot about having a kind of synergy with our football program," said Stilling. "We definitely had that last year, and my sense is that the group in track really had something special, too."
"We did everything together," Smith said of his final season in high school sports. "It was just like a family.
"All the hard work we put in, since way back in February . . . it was great to see it pay off. We had the mentality that it was our time to shine."