On his first carry as a starter on Maine South's varsity, in the fifth game of the 2010 season against Niles West, Paul Preston took a pitch from quarterback Matt Alviti and ran 54 yards for a touchdown.
On his next carry, he scored on a 58-yard run.
"I was so excited," Preston said. "This is awesome. I know I can play with these kids now. Everyone was going crazy. It was an awesome feeling."
What is so awesome about all of this is Preston, a junior, is only 5 feet, two inches tall and weighs only 122 pounds. Sure, the program lists him at 5-4 and 161. But Preston blushes when those figures are mentioned. He admits to being "right around 5-2 or 5-3." He thinks he weighs closer to 150 pounds than 120. All he knows for sure is he isn't 6-3, 250.
"I like proving people wrong. People say I'm too small to play football. I'm the short kid. But Iike the physical part of the sport," Preston said. "I prove myself on the field when I can. My dad played for Maine South and he raised me to like football. It's always been my favorite sport. In every game, I like to show people that I'm not just a short kid but I actually have some talent."
After Preston broke into the starting lineup, replacing injured starter Justin Czerwionka, offensive coordinator Charlie Bliss made a bet with him. "If he could play through the end of the season, without being injured, I would put him on my shoulders at Memorial Stadium and carry him from one end of the field to the other," Bliss said.
"He was exciting as a sophomore but he is so tiny. You wondered if he could take the pounding. But you couldn't catch him in a phone booth."
At the end of the Class 8A championship game, with Maine South players beginning to celebrate its third title in a row along the sideline, Bliss felt a tug on his arm. It was Preston, reminding him of their bet. Sure enough, Preston got his promised ride up and down the Memorial Stadium turf.
Preston, no matter what his size is, completed a spectacular season. In the state final, he rushed 21 times for 145 yards and two touchdowns. In the last 10 games, he rushed 133 times for 1,140 yards and 21 touchdowns.
"I never heard of such a small kid being so successful at a major high school program," said recruiting analyst Tom Lemming of CBS College Sport.
He wears No. 34, Walter Payton's number. He has worn it all his life, going back to the six years he played for the Park Ridge Falcons. He has been timed in 4.59 seconds for 40 yards. But most observers, including television announcers, think his helmet is too big, that he looks like Lucas of movie fame.
"It doesn't feel too big to me. It isn't custom made. It fits pretty well," he said. "How do I explain my running style? I'm a quick and shifty runner. I don't want to brag but I can beat everyone in the first 40-50 yards. Then they start catching up to me because of my short legs."
Amazingly, Preston fumbled only once during the season and never was knocked out of game because of injury, not even an ankle sprain. He gives credit to Alviti's passing game that opened up his running lanes, as Charlie Goro and Tyler Benz did for Matt Perez, and the offensive line that included Boston College-bound Victor Nelson and cousin Frank Colletti.
Now Preston and Alviti will return in 2011 to lead Maine South's quest for a fourth state title in a row.
"I thought I'd be a backup this year. And a kick returner, maybe a cornerback," Preston said. "But it turns out I'm the starting running back and that's pretty cool."