Both Zach Pritz and Zach Sullivan had reached a point in their lives where they felt it was time to leave football behind.
Or so they thought.
Less than a year since graduating from Hernando High, the two friends had a change of heart. Recently, Sullivan signed with Taylor University, a NAIA school in Upland, Ind., while Pritz signed with another NAIA institution, Olivet Nazarene University in Bourbonnais, Ill.
"Me going up there and playing kind of changed his mind," Sullivan said.
"I think for sure, Sullivan, he did have an influence on me going back," Pritz said. "He's been really great pushing me and now we'll push each other over the summer to get even better."
Pritz's initial decision to hang up his spikes wasn't completely of his own doing. It started when he tore the anterior cruciate ligament in his right knee toward the end of his senior football season.
It robbed him of finishing off a fine prep career on the gridiron. The three-year varsity starter at outside linebacker was a three-time All-County selection. He totaled 215 tackles, 25 for a loss, and 7.5 sacks during his Leopard tenure.
Worse, the injury wiped out almost all of his final wrestling campaign. He was a three-time state qualifier and the Class 1A state runner-up at 171 pounds as a junior, but was limited to eight matches before having to opt for season-ending surgery.
"It was really difficult, especially because I didn't get to wrestle," Pritz said. "Wrestling was the peak of my high school career. I grew up wrestling since I was 6. I started playing football in middle school.
"It was pretty difficult, but I grew a ton from it. I started to realize why God allowed that to happen in my life."
He began to feel like this athletic days were over. He enrolled at Moody Bible Institute in Chicago, which had originally been his fallback option because the school has no football program.
For the first semester he remained home in Brooksville, rehabbing his knee. He then started attending classes this past semester.
Meanwhile, the coach at Olivet, Brian Fish, remained persistent in his attempts to bring Pritz to his team. Pritz paid a visit to the campus in February, and immediately "felt like this was where I was supposed to be."
Pritz also admired Fish's passion for the game and molding players into fine young men, qualities that reminded him of his coach at Hernando, John Palmer. He signed soon after, though he had to finish off his semester at Moody.
"It feels really refreshing," Pritz said of having returned to football. "I'm just grateful for another chance to play.
"I'm only 19. I felt the coach was pursuing me for a reason. I was just praying about it a lot. I realized I've got a lot more than football guiding me to that school. I think God is leading me there for a reason I'll learn later in life."
In keeping with his faith, Pritz eventually plans to get a master's in Biblical studies. For now he's looking to study education and earn a social science degree, as he'd like to eventually coach wrestling and football.
Pritz said his knee is back to 100 percent, and that he's actually grown stronger physically because of his recovery. He'll play outside linebacker for the Tigers, just as he did in high school.
"Athletically I feel better than I ever felt before," Pritz said. "I'm bigger than I've ever been, I'm stronger than I've ever been. It'll definitely be a process. College football is a different level. But I see myself coming in the first season and making an impact."
???When Sullivan took the year off, he did so on his own accord. He had been playing football since age 6.
"I had just gotten done with wrestling," Sullivan said. "Once I was done with that, I was completely burned out from everything. It was not a good time to make a decision."
But when he attended some Hernando games this past season, he found he "just missed being out there." He had been taking classes at Pasco-Hernando Community College in the interim, and had established a connection with Taylor on the suggestion of Pritz's parents, who graduated from there.
The Trojans were still willing to sign the 2011 All-County selection who led the county with 114 tackles as a senior.
Sullivan, a 19-year-old Brooksville native, said he gained a new appreciation for the sport having left it for a while, and finds himself working even harder to improve.
"If I'm going to do this, I'm going to go all out," Sullivan said. "I'm not just playing football for my coaches or parents or anything. This is something I want to do."
Unlike Pritz, he was able to immediately go to Taylor this semester, taking classes while participating in the team's spring program.
The Trojans have shifted him to the weak side, a difference from his three varsity seasons when he played middle linebacker for the Leopards, starting his final two years.
"I thought all the linebackers were pretty even," Sullivan said. "They didn't really give out a depth chart throughout the spring. I think it comes down to whoever works hard this summer. The competition makes us better. It makes us work harder."
He wants to start and eventually evolve into a leading tackler, an all-conference pick and one of the team leaders. Long term, he's looking to major in education so he can teach math and coach football.
First, though, he, like his friend Pritz, has a playing career to continue.
"I'm very excited," Sullivan said. "Getting back in the pads was awesome. Putting on the pads to play in the spring game really made me remember how it was."
By the numbers: Zach Pritz
YR SOLO ASST TTK TBL SK CF FR PB BLK INT
So 25 47 72 2.0 1.5 3 3 2 0 1
Jr 35 38 73 12.0 1.5 1 1 4 0 0
Sr 34 36 70 11.0 4.5 1 0 1 0 1
TOTALS 94 121 215 25.0 7.5 5 4 7 0 2
By the numbers: Zach Sullivan
YR SOLO ASST TTK TBL SK CF FR PB BLK INT
So 4 1 5 0 0 0 0 0 0 0
Jr 18 29 47 14.0 2.0 0 1 0 0 0
Sr 51 63 114 11.0 1.5 3 2 3 0 1
TOTALS 73 93 166 25.0 3.5 3 3 3 0 1