As his team prepared for another regional championship game Wednesday evening, Willie Smith limped toward the sideline and watched.
He wasn't wearing a helmet or pads or what has become his trademark No. 8 red mesh jersey.
In its place was a long-sleeved sweatshirt, white exercise shorts and sandals.
This time last year, Smith, Manatee's ballhawk of a defensive back, was engineering a star-making turn through the playoffs that helped the Hurricanes win a state title and Smith a scholarship to Florida International.
Not bad for a kid who once figured his road to college ran through a basketball court.
Now he's a spectator, done for the year after tearing a ligament in a knee.
Worse, he's a senior.
"Mentally," Smith said Wednesday after practice, "it's tough."
But he isn't running away.
A co-captain, Smith plans on being there Friday when Manatee makes the long trip to Fort Pierce Central to play for the Class 7A-Re
gion 3 title. And Smith plans on being there for the state semifinals and finals, if, of course, Manatee makes it that far.
Why sulk when you can be supportive?
"I've still got to be here for my team, day in, day out," Smith said. "We're all family.
"I'm not going to miss a game."
The injury came in the third quarter of Manatee's regional semifinal win over Venice. As he has done the past two seasons, Smith was right where the ball was, right in the back corner of the end zone. But the ball was deflected, and when Smith dove for it, he got tangled with another player and lay on the ground.
Trainers helped him toward the sideline, and Wednesday's MRI revealed what everyone already knew.
"When it happened on the field, they told me they thought they knew what it was, so I was prepared for the worst," said Smith, who has a team-best four interceptions this season. "It was just a bad feeling in my stomach. But it's all in the game. I'd rather get hurt playing football than anything else."
Smith has a kindred spirit in Anthony Lauro, Manatee's talented, Akron-bound running back/receiver who suffered a season-ending knee injury earlier this year at Southeast. Lauro, too, is a senior, and has to watch the Hurricanes defend the title he helped them win last year.
"We talked about it. We've got to get through it together -- he's hurt, I'm hurt. He missed more games than me," Smith said. "It's both of our senior years, so we've just got to be there for our team and just bounce back."
Smith undergoes surgery a week from Monday and doesn't think the injury will impact his college career.
As for right now, he's still a Hurricane.
"It's all right. I try not to think about as much," Smith said. "It's just a minor setback for a major comeback."
John Lembo, Herald sports writer, can be reached at 745-7080, ext. 2097. Follow him on Twitter @John Lembo1878.