It was one of those games high school kids live for, at least in Steubenville, Ohio, where high school football is king and where The Big Red is king of kings.

The Big Red was engaged in a playoff game, which has become an annual rite of passing — and tackling — for them when linebacker Branko Busick, who today is a freshman backup linebacker to Reed Williams at West Virginia University but was then a sophomore, got his mitts on the ball carrier.

“I stripped the ball,” Busick recalled.

The football went into the air as Busick yanked it out and was picked off by one of Steubenville’s defensive backs, who carried it in for a touchdown.

That back was Zach Collaros, who today is writing one of the great stories of the college football season.

Collaros started the year on the bench at Cincinnati, playing behind Tony Pike, who had emerged as a Heisman Trophy candidate. However, three games back a plate that had been put in Pike’s arm after he broke it last season slipped out of place, requiring surgery.

Collaros took Pike’s place and has led the No. 4 Bearcats to three straight victories, putting on such a display of athletism that Pike has not been able to displace him as the starter.

It is an embarrassment of riches for Cincinnati coach Brian Kelly, one he almost didn’t have.

As Busick, who became Collaros’ best friend when the two were at Steubenville, tells it, Collaros had committed to go to Kent State.

“He was originally committed to Kent State but decommitted to go to Cincinnati. He caught a lot of heat for that,” Busick recalled. “But now it looks like he made the right choice.”

Who knows? Ohio State may even be wondering why they didn’t chase after him out of high school.

“Ohio State never gave him any love,” Busick said. “Maybe they should have.”

The friendship between Collaros and Busick, who is the son of former professional wrestler Nick “Big Bully” Busick, began right after Busick moved from Weirton to Steubenville. They had known each other previously, but when they got to the same town they became inseparable.

“He’s a great friend,” Busick said. “I’m close to his family. We won a high school championship. It’s a weird thing, playing against each other.”

Collaros was a couple of years ahead of Busick, but they were the top athletes in the school.

Collaros starred in baseball, basketball and football, Busick in football and wrestling.

But it was on the football field where they became one.

“That year we had together was just awesome,” Busick said. “Zach held it down on offense and I held it down on the defense. That just made us closer.”

The two would play video games together, partied together.

“He’s one of the funnest people to be around,” Busick said. “He’s a character, definitely. But he’s not cocky at all. He stays humble and is one of the hardest workers I know.”

The two have stayed in touch on the phone, talking every couple of days. Earlier this year, Collaros needed those calls.

“He went through some rough times, not starting, worrying about not getting down about it,” Busick said. “We kept after each other, you know, ‘work hard, keep your head up.’ It paid off; look where he’s at now.”

Look, indeed. He simply has a quarterback rating of 210.24. Talk about hot. If you put that in terms of weather, that’s like it being 130 in the shade. He’s completed 76 of 100 passes, 10 for touchdowns, only one for an interception.

Now it’s true that his starts were against Louisville, Syracuse and Connecticut, which is not the cream of the crop in the Big East, but it was enough to earn Big East Player of the Week honors and to keep Pike on the bench for at least another week, although Kelly does say that he will work Pike into the game.

“I don’t want to knock Pike, but I think Zach is more an athlete, more of a playmaker,” Busick said. “I personally think he’s more deadly.”

On Friday, the two will get together after West Virginia and Cincinnati play in what is the biggest game of the season to date for both teams, but Busick says they probably won’t talk on the field before the game.

“I’ll probably give him a look and one of these,” Busick said, running his index finger across his throat, “just to fire him up.”

And then they both will go their separate ways, not like back in high school when after games Collaros used to pick Busick up so they could go swim to get the soreness out of their bodies.

“He was a good swimmer,” Busick recalled. “Me, I swam like a rock.”

E-mail Bob Hertzel at bhertzel@hotmail.com.

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