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W&M QB Mike Callahan is taking his long-awaited turn in limelight

There's no telling how many nights Mike Callahan's dinner got cold.

Growing up in Lancaster, Pa., Callahan spent countless hours throwing a football or practicing his jump shot in the driveway.

"When he was 12, I bought him one of those quarterback throwing nets with the three pockets in it," said Callahan's father, Mike Callahan Sr. "He wouldn't come in until he made three straight at 10 yards, three straight at 15 yards, three straight at 20 yards, and then one at 30 yards in those pockets. I ended up putting lights on the driveway.

"He had the same deal with basketball. He'd never come in until he made a right-handed layup, a left-handed layup, three 3-pointers, and 10 consecutive foul shots. Once in a while, it'd come down to where he'd miss the last foul shot, and he'd flip out and throw the basketball against the house and start again."

That determination carried Callahan through the five years he'd have to wait to showcase his skills for a wider audience.

In his last season at William and Mary, Callahan, a fifth-year senior, was named the Tribe's starting quarterback, and he's made the most of his one chance.

Callahan has thrown for 1,546 yards and 10 touchdowns and is coming off a career-high 331-yard performance in a 41-3 win against Richmond on Nov. 20 that earned the Tribe (8-3) a No. 2 national seed in the FCS playoffs.

After a bye last weekend, William and Mary takes on Georgia Southern (8-4) at 1:30 p.m. Saturday at Zable Stadium.

"He's their leader," said Georgia Southern defensive tackle Brent Russell, who leads the Eagles with six sacks. "He doesn't make mistakes. He keeps them going. I respect the guy and can't wait to see him Saturday."

Mike Callahan Sr. is beyond eager to see his son play his first postseason game. The elder Callahan missed just three or four games, including scrimmages, in the past four seasons, even though his son never got on the field.

"I always felt like he should have been in there the whole time, but you know, that's a dad. Every dad thinks his kid's the greatest," Mike Callahan Sr. said. "It's a coach's decision, but I always thought, sooner or later, they'd see it."

Callahan set career records for passing yards (4,159) and touchdown passes (44) at Hempfield High in Mountville, Pa. But while impressed with his stats, colleges weren't sold on his size — 5-foot-11 and 185 pounds.

"I've been hearing I'm too small to do anything at the quarterback position since high school," Callahan said. "I was recruited by plenty of people, and they all said the same thing — 'We really like you, but you're just not big enough.' "

Callahan walked on at William and Mary in 2006, spending that season as the scout team quarterback. He redshirted in 2007 and traveled with the team in 2008, but didn't play.

In 2009, three years of immersion in the Tribe's playbook and film study had Callahan primed to be a solid second option if R.J. Archer — who'd waited until his senior season for his own starting chance — got hurt.

For the Tribe's final fall scrimmage before opening the season at Virginia, Mike Callahan Sr. drove down from Pennsylvania — a trip he can make in four hours if he skirts heavy Beltway traffic –sharing his son's optimism.

Then came the hit on the sideline.

"I never even thought about him getting hurt, because all through grade school and high school, he played football, basketball and baseball, and the kid never missed a game. I don't think he ever missed a practice," Callahan Sr. said. "He went down and I was expecting him to pop back up, and the next thing you know, they're picking him up on the training table."

Callahan's longtime roommate, tight end Gareth Hissong, was working the chains, and Callahan Sr. hurried down for a quick word.

"He just said, 'ACL,' " Callahan Sr. said. "I was like, 'Oh, my God. I can't believe it.' That was the whole season."

So instead of finally playing, Callahan spent 2009 rehabbing. A lifelong Penn State fan, Callahan kept thinking how a similar injury hastened the end of Nittany Lion running back Kijana Carter's pro career.

"That was easily the lowest," Callahan said. "As positive as you want to think, at the same time, you always kind of have that, like, 'What if it doesn't work out?' in the back of your mind. That's kind of what drives you."

More motivation arrived last spring, when 6-4, 220-pound, strong-armed Michael Paulus transferred to William and Mary from North Carolina amid much speculation that he'd be the starter. Redshirt freshman Brent Caprio, another big-bodied QB, was also in the mix.

"I told the quarterbacks before they left for the summer, it's not trying to pick who's No. 1, who's No. 2, and who's No. 3," Tribe coach Jimmye Laycock said. "I can pull names out of a hat and do that. What I wanted to do was get a quarterback to play at the level that's necessary to play in this league to be successful, and I could see that out of Mike Callahan in the preseason scrimmages. He was playing at that level."

During the competition, Callahan maintained the same quiet confidence he'd kept despite not starting a game since his senior year of high school.

"The quarterback position, you've got to know what you're capable of and make everyone else believe you're capable of that," he said. "When you walk in the huddle, every guy in that huddle needs to believe, just by the way you tell them the play, that you're going to score a touchdown."

That, essentially, is exactly what happened. After his superior knowledge of the offense earned Callahan the starting job out of fall camp, he went 5-for-5 for 36 yards on his first-ever college series at Massachusetts on Sept. 3, completing the drive with a 5-yard touchdown pass to fullback Jimmy Hobson.

"He executed just like he'd done in practice," Laycock said. "I wasn't surprised that he did it in a game."

In the stands, relief flooded Callahan's father.

"We were out in the parking lot tailgating, and I did very little eating or drinking, because I was just so nervous, my wife and I," Callahan Sr. said. "After that first series, when he went down and threw a touchdown, I think both of us broke down and hugged each other in the stands. It was just the emotional part of waiting for five years for him to get there."

More ups and downs, though, were to come.

Callahan twice separated his right throwing shoulder, costing him four games, and had surgery to repair a partially torn meniscus in his knee.

He returned from his first shoulder injury with his team trailing No. 2 Delaware 13-3 in the third quarter on Oct. 23, going 3-for-3 for 52 yards and capping a 70-yard drive with a 15-yard touchdown pass that rallied the Tribe to a 17-16 victory. That euphoria lasted until he separated his shoulder again the next week, five plays into William and Mary's 21-17 loss at North Carolina.

"He completes a pass for a first down, and he completes another pass for a first down," Callahan Sr. said. "I'm high-fiving, and I look and he's rolling around on the ground."

That low was soon eclipsed by the highest high so far.

Needing to beat Richmond to earn a first-round playoff bye and a share of its first Colonial Athletic Association title since 2004, William and Mary rolled up 616 total yards behind Callahan's 17-of-22 performance as his father and 34 family members and friends looked on.

"That day was probably the best day," Callahan Sr. said. "It's a 65-degree, sunny day. There's hardly any wind. By the time we're walking on the field for Senior Day with Mike, we've already heard that Villanova beat Delaware, so at that point we know that if we win this game, we're the CAA champs. And then the kids just go out and play their heart out — offense, defense, just a total game. They just go out there and dominate. And then to have all your family and friends around — it was just great."

The elder Callahan would have enjoyed a few more days like that before this year, but his son, who will receive a master's degree in accounting this spring, said he wouldn't change the course of his college career.

"Yeah, it was tough, but I love working hard," Callahan said. "I love being around the guys. I love the game, and I'm always just trying to push myself to do whatever I can to make the team better. Whether that was rehabbing or signaling (plays) or playing scout team — hard work is good work."

Just ask the Callahans' driveway.

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