For most, the grooming started years ago in recreation leagues on Baltimore County's west side where neighborhood coaches taught spindly legged boys how to play the seams and snap a pigskin.
Years later, a handful of peewee players turned brawny young men, members of rival football teams at Randallstown High School and Milford Mill Academy, will meet tonight to decide bragging rights big enough to last them a lifetime.
Both teams -- the Milford Millers and Randallstown Rams -- are drooling at a chance to become this year's Class 3A state champion. The winner of the game set for 7: 30 p.m. at the Community College of Baltimore County Catonsville campus moves a step closer to the final showdown at the University of Maryland's Byrd Stadium in College Park.
"What it comes down to is who wants it the most," said Randallstown linebacker Quan Mitchell, 16. "We're hungry enough to get the job done, but that doesn't mean it won't be a good little fight."
For football players such as Mitchell and their fans -- the school bands, cheerleaders, spirit clubs and hordes of parents and relatives -- there's intense excitement about a big game on Baltimore County's west side, a tight-knit community where school pride is deep-rooted.
"Remember the old City-Poly games?" asked Milford Mill football parent Lia Roundtree. "I compare it to that. Most of the kids here played together when they were younger so they know each other pretty well."
Chest-pounding, trophy-touting competition between Milford Mill and Randallstown is nothing new.
The two schools, which compose the west side's secondary school trinity along with Woodlawn High, are within a few miles of each other. Many students attended the same elementary and middle schools before venturing to different high schools.
"There is a big rivalry," said Ed Smith, an assistant football coach at Milford Mill, as he watched a blocking drill Wednesday afternoon. "A lot of the students know each other so there is a lot of excitement."
A week ago, the undefeated Millers beat Randallstown, 48-31, for Baltimore County's Class 3A-4A League title and the Class 3A North region crown. Last year, however, Randallstown was victorious.
"Richie Johnson was all over us," said Randallstown head coach Anthony Knox, referring to Milford Mill's star player, quarterback Richard Johnson. "Every time we turned it over, Richie scored on us again. That's what that game was all about."
After the game, Milford Mill team members ripped up and burned a Randallstown football jersey. Since then, members of both teams have sniped at each other. Players acknowledge it's all part of a good-natured mind game meant to intimidate the enemy.
Randallstown quarterback Archie Trader, 17, a wizard at executing the Rams' wing-T offense, says they are determined to keep tabs on Johnson this time around. Team members are counting on an early lead to help them upset the Millers.
"They don't know how to lose," said Randallstown's Mitchell, referring to Milford Mill's undefeated 10-0 season, a first for the Millers since 1987.
At 8-2, Randallstown is the underdog in the contest.
On top of that, the team is eager to make up for the game it botched against Cumberland's Fort Hill High School in the Class 2A state semifinals last year.
"It's redemption time," said Randallstown linebacker Mykle Bouie, 17.
Even though the Rams and the Millers faced off last week, the quarterfinal pairings matched them again tonight and that has added to the tension, according to players and coaches.
"To tell you the truth, I'd rather play another team," said Milford Mill head coach Reggie Brooks, who lives in Randallstown and knows some of the school's football players. "Randallstown has a good team. They've got some good speed."
Brooks won't coach the game any differently than any other, he said.
"We'll just go in and give it 100 percent, the same as we do any other game," Brooks explained.
On campus at Milford Mill, there is no doubt that the school's green-and-white jerseys will triumph.
Just ask Milford Mill sophomore Jermaine Stancil, 15, and he'll rattle off the strengths of his team's "triple threat," including Johnson, the state's No. 1 ranked player by the ACC Journal and the nation's fourth-best cornerback by National Recruiting Advisor. Completing the "threat" are Milford Mill wide receivers Brandon Thompson and Renard Stancil, both 17.
"My brother's so excited, he can't get any sleep," said Jermaine.
At Randallstown, the team is getting lots of support from fans desperate for a trip to Byrd Stadium and a chance to wave a win in Milford Mill's face.
In the team's locker room office, a poster says it all: "Pain is temporary, pride is forever."
"Milford Mill thinks they are better than us," said Randallstown freshman Audrey Green, 14, "but it's time to let them know they can't be the best at everything."
Sun staff writer Lisa Respers contributed to this article.