Growing up a football coach's son, Jeff Hughes can't ever recall a time he wasn't developing his own pigskin passion.
As a youngster, he would attend his father's Tonganoxie High practices and keep himself entertained by kicking the ball over and over again.
As he matured, so did his preparation habits. While many of his friends spent their ninth- and 10th-grade seasons "jacking around," Hughes was studying Tonganoxie quarterbacks Justin Walker and Ross Starcher, seeking insight that would help further develop his own skills as a fledgling signal-caller.
"I would kind of watch the games and watch film when I was younger," Hughes said. "That would kind of mold me for the future."
A future that included an impressive senior campaign this fall in which Hughes' big numbers on offense, defense and special teams led to his selection as the Super 25 Area Player of the Year.
"He had a phenomenal season, especially considering everybody was looking for him at the start of the year," said Tonganoxie coach Mark Elston, who took over for Hughes' father, Steve, prior to the 2000 season. "He had a target on his back to start the year and was able to perform tremendously well."
In addition to his almost 1,900 yards of total offense and 22 touchdowns, Hughes also made life miserable for opposing quarterbacks, racking up 41 tackles and three interceptions in the Chieftains' defensive secondary. He also gave Tonganoxie a dependable weapon both as a place-kicker - a rarity in the high school game - and punter.
Those individual numbers helped the Chieftains to an 8-2 record, including a first-round loss to defending state champ Holton in the Class 4A playoffs.
Asked to pinpoint the biggest reason for his success in 2006, Hughes actually came up with three. After detailing his upbringing around the game, he pointed to the actual on-field lessons learned in 2005, when he piloted Tonganoxie to a 9-2 mark and a first-round playoff victory.
"My junior year being able to start, and then coming into my senior year, everything just seemed to slow down," Hughes said.
He then singled out the wisdom that came with already having a full year of varsity experience under his belt.
"This year just seemed like, if I threw an interception or made a bad play, I would just shrug it off," Hughes said. "Being the quarterback, a lot of people know you and they look up to you and feed off of you. ... So I just try to keep my head in it."
It's that maturity and poised leadership - more than the four different positions Hughes manned in the lineup - that Elston doesn't look forward to having to replace.
"His biggest impact is making people around him better," Elston said. "We always knew Jeff could make a play, but he inspired and allowed other guys to be able to make a big play. That was Jeff's biggest asset."
Despite the impressive numbers he accumulated the last two seasons, Hughes doesn't harbor any grand illusions of continued quarterbacking success at the next level. Instead, he pictures himself playing wide receiver in college, and has a handful of NCAA Division II suitors, including Washburn, Emporia State and Northwest Missouri State.
"I think I have the skills to play (receiver)," Hughes said. "I don't think I'm built as a typical Division I or Division II quarterback.
"But I'll play wherever they need me."