THE WAY James Messina's eyes lit up, you would have thought someone had just mentioned Christmas.

Instead, the word had been football.

While some kids merely play the sport, James Messina, a 5-10, 165-pound senior linebacker at Archbishop Wood High, pretty much lives it, and that's true for his entire family.

Let's see. Where to begin . . .

His dad, Chris, is Wood's freshman coach. His mother, Cathy, is a stalwart in the school's football-support group even though she works three jobs. As James put it, "She deserves so much more credit than we ever give her."

His oldest brother, Chris, starred for Quakertown a decade ago. Two more brothers, Tom and then Dave, were starters and/or key subs the past two seasons for Wood. Another brother, Josh, just finished a successful campaign for dad's freshman squad. Kate, a sixth-grader, is a cheerleader for a CYO squad. And Amanda, age 8, can't wait to shake her pom-poms.

One would like to think that James, as a youngster, had freedom when choosing a favorite sport. One would be woefully wrong.

"We love football. It's just something we do every fall," he said. "Two weeks ago, we all went down to see the Warrington Warriors [youth program] play a championship game, wearing our classic jerseys. My dad coached there before Wood and is still a [league administrator] and we all still support that organization.

"You should see our house on Sundays. All football. We talk about my games and my brother's games and fantasy leagues and we watch [the NFL games]. It's just a whole lot of fun."

Friday night, a mass trek will be made to Bethlehem. At Frank Banko Field, hard by Liberty High, Wood will meet Allentown Central Catholic at 7 o'clock in a PIAA Class AAA semifinal.

Familiar territory, folks. The Vikings have reached that level in each of the last three seasons and in'08 they advanced to the championship game. Though a plaque has not yet been claimed, Messina has cherished the respective journeys.

Understandably, since he's a starter, this one has provided the most enjoyment.

"Though I knew I could do this, I used to be an outside linebacker," Messina said. "But now . . . When I go out, I always wear my jacket. It makes me so proud when I get introduced to people as a starting middle linebacker for Archbishop Wood. And I'm the defensive captain, too. I never thought I'd be in this position."

Internally, Messina has fought occasional battles. Though his love for football itself has never waned, there were times when he couldn't help but think, "Do I want to keep playing it?"

"That first happened when I was in the seventh grade," he said. "But as I got close to the eighth grade, it was, 'It can't be over now. I still want to play.' So I was right back out there.

"Football's a lot of work. It takes a toll. You pretty much have to sell yourself for it. On the youth teams, our records were usually around .500. Once I got here and started playing for winning teams, well, it really reminds you why you love the game so much. You're always going to hate practice. But the games? Nothing like it. Awesome."

Nevertheless, Messina, who boasts a 4.0 GPA in first-track courses and envisions a career in finance or accounting, is uncertain whether he'll attempt to play in college.

"Right now, I'd say no," he said.

Then he laughed. "But, shortly after this season ends, I think I could be persuaded. That's how it goes. You want to get away, then you miss it like crazy."

Whatever happens, James will keep pushing Josh.

"Know why I give him such a hard time? Because I know he'll learn from it," he said. "It'll only make him better as the years go on. All that wrestling around I did with my older brothers, it made me so I couldn't wait to get out on the field and take things out on somebody else."

Central Catholic will present a formidable challenge. Quarterback Brendan Nosovitch has already been named Gatorade's Pennsylvania Player of the Year for eclipsing 2,000 passing yards and 1,000 on the ground. This is the second time he has accomplished that feat. (P.S. He's only a junior.)

Thanks to ends Colin Thompson and Brian Butler and tackles Frank Taylor and Rory Clark, Wood has a large, impressive defensive front, and its physicality enables Messina and others to mostly fly to the ball unimpeded.

"I know I'm not big. My speed - that's why I'm out here," he said. "Running up and just hitting people. Nothing better than that.

"My brother, Chris, was a 5-8 nose guard for Quakertown. He was always in the papers up there. Played in the Bucks County All-Star Game; then he had to stop playing because of a heart condition. I like being a small guy, too. People understimate you, and it gives you motivation."

This spring, Messina will compete for Wood's track team as a long- and triple-jumper. For the moment, he's thinking he'll attend Pitt or Duquesne (he has family out there) and maybe walk on for football, though he would certainly listen to come-ons from smaller schools.

What he knows he'll hear Friday night: Great support from the stands. While providing fodder for Sunday's next football-crazed get-together.