RACINE, Wis. — Casey Smith didn't particularly like Eric Oertel when they first crossed paths in August 2006.
The Racine Lutheran High School football team had just reported for practice that summer and one of its leaders was Smith, a junior linebacker. The son of longtime Lutheran coach Scott Smith was mature beyond his years, played the game the way it is supposed to be played and valued winning more than anything.
Oertel was an incoming freshman running back and linebacker that August and Casey Smith was turned off by what he considered to be his self-assured mindset that bordered on cocky. No freshman, even as talented as Oertel was, should just assume he was going to play on this team.
"He was saying something on Myspace (a social media platform) about how he was going to get playing time right away," Smith told The Journal Times . "We had some good ballplayers back then and I was like, 'Who is this kid? He's not going to get any playing time.' "
Truth be known, Smith wasn't exactly Oertel's favorite teammate at the time, either.
"When you're that young, you have a very self-centered way of thinking and football was everything to me at that point," Oertel said. "And football was everything to him in the same regard. When you have two head-strong people who are very dedicated to their craft, you bump heads a little bit.
"In the end, we figured out that we wanted the same thing."
Circumstances beyond football would draw the two closer by the end of that year. As the years passed, they became best friends who keep an eye out for one another as officers for the Mount Pleasant Police Department and are there for each other through each step of their lives.
Smith, an only son, had a brother for the first time.
And so did Oertel, who was adopted by Dan and Carol Oertel and was an only child.
"Eric will always be there for me and he always has if I need him," Smith said. "I will always be there for him."
Gradually during that 2006 season, animosity made way for acceptance between Smith and Oertel and they established common ground. Both came to understand that winning was what mattered most to each of them.
And then Dan and Carol Oertel divorced in late 2006, sending Eric into a traumatic emotional void. Scott Smith asked Casey Smith to be a buddy for Eric Oertel during this time and he accepted his father's request with the conviction he had on a football field.
There would be no going through the motions. Casey Smith was going to put his heart into being an older brother for Eric Oertel.
"It was a time for him and I to bond," Oertel said. "It was a big hurt for a 14-year-old kid. It wasn't easy. I was in a tough place at that time in my life and he came along as the big brother that I needed at that moment. It was real cool to see."
Smith graduated from Lutheran in 2008 and was a four-year starter for Southwest Baptist University in Bolivar, Missouri. Oertel graduated two years later after becoming the all-time leading rusher in Racine County history and earning first-team AP All-State honors as a senior running back in the fall of 2009.
But their friendship continued to evolve, even from long-range. When Oertel went through stretches of frustration as a member of the Washington State University football team, Smith was only a phone call away. When Smith's football career was abruptly ended by a neck injury during the fourth game of his senior season in 2011, it was Oertel who talked his buddy through the loss of something he loved.
"It was pretty hard for me," Smith said. "When I had to stop playing football my senior year, it was pretty hard to comprehend. I never wanted to take myself out of a game and now football was being taken away from me.
"When I had tests to see how bad it was, Eric was one of my first phone calls. He said, 'You have to be thankful for the time you had to play football.' "
Smith, 28, joined the Mount Pleasant Police Department in August 2012, just after he received a degree in criminal justice from Southwest Baptist. Partly because of Smith's influence, Oertel joined him two years later after graduating from Washington State.
With Smith on second shift and Oertel on third shift, the two typically don't work together. But they do in overtime situations, which come up several times a year, and they constantly have each other's back when things get tense.
"This car went flying right past him and the driver never hit his brakes," Smith said. "Eric said he was going to make a traffic stop. I said, 'I'll start heading that way.' He must have had the phone on the center counsel and it was still going, so I could hear him trying to catch up to this car.
"I could just tell in his voice that this car might not be stopping. Right away, I could tell, 'Oh, Eric might get into something here and I want to be there for him in case this guy runs.' That's not what happened, but I think it's just intuition. You're friends with someone for so long and you can tell what they're thinking."
Oertel was also there for Smith — and this time, the incident was far more serious.
"About two years ago, Casey was dealing with a very large, combative subject," the 26-year-old Oertel said. "I drove to his location as fast as I could because I knew there was a very good chance that he was going to have to physically subdue the subject.
"I was right because when I showed up, the subject was extremely uncooperative and started fighting with Casey and I. Casey's cousin, Cody (also a Mount Pleasant police officer) was there with us and it took all three of us to take the very large subject into custody.
"Casey and I are alike in that we would drop anything at work if we knew one another was in any kind of danger."
They're also there for each other in times of celebration. That never more was the case than June 25, 2016, when Oertel married former Horlick standout athlete Justine Boerger and Smith served as his best man.
"He literally did renovations to his house, adding bedrooms, months before so all my friends and teammates from Washington had a place to stay," Oertel said. "He also hosted them for the entirety of their stay.
"On my wedding day, he took the time to come find me when I went on a walk by myself just an hour before my wedding, just to pray with me. That moment is one of the top-five moments that will stick with me forever,"
Brothers are what Casey Smith and Eric Oertel will always be.
An AP Member Exchange shared by The Journal Times.