As a fifth-grader in Eden Prairie's youth football system, Antonio Montero wore one stripe on his helmet to signify he was too heavy to run the ball.

By one lousy pound.

"So the next year, I didn't eat for two days before weigh-ins and I was eight or nine pounds underneath the cutoff," he said. "I went to Culver's, and it was the best meal I'd ever had."

Varsity coaches have satiated Montero's appetite for the game by making him a running back, linebacker, kicker and punter. Playing each position with aplomb, Montero, a 6-foot, 215-pound senior, leads the top-ranked and undefeated Eagles in touchdowns (21) and tackles (108). In the Class 6A tournament semifinals, he led the defense with eight tackles and accounted for his team's first 20 points in a 26-0 shutout of Maple Grove.

No player does it all quite like Montero, the Star Tribune Metro Player of the Year.

"He's a really spectacular player," Eden Prairie running back Solo Falaniko said. "He'll always make big plays on both sides of the ball. You see him get a tackle for loss and come to our side and get a touchdown."

Despite going to drastic lengths to carry the ball, Montero's first love is linebacker. He's drawn interest at that position from the Air Force Academy and Illinois. Eden Prairie defensive coordinator Mark Ritter lauded Montero's intuitive play. Other coaches agree.

"He's special," said Matt Lombardi, Maple Grove head coach and former Wayzata defensive coordinator. "He reminds me a lot of [former Trojans, Stanford and Buffalo Bills linebacker] A.J. Tarpley. When they need a play, he just seems to make it."

But varsity football didn't come easy. There were initial highs. As a freshman, Montero kicked two extra-points in the Prep Bowl, the second holding up as the winning point in a 28-27 victory against Totino-Grace.

Sophomore year, however, Montero lost playing time at linebacker. Relegated to the scout team, he suffered in silence.

"I just contemplated, 'What is my future with football?' " Montero said. "It was a tough time. I had to earn my spot and that was a good life lesson for me."

As a junior, he didn't start in the season-opener against Totino-Grace. But he started making plays and turned a timeshare at linebacker into a permanent residence.

"He recognized that starting for the best program in the state is based solely on meritocracy," wrote Luis Montero, Antonio's father, in an e-mail. "Antonio knew it would take hours of lifting, cone drills and watching film to earn his spot on defense. His efforts paid dividends, but Antonio remained focused on continuous improvement."

Montero grew up fast in sports. He traded organized soccer for football in seventh grade but played summer pickup soccer games with his father and other men through this year.

Soccer sharpened his foot skills and cutting while also aiding his conditioning and speed. His father saw other gains.

"He had to maintain composure, read the field and be disciplined at his position," Luis wrote. "Soccer helped Antonio develop these critical skills, and they have certainly translated to the football field. I'm also glad to see his foot skills still in use."

Eden Prairie coach Mike Grant called Montero, a captain this season, the Eagles' "heart and soul." The astute young man understands the responsibility of the title.

"Heart and soul goes past just being a good football player," Montero said. "I heard a quote something like, 'Great players are positive when things are going great but the best players are still positive when things are going bad.' "

First round Class 6A playoff opponent Champlin Park provided the season's gut-check game. The Rebels wouldn't go away, twice cutting the Eden Prairie lead to three points in the fourth quarter. Montero and the defensive starters struggled to find an answer. But they never panicked.

"Rather than deflecting mistakes that occur over the course of a game, Antonio takes accountability," his father wrote. "Antonio knows that the success of the team is dependent on the captains setting the bar high."

Montero is the only remaining member of the Eagles' 2014 championship team. Totino-Grace ended their past two seasons, last year in the title game.

"In our weight room, we put cutouts from the newspaper of Totino-Grace celebrating the championship," Montero said.

Though the Eagles play neighbor Minnetonka in Friday's Prep Bowl, their focus remains.

"Months after the state championship, me and other guys would talk about how we would think about losing that game before we fell asleep," Montero said. "We have a bunch of guys who are committed to winning it this year."