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In this 2000 staff file photo, Westmoreland quarterback Derrick Gregory (8) is pursued by Tyner guard Demonte Bolden (65), who is blocked by Cody Brummett (75) and Anthony Braswell (57).

It was bitterly cold and damp, which only seemed to make the moment more somber. Tyner had worked its way through the 2003 season unbeaten in its region and winner of 11 straight games before having its playoff run ended by Lipscomb Academy in the state quarterfinals.

As the disappointment of that loss sank in, Rams All-America defensive lineman Demonte Bolden stood on the field, flecks of mud and grass sticking to his sweaty arms and tears rolling freely down both cheeks.

As media gathered around him, the mammoth 6-foot-5, 290-pound kid kept his head down and spoke softly, answering every postgame question while oddly still wearing his helmet. Just before he turned to walk back to the Rams' locker room, I asked why, since the game long had been over and he was clearly exhausted, was he still wearing the maroon and gold helmet.

I'll never forget his response.

"Because I know when I take this Tyner helmet off, that's the last time I'll ever wear it," he said. "I just can't believe it's over."

Bolden would go on to sign with the University of Tennessee and played professionally in the Canadian Football League for eight years, but at that moment he knew a special time in his life had come to an end.

Friday night marks the first round of the TSSAA prep football playoffs. A total of 228 teams, including 24 from the Chattanooga area, hope it's the first step of a five-week journey toward Cookeville, site of the annual BlueCross Bowl state championships.

The thousands of teenagers making up those teams want just one thing — to know they will have practice again on Monday. But none more than the seniors.

As each Friday night passes, and teams either advance or have their season ended, it's the seniors who are most affected by the outcome. A college scholarship awaits a select few, but for most of those kids the postseason will end with only tears streaming in the cold winter air and the biggest takeaway will be the memories they've made with their teammates.

East Hamilton coach Grant Reynolds once told me, "The playoffs are called a new season, but it's basically sudden death."

More than 15 years later, having returned home to Chattanooga, Bolden is now a volunteer assistant at his alma mater. One of the most important points he tries to pass along to this year's Rams is the lesson he learned when he wore the same uniform.

"We have a lot of sweat equity together, and we talk every day about cashing that in and not wasting it," Bolden said this week. "I can relate to them about how mad I was after we lost and how it felt. I remind our kids to look their teammates in the eye and find whatever it takes to make sure you don't let them down.

"That's what I missed the most when it ended, just getting to come back out on the field with my friends. You don't stop and think about it when you're that age, but you don't ever get to do that again."

Or as former Cleveland and Ooltewah coach Benny Monroe once put it: "The days seem long but the years fly by. The kids don't recognize just how much the game will affect their lives, usually, until years after it's over.

"That's why I would talk to my seniors as a group every year about not taking a single play or practice for granted in the playoffs. There has to be a sense of urgency on every snap so you don't walk away with any regrets."

Contact Stephen Hargis at shargis@timesfreepress.com or 423-757-6293. Follow him on Twitter @StephenHargis.

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