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Cincinnati's Boldens deepen legacy

CINCINNATI -- Joe Bolden stood 15 yards from center as he awaited the snap for him to punt the ball and pin Cocoa (Fla.) deep in its own territory. The Colerain (Cincinnati) senior already had booted a 49-yard punt earlier -- his first varsity punt.

Ed Bolden, 8, looked up from his water bottle sword fight to see his older brother was set to punt.

"Oh, no. Joe's punting?"

Seconds later, Bolden called for the snap and watched the ball land comfortably in his hands. Instead of swinging his right leg, though, Bolden cocked his head up and swung his right arm, flinging the ball to senior Andre Jones on a fake. Jones broke a tackle and then broke for the pylon.

All the while, Dan Bolden was watching from across the field, on the opposite pylon about 10 yards from the boundary. As Jones got closer to the end zone, Dan got closer to the field. By the time Jones fell into the end zone, Dan was right in there with him, 50 yards away on the other side of the field, pumping his fists over his head and screaming, "Touchdown!" (It was determined Jones stepped out at the 8-yard line, but the Cardinals scored on the ensuing play.)

Thirty yards away from Dan was Tom Bolden, standing around the 25-yard line, a visor and dark sunglasses hiding most of his face. The only part of his face visible was a smile that stretched from ear to ear. He knew he had just pulled a fast one on a defending three-time state champion on a 38-game winning streak.

"We always knew Joe could throw," Tom said, "and I was a quarterback, so he better be able to throw."

Joe Bolden, ESPNU's No. 6 middle linebacker for the 2012 class and a four-star prospect committed to Michigan, is the nephew of Colerain coach Tom Bolden and the son of athletic director Dan Bolden, Tom's brother. Joe is following in the footsteps of his uncle and dad, who both played at Colerain.

Collectively, the Boldens are the face of Colerain football.

Boldens take the field together
As a freshman in 2008, Joe was practicing with the freshmen team on the field across from Cardinal Stadium when Tom, in his second season as head coach, yelled for Joe to come over. There was an injury on the team, and Tom needed Joe just to fill the position of another practice body -- a temporary promotion until the linebacker corps was healthy again.

Well, it was supposed to be temporary. On the first practice play Joe was in, he laid a big hit on the team's starting fullback. Joe has played on the varsity for his uncle ever since.

Joe loves having his uncle as his coach all of the time, too; not just some of the time. There is a tendency for family members to be a little bit harder on each other, but Joe revels in the fact that his uncle is never going to sugarcoat anything.

"I wouldn't have it any other way," Joe said.

Neither would Tom, a 1988 Colerain graduate.

"Unfortunately, sometimes I tend to be harder on him, a little more critical at times," Tom said. "But it's been an unbelievable experience to share in the victories. It's been real neat to have him there to share in that and to watch him grow from a little guy into a senior."

A former coach himself, Dan, who graduated Colerain in 1982 and became athletic director in 2007, also wouldn't change the setup for anything.

"Joe has thoroughly enjoyed having his uncle be his coach, and I've thoroughly enjoyed watching them," Dan says. "We had team pictures the other day, and they put the captains next to the head coach and Joe's at Tom's right. I snapped a quick picture of it myself. It's one of those things where it's like, how often does that happen across the country?"

No days off
It nearly didn't happen, though. Very easily, Tom could have given up on coaching several years ago, well before Joe made it to Colerain High School.

In 2004, Tom, an assistant then, was diagnosed with testicular cancer.

"We have a big family, so we don't vacation much," Dan says. "But (in 2004) we got a great deal on a place in Hilton Head, and the last night we're down there he called me and he told me. So we got in the car and came home the next day and went straight to see him.

"…As the older brother, you think 'Oh, it's going to happen to me.' I didn't expect that phone call. You don't expect that from your little brother."

Dan, Tom and their sister Jill, who is three years younger than Dan and three years older than Tom, have always been close. The bond really strengthened when Dan was about 15 and their parents split up. The three of them lived with their mom, and though their dad was nearby and they continued to have a great relationship with him, he wasn't around all the time anymore.

Dan was forced to fill that fatherly role.

"Dan really quickly took on the role of a father figure for Tom and I," Jill says. "He realized, 'I'm sort of the man of the family now. So if Mom needs her oil changed, I'll learn how to change oil in a car.'

"He went and got a part-time job flipping burgers. When he wasn't playing football, he was at his job, trying to help out and make ends meet."

That ability to forge ahead in trying circumstances, which trickled down from their mother -- the strongest person, all three said, they have ever known -- to Dan and then to Jill and Tom, helped Tom fight the cancer.

That season, Tom didn't miss a single practice. Not one, even during two-a-days. He would schedule radiation and therapy around practice. While there, the team trainer would act as Tom's shadow because, inevitably, Tom was going to throw up from the strain and toll the chemotherapy was taking on his body.

It wasn't quite the standard 10-game regular season, either. The Cardinals would make a deep run into the state playoffs, all the way to the Division I state championship. Then-coach Kerry Coombs, now an assistant at Cincinnati, brought up Tom's courageous battle during the pregame speech. The result was Colerain's first state championship in team history, and in dominating fashion. The Cardinals won 50-10 over Canton McKinley, a school with three championships.

"I couldn't be more proud of my brother than whipping that cancer," Dan says.

More to come

After Sunday's big game, which had Dan's nerves on edge from morning to the final whistle, Dan was hardly Jim Valvano, who, in a defining sports moment, famously and franticly ran around the court desperately looking for someone to hug after the 1983 NCAA men's basketball championship. But there would be no handshakes or pats on the back from Dan, either.

Whether it was Tom, Joe or another player on the team (and Dan seemingly has nicknames for all 90 players), Dan would grab them for a long hug, a hug much more meaningful than a simple congratulations for the big win.

The rest of the family would climb down from the stands, too.

"I wish everybody could experience what I experience," said Jill, who now lives just across the river in Kentucky with her family. "I'm their No. 1 cheerleader."

Next year, it will be back to just Tom and Dan, as Joe will be playing 250 miles north in Michigan Stadium for the Wolverines.

Joe said the phrase "tight-knit" is an understatement when describing the family. Every Sunday, Dan, Tom and Jill, and each of their families, gather at their mother's home for dinner. So it'll be tough on Joe and the entire family when Joe is no longer walking down the steps to lead Colerain on a Friday night and instead slapping the "Go Blue" Michigan banner on Saturdays when he's running out of the tunnel and onto the field.

However, it was the sense of gaining a new family that sold Bolden on committing to Michigan back in April.

"I got into Coach Hoke's office to sit down and talk and it's me, my entire family, my grandma and my grandpa," Joe said of his visit with Michigan's Brady Hoke, "and I knew my decision when Coach Hoke switched his chair position to talk to my grandma.

"I knew it was the right fit for me."

Joe isn't going to be the last Bolden child to graduate Colerain under the tutelage of Tom, and Dan, who on game day mixes in AD duties with fan, coach and dad duties. While Colerain tried to run out the clock, Dan, in typical offensive lineman fashion, took time from nervously playing with his fingernails to disagree with Tom's decision to throw the ball. "Come on, Tommy!" he muttered.

Dan has two more sons who will play football at Colerain, and Tom has three sons who will make their way through the program. There is no doubt Tom will be around for all five of them -- and possibly more.

"Hopefully I'll be coaching some of my grandkids," Tom said, laughing. "I don't know if I can hang on that long."

Dan will be right there, too, presumably swaying nervously along the sideline, waiting for a Colerain touchdown to throw his fists in there again.

And at one moment will Dan be able to remove himself and take in the experience of working with his brother, sons, nephews and family?

"I already have now" Dan says. "I feel so blessed."

Jared Shanker, a New Jersey native who now lives in Columbus, Ohio, covers Midwest recruiting for ESPN Recruiting. He can be reached at jshankerespn@gmail.com.