By Steve Williams

Thirty minutes after the game, maybe longer, South-Doyle High School senior quarterback Mason Brang still had his helmet on and chin strap buckled.

He was on his way to the Cherokees’ dressing room after their season-ending 20-16 loss to Central in the TSSAA Class 5A state quarterfinals on Nov. 22.

He was the only player I saw who still had his helmet on that long after the game. The way I figured it, he wasn’t ready to see this season and his high school career come to an end.

The agony of defeat sometimes can be so strong it can affect a player that way. I think my assumption was correct.

Brang’s senior season was cut far too short. He suffered a broken leg in Week 3 against Gibbs and missed the rest of the regular season and South-Doyle’s first-round playoff game.

After weeks of recovery and rehabbing, Mason was able to return and play in the Cherokees’ second round win over Daniel Boone. And he played in the quarterfinal loss to the defending state champion Bobcats.

Brang wanted to play in two more games – the semifinals and finals – but said he wouldn’t trade the two games he did get to play after his comeback for anything.

Despite his agony, Mason stopped when he heard me call his name, after we had passed each other between the stadium and the dressing room and I looked back to see it was No. 10.

I know it’s an awfully tough loss for you guys, I told him, and the game could have gone either way. It was a great game. Your feelings right now, I asked. Can you comment about how you feel?

“I hurt. I’m sad,” he said, his voice slightly quivering. “I know we should have won the game.”

About that time, the sound of football cleats on the concrete walkway where we stood could be heard coming closer and a teammate said “I love you Mace,” as he passed by. “I love you too man,” replied Mason.

“Just sad to see high school being over,” Brang continued, still wearing his helmet with the chin strap buckled. “I loved every second of it. I enjoyed playing with this group of seniors since elementary school almost. And just loved playing a part on this team.”

You would do it all over, the rehabbing and everything, wouldn’t you?

“Yes sir, definitely, a hundred times over,” he answered without any hesitation.

I know right now there is a lot of pain and you’re feeling very emotional … just a comment about the Central team. You all lost to the defending state champions tonight.

“Yes sir. We knew that they were battled tested and so were we. The game could have gone either way. We just came up a little bit short.”

What do you think you will remember most about this season and this team?

“Just the relationship I have with this whole team really,” answered Brang. “I love everyone on this team. It’s just a bond that will never be broken.”

I thanked Mason for stopping and talking to me.

A little while later, while sitting next to Clark Duncan and beginning an interview with the South-Doyle head coach, Brang, now in regular clothes, stopped by the coaches’ office before leaving.

Coach Duncan quietly asked me to excuse him for a second so he could speak with Mason. The two shared a hug and a few words and I could hear Coach Duncan tell him that in time he would look back on this season and his four years at South-Doyle with pride and great memories.

Not all players and teams are fortunate enough to end their high school careers in a state championship game at the BlueCross Bowl in Cookeville.

But that doesn’t mean when they unbuckle that chin strap and take off their helmet for the last time, that they don’t have the heart of a champion.