COLERAIN TOWNSHIP, Ohio -- The emotions are often too much for Ivan Pace Sr.
His tears are joyous. His love is genuine. His pride is palpable.
Describing how well his sons Ivan Jr. and Deshawn have played for the undefeated Colerain football team this season comes easy, but he also feels grateful this Thanksgiving week for the young men they've become.
"It gives me goosebumps, cold chills every time," Ivan Sr. said. "Because I look at them and say, 'Wow, we're blessed.'"
As Colerain (13-0) prepares for its Division I state semifinal against Pickerington Central (11-2) on Friday night at Piqua High School, all eyes are on the No. 1-state ranked Cardinals. They hope to reach the state final for the first time since 2004, when they played in Canton, went undefeated (15-0) and captured the school's first state football title.
Ivan Sr., a Colerain defensive lineman in the 1990s, took 4-year-old Ivan Jr. and 3-year-old Deshawn to Canton in 2004. The family watched arguably the greatest high school football team in Greater Cincinnati history defeat Canton McKinley 50-10 in the state final.
The boys don't remember much, but there are photos.
"I told them the next time they see this field, 'You are going to be here (as a player),'" Ivan Sr. said.
Fourteen years later, the Cardinals have a chance to return to the stadium adjacent to the Pro Football Hall of Fame to complete another journey.
"I am very locked in," Ivan Pace Jr. said Wednesday. "Just working together and playing our hearts out trying to get to state."
Ivan Sr., a Rumpke diesel mechanic, knows how much an opportunity would mean to his eldest sons, who still like to wrestle him. Ivan's wife, Shellie, loves watching her sons in a game. She brought lunch for the team on Wednesday and wore a sweatshirt with photos of the players.
"They want that state championship," Ivan Sr. said with a smile. "I think it would be a different thing if they boast around the house and say, 'Look at this, Dad.'"
Ivan Sr., 42, was on Colerain's 1995 team -- a team that had to forfeit its wins the Monday before the state final after the school learned that Pace, as a fifth-year student, was ineligible.
He discussed the '95 situation with his sons when they were younger, and he still has a signed football, program and ring from that year, but largely Ivan Sr. doesn't dwell on history.
"I don't worry about it anymore," Ivan Sr. said. "I am looking at the success story right now. I have my boys in there, and they are doing what they are supposed to do. I am so proud of them."
He and Shellie are grateful, too. Football is an integral part of their lives.
Ivan Jr. was named the Southwest District Division I defensive player of the year last week, while Deshawn was named an honorable mention selection.
"Seeing his sons play -- yes, you do see some of that ferocity on the field," said former Colerain All-American offensive lineman Jefferson Kelley, who was a high school teammate of Ivan Sr.
Ivan Jr. has rushed for 1,246 yards and 20 touchdowns as a fullback, and he has 70 tackles, including 5 ½ sacks, four forced fumbles, two fumble recoveries and an interception for the Cardinals.
"There is no quit in him," Colerain coach Tom Bolden said. "He's 1,000 miles per hour constantly. I've said it over and over again, but in terms of what he can do offensively, defensively and special teams -- in terms of a complete football player – he's the best one in Ohio."
Ivan Sr. and Shellie also see the bigger picture. The couple often speaks of God's plan. There were pregnancy complications before Ivan Jr., 17, and Deshawn, 16, were born.
"God said, 'You are going to have these boys,'" said Ivan Sr. "'I'm giving them to you, let you borrow them and teach them the right ways.' And that's all I've been doing, trying to keep them on track and stay on top of everything. And to make sure they got what I didn't get."
Three nights during the week, Ivan Jr. and Deshawn instructed practice for the Northwest Mighty Knights youth football program. The first- and fifth-grade teams played games on the weekend and won their respective championships.
But it's not just football. Ivan Jr. and Deshawn have other hobbies outside of sports, such as fishing, four-wheeling and being with friends.
Their family ultimately wants them to be happy with football and beyond.
"I want them to go to college and be successful with their mind instead of their physicality," Ivan Sr. said. "Be something other than football. You don't have to have football to be very successful. I want you to find something else with your mind and figure out what you like in life. I know you want to play football and everything, but you got to have freedom for yourself sometimes."