Sept. 20, 2012
By Craig Chval, Jr.
It was by no means a hard sell to get Braxston Cave to come to Notre Dame. The Granger, Ind., native played his high school games only eight miles from Notre Dame Stadium and grew up as one of the thousands of kids rooting for the Irish.
"I watched Rudy every Saturday before the games," the fifth-year senior grins. "I was looking at other places, but once Notre Dame offered me, that was the spot I was going."
Even if the decision to play for the Irish wasn't difficult, Cave's collegiate journey has been anything but easy. The center has endured two season-ending injuries that have come amid multiple coaching changes.
After growing up in the shadow of the Golden Dome, Cave finally ran through the famed north-side tunnel wearing the Irish blue and gold as a freshman in 2008.
"It was very surreal," Cave remembers. "Imagining and dreaming about it for such a long time and finally getting the opportunity, it's something I'll definitely never forget."
But Cave's freshman campaign was short-lived. He played in that one game before a knee injury sidelined him for the remainder of the season. Cave would suffer a similar fate in 2011, when he missed the final four games of the season thanks to a foot injury that also prevented him from fully participating in spring practices.
That `08 injury not only granted Cave a fifth year of eligibility, but it also taught him the patience required to work his way back to play his final year at Notre Dame.
"With my old injury, I was still able to be around the team so that one wasn't as bad as this one, being completely away from the team," Cave says. "But I think it helped just knowing if I stuck to what I had to do and rehab with the trainers that I would be able to get back."
In addition to coming back from surgery and rehab this offseason, Cave had to learn a new system due to the hiring of offensive line coach Harry Hiestand - his fourth different position coach in five years.
"It was tough at first, but it's made me a better person, realizing that you've got to overcome adversity whenever it comes up," Cave explains. "And having different offensive line coaches, you take bits and pieces from each one and try to form your game around it to be the best player you can."
Despite the challenges, Cave has bought into the changes and thrived under Hiestand's tutelage. The offensive line opened up gaping holes that produced a 293-yard rushing attack in the season opener against Navy. It was the most rushing yards an Irish team had gained since 2003.
"Coach Hiestand's a phenomenal teacher, and he's been to the level where I want to go," Cave explains. "I know that if I just buy into what he's teaching that I'm going to get there.
"He's completely changed the mentality of the offensive line. It's like I was telling the team earlier in the summer, there's definitely something special going on. With all the coaches I've gone through and all the teams, this is a special group."
Much of the reason for the offensive line's success thus far can be attributed to Cave's desire to win. He's gained that notice from teammates and coaches for his tremendous work ethic and leadership.
"He'll do anything to help Notre Dame win," Hiestand remarks. "Great leaders work hard and they demonstrate leadership through their actions, and that's what he shows. He shows great leadership through his work ethic, his attention to detail, his willingness to do the extra, his willingness to fight and scratch and claw to get somebody blocked, and then to communicate with the other guys and help them do their job.
"He does that every day, and that's a huge part of it. The most important part of leadership is to lead by example, and that's what he does best."
"Leadership by example" has become Cave's mantra for his final collegiate season. With five new starters on offense, he knows an experienced voice is crucial for the success this season.
"I'm looking forward to just standing out as a leader and just being a guy that the others can lean on and go to for help," he describes. "And hopefully through training camp and through the summer workouts they've realized that I'm an accountable guy that they can go to."
Indeed, Cave has gained the admiration of many of his fellow players - even among those who are not on the offensive line. Starting quarterback Everett Golson is just one teammate who has benefitted from his veteran presence.
Starting against Navy, Golson played his first-ever collegiate minutes - in Dublin, Ireland, no less - after excelling on the scout team as a freshman last season. Snapping the first-time starter the ball was Cave - who first played for the Irish four years prior.
"Being that it was my first game, the nerves are always going to be there - you're always going to feel a little anxious," Golson recalls. "But what helps is when you have a veteran line like that, and I think Braxston is the core of that line. I've got to interact with him the most, so just having him there - calming me down - helped me tremendously.
"Braxston is a leader on and off the field. Anytime you need help with something, even if it's something simple like I needed a ride, I always know I can call Braxston because he's that guy for us."
The transformation from freshman to starter to senior leader is a process that doesn't always have defined checkpoints. But Cave's journey toward leadership may have been more like baptism by fire.
For the first nine games of 2011, Cave was an integral piece to a very experienced offensive line. The unit had three seniors and two juniors, all with significant playing time before the season. But when Cave went down with his foot injury, his role changed drastically as fellow senior Mike Golic, Jr. took his place as starting center.
"It's tough to have to sit on the sideline especially because of injury and watch someone else in there, but he was nothing but helpful for me," remembers Golic, who is a starting guard this year. "He was an extra set of eyes, and he helped me see and work through things that I hadn't seen before in a new starting role, a role that he'd been in for a while. So he was extremely helpful and I definitely benefited from having him around.
"It was tremendous, and it speaks to what a humble person he is."
As a teammate, classmate and roommate, Golic offers unique insight into Cave's personality both on and off the field. Despite the serious approach Cave takes toward football, Golic claims he is "kind of a goofball like the rest of us."
"When we first roomed together, when he snored it was like sleeping next to a tractor trailer," Golic laughs. "It was one of the worst things I've ever endured in my life, but besides that, off the field, Braxston's widely known for his Jersey Shore-style haircuts. He has dreams of being Ronnie from Jersey Shore, which if he tells you otherwise, he's absolutely lying.
"He got to visit the Jersey Shore this summer, and I think he finally found his true home."
The MTV reality show follows several characters living together on the Jersey Shore and has become the network's most-watched program ever. That fact doesn't necessarily spare Cave any ridicule, though.
"When the show first came on, everyone made fun of me because I started watching it," Cave explains. "I just became hooked. My mom's side of the family is Italian, so I guess I can just relate to a lot of the things, like anger problems."
If Golic's descriptions are credible, perhaps the respect Cave commands on the field is all the more impressive considering his fashion and television preferences. His commitment to improvement and steady approach to each game overcome any flak he might get for his affinity to Jersey Shore.
Cave pointed to yet another challenge he and the Irish must overcome this season. Featuring five teams ranked in the preseason AP poll, Notre Dame's 2012 schedule has been considered by many experts to be the hardest in the country.
"We're taking it one game at a time," he says. "If we don't beat (the next team), then the rest of it doesn't even matter. It is one of the toughest schedules in the country, but like they say, to be the best, we're going to have to beat the best, and we're going to have that opportunity each and every week."
Despite the daunting task, Cave looks forward to the gauntlet of teams with anticipation.
"When you go out there and dominate your opponent and the guy across from you, and he's supposed to be the best player on the best team in the country, what does that say about you?"
But that's just Cave's mentality. With everything he has faced and overcome, the chance to beat the best teams in the country is just icing on the cake.