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Braxston Cave stays close to home

Jack Hefferon | Thursday, November 17, 2011

Despite its location in northwestern Indiana, one of Notre Dame’s strengths has always been its ability to bring in elite players from across the country, players that hail from Hawaii or Florida, and everywhere in between.

But sometimes, they’re already here.

Senior center Braxston Cave was born and raised in Granger, Ind., about 10 miles away from Notre Dame Stadium. Cave was immediately immersed in all things Notre Dame, as several of his relatives attended the University, and his parents were diehard fans. Cave is even named after Braxton Banks, a running back who played for the Irish in the late 1980s.

“It’s true [that I was named after Banks],” Cave said. “I was 10 pounds, 4 ounces when I was born though, so I think my parents always knew I was probably going to be a lineman, not a running back.”

Cave only continued to grow from there and used that size, along with his athleticism and football IQ, to become a star at local Penn High School. After leading Penn to an undefeated regular season and being named the No. 4 center prospect in the country, scholarship offers rolled in. And while Cave and his family did consider every option, one call from former Irish coach Charlie Weis effectively ended the process.

“I looked at other schools,” Cave said. “But once I got my Notre Dame offer, this was my first choice.”

Cave arrived on campus and quickly went about making the transition to college life. He quickly cracked the lineup, and served as a short snapper on special teams in the first game of his career against San Diego State. However, that breakthrough was tempered by an injury which ended his season, but granted him both a medical redshirt and an additional year to learn how to excel in college.

“It was tough,” Cave said. “You always want to be out there playing and competing, but it gave me another year to learn the offense and to get comfortable with everything. It’s different getting ready for major college football compared to high school, but after a year of doing it, you learn the ins and outs of everything.”

That initial setback was understandably tough for Cave, as it would be for any freshman stripped of an experience they had barely had time to enjoy. But while he worked hard on his own to rehab and get back to playing, he also had help from both his family at home and his family in the locker room.

“Having my family here was very helpful,” Cave said. “Just being able to go right down the street to get a home-cooked meal, or have them bring food over for me and my roommates, always seeing them made things a lot easier.

“Another guy who I could go to was [then-senior center] Eric Olson,” Cave said. “He’s one of my best friends; I still talk to him almost every week now. He was one of the leaders on the team then. I always looked to him for advice, and he always helped me through everything.”

Cave bounced back in his sophomore year and played in 12 games, almost exclusively on special teams. But while that in itself was a bit of redemption for the center, he was not entirely satisfied.

“It was tough because you want to be out there playing, but as a younger guy, special teams is usually your easiest way to get on the field,” Cave said. “So I took advantage of being able to get out there on the field through special teams and made the most of it.”

Cave did indeed make the most of his opportunity, and his hard work allowed him to take hold of the starting center position in his junior year. Forced to deal with both the new responsibilities of being a starter and learning Irish coach Brian Kelly’s new, shotgun-oriented offensive schemes, Cave faced a difficult transition. However, the feeling of controlling every offensive play was enough to get him through it.

“It was a transition for me just as far as the way you go about things every day as a starter, and the way you need to take care of your body on a day-to-day basis just to play again on the next Saturday,” Cave said. “It was awesome though, just to know that whatever I did was going to have an influence on the outcome of the game. It was nice to have more of a leadership role.”

Cave thrived in that role, and since then has continued that success with an offensive line that has quietly become one of the elite units in the game. Notre Dame allowed just 20 sacks in Cave’s junior year, its best performance in a dozen years. The group has been even better this year, and held opponents sackless for more than five games.

The group has also paved the way for running backs senior Jonas Gray and junior Cierre Wood, who have both enjoyed breakout seasons by following the lead blocking of Cave and company. Cave credits the group’s exceptional performance this year to close friendships they have fostered from four years together in the trenches.

“We’re very close. I’d say this is the most close-knit group I’ve been around since I’ve been here,” he said. “Making sure that we have a running game established and that we protect the quarterback is a big thing the offensive line prides itself on. Being able to rush for 200 yards a game just opens up the passing game that much more, so we took that responsibility upon ourselves.”

Cave’s season ended after he suffered a torn foot ligament during the win over Wake Forest, and the streak of five sackless games ended the next week. And while Cave is disappointed at once again having a year cut short with injury, he has tried to use his experience to help out his teammates from the sidelines.

“Braxston has been extremely supportive,” said senior center Mike Golic Jr., who has started in Cave’s place since the injury. “I’ve been able to draw on his experience now, and that’s been very helpful. I think everyone in this locker room will tell you that Braxston is the type of guy that will do anything for his brothers in the locker room and he shows that in the way he plays out there on the field and the way he puts everything on the line for the guys on this team. I think he’s a guy you can count on.”

With the increased downtime he’s had while recovering from his injury, Cave has also been able to slow down and reflect on how blessed he has been to spend his time at Notre Dame.

“There’s so many people around the country, even around the world, that wish they could live a day in our shoes,” he said. “When you’re doing it on a day-to-day basis you don’t really think about it like that, but when you get a chance to step back and look at the big picture, you realize that it’s pretty special”

“Being out, I have been able to think about that a little more. You know you hear the saying, ‘You don’t know how good you’ve got it until it’s gone’ and that’s a very true statement. You don’t realize until you’re separated from something you love.”

Cave has another year of eligibility, and he plans on using it to come back strong and help the Irish. After that, he’ll leave school with a degree in psychology, although he hopes his days of football will extend far past graduation.

“Obviously, my plan first off is to play football, hopefully for another 10-plus years,” Cave said. “That’s my goal. Depending on how that works out, I’d like to do my own business thing, and kind of see where I can go from there.”

But while his future plans may still be somewhat up in the air, one thing Cave is certain about is the experience he’s had under the Golden Dome will carry him through the rest of his life.

“I just love the camaraderie and being able to hang out with the guys every day,” he said. “You’re so used to hanging out with the same people every day, even in the locker room, you’re just hanging out and talking, and you never get that ever again. The friendships I’ve made here I think will last a lifetime.”