SOUTH BEND, Ind. -- Like so many little boys before him growing up in the shadow of the golden dome, Braxston Cave's living room in Granger, Ind. often doubled as Notre Dame's locker room.
His VHS copy of "Rudy" was worn and warped, as was the furniture from which he stood and shouted the Fighting Irish gospel at a prepubescent pitch.
"I can just remember in the living room when he fell in love with the movie," his father, Rick Cave, said. "He'd watch that thing over and over and over. It got to the point where he would get up on the coffee table and do the whole recital, you know, the Knute Rockne speech. He knew that thing like the back of his hand. The thing that really took me, he turned to me and said, 'One day I'm going run out of that tunnel.' He was probably only 6 years old at the time. I said, 'I believe you will, son, I believe you will.' "
Two years ago, Kim and Rick Cave watched their son do just that as a freshman snapper on special teams, a position he also staffed as a sophomore.
"It was like, 'Pinch me, I don't believe this is real,' " Kim recalled. "It was very exciting. My husband and I both had tears in our eyes."
Saturday against Purdue, the 6-foot-3, 301-pounder will emerge from the tunnel as Notre Dame's starting center.
"It's just not every day that something like this happens," Rick Cave said. "From the time he was young this has been his dream."
Cave appreciates what he's accomplished after two frustrating seasons. In a battle with fifth-year senior Dan Wenger -- one that's expected to continue considering Wenger has 19 career starts at center and guard combined -- Cave received the official first-team nod Monday when the Irish depth chart was released.
"Well, Wenger got dinged up, as you know," Notre Dame coach Brian Kelly said. "He had a concussion and it was a pretty severe concussion. It took longer for him to come back. We had to hold him out until he cleared, so that really gave Braxston probably the nose at the end to take that number one position. Braxston's improved in a lot of areas -- first of all, in his physical conditioning.
"He is in such better condition to play a longer period of-high level football for us. He could only go in spurts for us in the spring. Secondly, he's been really good with the shotgun snaps. He'd been very inconsistent in the spring. He improved in the areas that he's needed to to put him in the position he's at right now."
Cave, who bench-pressed 520 pounds in the offseason, credits strength and conditioning coach Paul Longo for the significant gains that powered his starting push.
"Like coach Longo always says, lead from the front and the rest will follow," Cave said.
Keeping It In Perspective
Cave, enthusiastic but focused, knows how difficult a climb it was to get to this point and how quickly it can all be yanked away. He explained to his mother in a text message Monday that Aug. 30 need not be circled or celebrated.
Kim: I'm a little bothered. This is one of the most exciting times in your life, what you've worked so hard for, and you don't seem too excited.
Braxston: Because it's not the same to us as it's projected by the media. I go to work every day and I do my thing day in and day out. It's not like something happened today and coach Kelly told me I was starting. It's been an ongoing process for the last [few] months.
Really, for the last 15 years.
"This is something I've been working for my whole life," Cave said. "It's finally paying off. There's never a moment to relax around here. I have to keep coming out here and pushing it every day."
The first two years were tough for him. From the time Cave was small -- as hard as that is to imagine -- he dominated. When he arrived in South Bend, he had trouble keeping pace with a long list of veteran linemen ahead of him.
"It came to the point those two years he realized he had to step his game up," Rick Cave said. "I'm proud of him for that. He never did mention that he was going to transfer. He made the comment, 'I'm a Notre Dame man and that's the way it is. My time will come.' "
Quarterback Dayne Crist, one of Cave's closest friends, must have had a premonition over the summer that the time was now. He invited Cave to fly out to his home in California and the two worked on shotgun snaps and lived in the weight room. Cave began to "think what things may become."
For Kim Cave, what came Monday was a phone call from Karen Crist.
"Congratulations," she said. "I guess your boy will be taking care of my boy."
A hulking Cave is now partially responsible for protecting Crist, the lynchpin of Notre Dame's offense and the only quarterback on the roster with Division-I experience. But taking care of Crist and a host of her son's other teammates, including regular visitor Kyle Rudolph, has always been a priority for Kim Cave.
"They spend a lot of time here," Rick Cave said. "They love Mama Cave's cooking and she loves having them over. [Braxston's] our only son and [my wife] came from a family of all girls, so, boy, you bring all those boys over and that's her cup of tea. She's ready to lay out the spread."
Kim's kitchen turns into an assembly line, pumping out the same massive order phoned in each and every week.
"The burritos," Rick Cave said. "She makes a pretty mean burrito. They'll call up and say it's time for the burritos. She'll have 50 of them whipped up in the oven for 12 [players]. If our son was away, I'd hope there would be another family that would do the same."
A lifelong Irish fan, Rick sometimes can't believe his home serves as a team hotspot.
"It really is [surreal]," he said. "You see all the hype. [My son] and Dayne Crist, Kyle Rudolph and Mike Golic are really ... those four are probably closer than anybody else he runs with on the team. They spend a lot of time here. Sometimes I have to take a step back and say, 'Look who's sitting in my living room.' I'm just having general conversation with them. We'll have people come over and they're just slobbering all over themselves. It's neat."
Boiling Over With Emotion
Today the Rudolphs will arrive in Granger from Cincinnati and unroll sleeping bags and air mattresses in the same living room where a little boy fantasized about suiting up for the Fighting Irish. It's a game weekend tradition for two proud families that have enjoyed a blossoming relationship.
By 2:30 CT Saturday, they'll have made the nine-mile trip to South Bend together and be sitting anxiously on the 15-yard line in the southeast corner of Notre Dame Stadium, especially the Cave clan.
"My stomach's churning," Rick Cave said. "I will have to tape the game because my focus will be watching [Braxston] constantly. I probably won't even know where the ball is at. I'm excited, but pretty nervous at the same time. I know he's going to do well. I can't imagine [what it will feel like for him]. It's going to be something pretty special."