Back in early 1997, hopes in Huskerland were mixed. Losses to Arizona State and Texas were fresh in the mind of all red clad loons and questions arose as to whether or not Scott Frost would be the man to pilot the Big Red Machine properly. I was just beginning to fan the flames of my passion for the Scarlet and Cream and much like many a lad before me, I came to a decision: I wanted to play football. Yep, ol' Blankman wanted to be a Blackshirt some day and chase down Sooners on the Memorial Stadium FieldTurf. Of course, a guy's gotta start somewhere in his adventures, no?
I gathered all of the necessary information about playing football at my newest educational assignment, a.k.a. Millard North High School. To me, it was a big new world with big new dreams and ideas. Though nervous, I was ready to see what was in store for me. Before the school year began, I got my physical and registered with the sports office. You know, signed a few waivers stating I wouldn't sue the school if, during one of my contests, The Rapture were to occur and the Antichrist set up shop (make your political jokes here). A few days passed and finally we came upon the eve of Equipment Day. I was to report to the school the following day to meet my coaches and pick up equipment. It seemed simple enough, except for one small, unforeseen issue: I couldn't sleep.
Yep, I even laid down early so I made sure I had plenty of rest for the day ahead, but yeah, I couldn't get any rest. All I could think of was standard teenage fare: What if I get lost? Will my teammates like me? If a train leaves from Boston going 35 miles per hour and a second train leaves from San Diego going 45 miles per hour, how many pounds in a gallon? So the hours painfully drug by and I tossed, turned and generally made a mockery of my attempts to get any manner of shuteye. Finally, some cheesy Top 40 claptrap blared in my ear and it was time to rise and shine.
It was a hazy, gloomy day out, I remember it rather well. I got my ride up to Millard North and took special care to make sure I was headed in the right direction. Didn't want to look like a complete rube now did I? I did find the necessary area and I was introduced to the man who would take a stuttering 290-pound freshman and turn him into a team captain by the season's end: Jeff Salberg. I just called him "Coach". Coach Salberg was a short guy, but damn if he didn't have all of the energy of 100 bolts of lightning. I was seriously intimidated by the man when I first met him, but that really didn't last long. He was stern with us all at first, laying down the ground rules, but he popped a joke here and there and that's when I knew I was in for a treat.
We all lined up to get our equipment: pads, belts, helmets, pants and then came a very critical, if not the, turning point in my life: it was time to hand out the jerseys. Now, I'd followed football for a few years and I'd had a favorite player: Neil Smith. Thing was? I wasn't too wild about the number 90. 96 seemed better, though I'm not really sure why. I ran through the possibilities in my head and finally, I stepped up to the plate ready to stake my claim in the decided upon #96. "Brandon Cavanaugh, Number 96!," I thought. Had a nice ring to it. So, I stepped up, smiled, opened my mouth and before I could utter a single word, Coach Salberg turned to his assistants and said, "Gimme something in the seventies!" What? Seventies?! What the hell!?
So I was handed two jerseys, one blue, one white, that bore the number that has followed me around now for over 7 years: #71. Didn't really mean much at the time I actually was given it, but Coach Salberg had done more than pulled some random shirt out of a pile. He gave me something that I had lacked all through middle school: An identity. The more I ran the number through my head, the more it seemed to fit. Before too long, it was me and I was it. If you called out 71 in the hallway? My head would turn. I took pride in being that number, but that wasn't the only identity that Coach Salberg gave me.
For every e-mail that I have received and every question people ask me at a social event, here is your answer to the question, "How did you get the name ‘Blankman'?"
Well, Coach must've been in a giving mood in that first week, because I had never really had a full identity in a while, nor a nickname. That was about to change. We were all putting tape on our helmets (not the kind that typically goes around a Millard North helmet, but the kind that you write your name on for identification purposes). I was staggering around the locker room looking for one of the Sharpies to ink my num-de-plume, but damnit all, no one would give me one. I paced back and forth in front of the coaches' office and as fast as Mike Rozier on a touchdown run, Coach S jumps out and rips the helmet out of my hand like it was on fire. I thought I had done something hideously wrong. I didn't know what, but I was sure I was screwed. "Hey, look, it's Blankman!" he yelled happily with a grin on his face and a bit of a gleam in his eye.
"Um…Coach? What happens when I put my name on it?" I asked. "You're still gonna be Blankman" Coach told me in a rather matter-of-fact way like it was common knowledge. I just kinda furrowed my brow and much like my number, ran it through my head. Everyone else had been getting nicknames for easy recognition purposes on the field. Sure, some folks used them off, but no one was referred to theirs more than mine. It became who I was, a part of me and I was enthralled with it and revered it.
So, my coach gave me many things: A new identity, many opportunities and even a chance to climb through the ranks and prove a few things about myself. That's a different story for another day, though. For now? Let me just say this: In life, there's some situations that you go into not knowing what's going to happen and sure, a lot of times you're scared in those situations. My advice is buckle up and go along for the ride, because you never know just who you're going to meet or what you're going to become.
Thanks Coach S.
Questions, commentary and other nickname stories can be sent toBlankman71@cox.net
===Brandon a.k.a. Blankman #71===