I remember talking to Benard Thomas when he was a senior at St. Francis high school in Palo Alto, California. A young man that actually worked to provide his way through the private school, Thomas' determination was equal to his ever-growing ability on the field. For the next few years though, Benard's determination would be tested as he never thought it would.
Coming to Nebraska, Thomas was much like any highly-touted prospect coming in. Expectations were high, but as you would expect, those machinations by the fans of on-the-field brilliance paled in comparison to what Thomas expected of himself.
He was a competitor, longing to compete, wanting to play, trying for the chance to help his team in any way he could. And, it looked as if Thomas would be one of those few rare early "gems" as he saw time his first year at UNL. It was a brief spell as sickness shelved his attempt to forego his redshirt just two games into the season, all but ruining his debut. His second year saw him in a limited role for the Huskers as he tried to compete against a very unfriendly depth chart. A redshirt year following that, left Benard with time. Time to think about his role on the team, his goals for the future and his thoughts about his experiences thus far.
"It's been terrible." Thomas stated. "It's been terrible." If you were never around to hear about Thomas' journey or some of the trials and tribulations that he experienced during his time there, you might be shocked to hear this response. I wasn't so shocked at the response, but Thomas painted a picture of a tenure that has been fraught with obstacles, adjustments and expectations that sky-high once, were dwindled down to a wait and see attitude. "It's been long and hard." Benard said. "First, the system was different when I got here and that was hard to learn. I had problems with being here, because it was so different and I had problems with the coaches."
"Football hasn't been going all that well for me since I have been here."
Much of this frustration comes from his own stagnation on the sidelines and let me tell you something, from what I know of Benard, to take someone so filled with enthusiasm and hope his freshman year to the skeptical and somewhat suspicious player he is now, that takes some doing. Much of that "doing" has been put on at least one coach that no longer works for Nebraska, but while Benard was willing to concede some, he ultimately put the reasons for his own lack of involvement on himself. "Sometimes I think yes and sometimes I think no." Benard said, referring to the possibility of it being coaches responsible for his frustrations over not playing. "But, I put the blame on myself, because I didn't put the coaches in the position where they had no choice but to play me."
Benard's aforementioned illness early-on in his freshman season, Thomas agreed that, that was where it probably started, where his promising future started to spiral in the downward direction, but again, typical to his nature, Thomas was unwilling to concede this as a major contributor to his lack of doing everything he thought he could do coming in. "I don't blame it on that." Benard said of him getting sick. "I take full responsibility for everything that has been going on. I have been doing everything I was supposed to, but I guess it wasn't good enough."
Now, here's my problem with this whole deal. Granted, high school success doesn't always translate to college success and Spring Game dominance like everyone is used to seeing from Benard, that also doesn't mean squat when the regular season arrives. But, with all that being said, I find it hard to believe that Thomas couldn't have found the field anymore than he did. Yes, that's a personal opinion, but to add to that, I think that when a player just gets used to getting knocked down over and over again, he not only becomes skeptical, but doubtful that anyone is going to give him that fair shake, that solid opportunity, until he actually sees it happen.
I think that's where Benard is at right now and despite the team-wide excitement behind this influx of youth, energy and objectiveness in the new defensive staff, the somewhat jaded Thomas finds himself waiting, wondering if it's all the "real deal". Benard does have his hopes though, hope that finds itself in a bit of a re-birth from what seems like an eternity of frustration thus far. "They give me hopes and dreams that all of this might just work out." Benard said of the new defensive staff. "Everything might just be all right. But, I expect the worst and just hope for the best."
Expectations on Benard this year, that's another thing that will go through a re-birth of sorts. A redshirt season makes people's mind wander, but it never makes them forget. Those expectations though are as you would expect, nothing compared to the goals Thomas has for himself, because this year, this time, it's his to make it happen and it starts this up-coming Spring game.
It's a time or in this case, an opportunity where Benard will do something he's used to doing, but unlike seasons before, this could be just a precursor to what you will see for an entire season to come. "Same thing as it is every year." Benard said referring to what he expects to do in this up-coming Spring game. "I'm going to cause havoc. I'm putting it down. Nothing is going to change with that."
That's the Benard Thomas I remember. That's the Benard Thomas most tried never to forget and that's just part of the equation of why expectations from himself, fans and coaches are so incredibly high as he prepares for his junior season. The other half? CrunkJuice. A person in and of himself, but most definitely Benard. CrunkJuice isn't just a name, it's an identity. "I get excited about things, I get pumped up, I get hyped." Thomas stated. "That's me."
And, even the skepticism behind hopes dashed and goals sent back into the lockeroom, that hasn't phased the part of what makes "Crunk" who he is, because if Benard is going to be Crunk, it doesn't take a day off no matter what the circumstance. "I gotta let it all hang out." Benard said. "Whether it goes good for me or it goes bad, I gotta let it all hang out any chance I get. If I don't, then, it's my fault."
It is a re-birth and yes, it's a re-introduction to those that have let their minds wander too far or to those that simply don't know, it's "CrunkJuice". Born of the excitement to play the game and evolving from the way Benard lives his life, as he stated, Crunk has had some opposition, but that's done and now, he's back. "They were trying to get rid of him, but he's still there." Benard said.
"He was just waiting for his time to come out."
And need I say it? Ok, yeah, why not. Hello "Time".
Steve Ryan can be reached at email@example.com or 402-730-5619