Sept. 18, 2000
BERKELEY - Growing up in the football-loving town of New Braunfels, Texas, Nolan Bluntzer dreamed of the day when he would take the field as a Unicorn. His mouth watered thinking about the high school stadium packed with thousands of screaming fans that not only love football, they live for it.
"Football is definitely a big deal there," Bluntzer said of the city located 30 miles north of San Antonio. "We were the show in town. Everybody rallied around us."
County parades included the football team riding high atop floats while waving to swarms of onlookers whose barber shop conversation of choice started and finished with the New Braunfels High Unicorns.
"We were always a powerhouse," the 6-foot-4-inch, 270-pound center said. "We made it to the playoffs, and when I was a junior we made it to the state semifinals."
During the Unicorns' 1997 semifinal run that culminated in front of nearly 20,000 fans at Houston's Astrodome, players were featured on billboards, asked to sign autographs at local elementary schools and highlighted on their own public access television show. Heck, they even basked in New Braunfels High Unicorn Football Day, as proclaimed by the mayor.
But Why Cal?
Nolan is the third generation of Bluntzers to don football pads and lace up cleats for a collegiate team. His father, Thomas, played for Baylor in the mid-70s and his grandfather, Pete, started for LSU in the 1950s with the likes of Y.A. Tittle. Still, Cal's sophomore offensive lineman says he felt no pressure from his family to play the sport.
Following his junior season when he garnered an honorable mention all-district nod, scholarship offers began to litter Bluntzer's mailbox, and recruiters came calling from schools like Baylor, Rice, Army, Air Force, Georgia Tech and Vanderbilt.
At this point, the only Berkeley Bluntzer knew was what he'd read in history books: a haven for hippies and a place for protests.
"When I was filling out applications, I had no idea what or where Cal was," Bluntzer said. "Everybody automatically thinks Vietnam when you say Berkeley and that's what I thought. So I was going to throw the application away, but my mom said I should fill it out."
It wasn't until the lifelong Texan visited Cal prior to his senior season that Bluntzer knew the Bears were in his future.
"I wasn't prepared for them to offer me a scholarship," he said. "I flew out here just to see what the school was like and I loved it. I'd never been around a big, fun city like San Francisco."
Talk about culture shock.
"This is a 180-degree change from living in New Braunfels," Bluntzer said. "The town I come from is super conservative and to see all the people here doing their own thing, I thought that was neat. I went to Telegraph Avenue and it blew me away because I'd never seen anything like that."
One of Bluntzer's favorite stories involves the time he and other Cal players were walking along Bancroft Way near Telegraph when an older man parked his brand new black car in front of a fire hydrant.
"The guy got out wearing nothing but an undershirt, tighty whitey brief underwear and patent leather shoes," Bluntzer said with a smirk. "We followed him into the student store and he picked up a basket and just started to shop. The police came and took him away."
That's stuff you don't find in New Braunfels, he added.
Coming from Texas, a state smothered in the rich tradition of football, it's hard to imagine Bluntzer veering too far from the pigskin. But as a member of the National Honor Society in high school and a committed student at Cal, he maintains off the field interests and hopes to land a job that lets him work outdoors.
Although football consumes most of his time during the season, the intended natural resources major still makes a point to keep ties with friends and experience all that a university like Cal and a city like Berkeley have to offer.
"Sunday night is usually my only free night during the season," Bluntzer said. "I usually make the rounds to see my friends, to keep the ties I have and I try to go out a little bit."
But then there's football.
"I love the stadium and I think it's the best stadium in college football," he said. "I love playing for Coach (Tom) Holmoe because I've never played for a guy who has so much character. He's organized, he cares about his players and if I had a problem, I could go to him and he would help me out. It's important that your coach sees you as a person rather than a commodity."
The First Start
Exactly one year ago, Bluntzer, during a blocking exercise, tore the muscle off of his right forearm and caused a tendon to wrap around his funny bone, necessitating surgery. Three months later the offensive lineman went under the knife again, this time to repair his left shoulder injured in training camp.
"By the time I had all those surgeries, I had been out six months, laying in bed for a couple weeks and had dropped to about 220 pounds," Bluntzer said.
Hard work hastened Bluntzer's recovery period and allowed him to take part in winter conditioning and spring drills. After a summer of lifting weights, the sophomore lineman's weight climbed to 265 pounds. Even so, he's still smaller than most of the centers in the league.
Now, as a redshirt freshman, Bluntzer gained his first start in place of senior Reed Diehl at Illinois last Saturday.
Home on the Range
During a typical Tuesday in the fall, Bluntzer's time is stretched thin. After waking up at 8 a.m., the lineman has time for a quick breakfast before heading to Memorial Stadium to lift weights from 9 a.m. until 10:30 a.m. Taking 13 units this semester, Bluntzer squeezes in a class between 11 a.m. and noon. He grabs another bite to eat before heading back to the stadium to watch game films with the team until 4 p.m. Then the real practice begins and lasts about three hours. Bluntzer eats dinner with the team before returning home exhausted, with homework awaiting.
Even with all the opportunities offered by Berkeley, there are times when Bluntzer longs to return to his hometown ranch in New Braunfels, where he shot his first deer at age 8 and where he spent weekends fishing with his father.
"We had a 1,500-acre ranch that we leased that was about 20 minutes from my house," he said. "There was a river running through it and we fished a lot. I miss it. I can remember hunting with my dad when I was 4 years old and it's something I've always enjoyed doing.
"But," he added, "There's plenty of time to go home at Christmas."
By Tim Haran