Wide strides surprise Ranger star

Dave Weatherwax/The Herald
Forest Park's Ben Braunecker, left, slapped hands with Lance Buechler after Buechler hauled in a reception during Friday’s win against Pike Central. After growing by 8 inches and 75 pounds from his freshman year to now, Braunecker has become one of the most dangerous receivers and return men in the region, and he’s fielding interest from Division I programs including Indiana and Harvard.

Herald Sports Editor

His coach, in passing, referred to him as Superman. Opposing teams’ scouting reports warn kickers and punters — under threats of being benched or going home without a ride on the team bus — from steering balls his direction. And lately, he’s had all sorts of people trailing him: defensive backs, TV camera crews, Division I coaches.

It seems like the only person who’s still not sold on Ben Braunecker is Ben Braunecker.

Forest Park’s senior standout, in a sense, still sees himself as the 5-foot-8, 140-pound freshman cloaked in anonymity, instead of the 6-foot-4, 215-pound man-child who could be studying and playing football at an Ivy League university a year from now. He’s still trying to comprehend what all the fuss is about. Braunecker leads the area in receiving yards (401) and ranks second in scoring (52 points), but attention makes him squirm and he still doubts why any recognizable college program would want him.

He first trumpeted his presence a year ago, when the Rangers’ punt returner was injured and Braunecker volunteered for the duty, rumbling for returns of 85, 78 and 41 yards, the longest of which went for a touchdown. Ever since, he’s been making those trademark Braunecker wide strides.

“It was like, my God, where has this kid been? From then, it was just all the sudden, boom, he just became Superman. He stood out like a sore thumb,” Ranger coach Terry Wagner said.

“Sometimes kids need to get pushed a little bit. They’re not sure, they don’t push themselves to the edge of the envelope, and once they do that, they realize what they can do, what it takes to perform, and then it all falls into place for them.”

Braunecker doesn’t overflow with machismo, partly because his immediate roots are in a spartan athletic background.

His father, Brian, played football through middle school but never played at Heritage Hills High School, deciding to go along with his older brother who gave up the sport as well. His mother, Kristine (Lueken), was a discus thrower for the Forest Park track team and would have been the tallest player on the basketball team, but she admitted she didn’t have the coordination or drive to accompany her 5-foot-10 frame.

But Ben matched the winning numbers in the genetic Powerball, claiming mom’s height and dad’s muscle. He’s got the brains to complete the package, with an SAT score of 1880 and a stack full of report cards with nothing worse than a  B-plus. That was among the selling points when Braunecker’s parents helped him assemble highlight films to send to college coaches. Wagner advised them to focus on Division II and III schools, saying that Division I programs would find him if they were interested.

Braunecker wasn’t waiting for those calls.

“He said, ‘Mom, nobody’s ever going to want someone like me from this small school, from this small area,’” Kristine said. “To this day, he’ll still say, ‘There’s just no way.’ He can’t fathom that it’s so close he can just reach out and grab it.”

Braunecker first heard from Indiana University. He’s gotten an offer from Southern Illinois.
Late in his junior year, a letter arrived from Harvard University’s coach. Kristine showed it to Ben. He didn’t read it. Just laughed.

“He said, ‘Mom, that’s just junk mail. Just throw it away, that’s nothing,’” Kristine recalled.
Kristine followed up on it, handing it off to a guidance counselor at Forest Park to verify the authenticity. It checked out. Columbia University has joined the pursuit, too. Braunecker’s still inspecting the options, but the prospect of jumping to the East Coast inspires more awe than angst for a guy who “hates being labeled as a dumb jock,” Kristine said.

“If I would go to Harvard or Columbia, being (away from home) that far, and academics plus football, would be an immense challenge, obviously,” Braunecker said. “The challenges that we overcome in life only make us stronger, so I would like to, I don’t want to say give it a try, but to play football and to go to class at Harvard. ... It’d be a great honor, as well as Columbia. It’s just a lifelong dream, or something not everybody gets to do, and it’s an amazing opportunity.”

All of Braunecker’s words are enunciated smoothly and under control, just like his running stride, and his off-the-cuff answers to interview questions are polished, like a politician reading a speech from cue cards.

Braunecker swears he “might not be as charismatic or vocal of a leader.” But he led the Rangers in a screaming, howling pregame ritual before last week’s game after seeing a college football team do something similar. Wagner, who’s been pleading for a take-charge guy, got goosebumps watching the whole scene.

Braunecker insists he’s “always been a support role player instead of the main guy.” And sure, he’s not the one taking snaps, but he’s comfortably wandered from wide receiver to tight end to running back this season while also leading the team in tackles (24) and interceptions (three) from his post as free safety.

Kristine, who noticed the finger-point, whispers and stares while walking with Ben at last weekend’s Ferdinand Folk Festival, said her elder son is “very uncomfortable with that attention.” Ben would rather share some attention with his freshman brother, Noah, who Ben forecasts will be “just as good as me or better.”

Wagner can’t remember ever seeing Braunecker mad or flustered. Even when defenses gimmick him out of a comfort zone.

“This year I knew a lot of teams would be targeting me. I’ve seen zones shifted, I’ve seen double coverage, I’ve seen triple coverage a little bit,” Braunecker said. “It’s just our job on the team to find ways to expose the coverage. I think it’s just more challenges I have to overcome to get the ball and do well.”

Seeing Braunecker’s upper body is still a bit behind his thick legs with the spring of a 37-inch vertical leap, Wagner figures his star’s physical peak can extend much higher.

Braunecker himself says he’s a “late bloomer.” Fitting, because he might just be starting to realize what everyone else is buzzing about.

“Small schools, you very seldom see a kid like this come through. Every once in a great while. I think I’ve only had two in my 30-plus years,” Wagner said. “They could be a late bloomer, and then somewhere from their sophomore to junior year they pop out and they find out what it means to play ball and what it means to hit hard. They just blossom.”

Contact Brendan Perkins at bperkins@dcherald.com.

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