BOULDER - If imitation is the sincerest form of flattery, consider Brian Cabral highly flattered.
OK, here's your disclaimer - it was Halloween, but that in no way diminishes the admiration aimed towards Cabral last Saturday afternoon at Folsom Field.
The Buffaloes were warming up for Missouri (turns out they were not nearly warm enough, falling behind 33-3 by halftime) when a couple of Cabral's linebackers sidled up to him and said, "Coach, you got some followers over there."
With other things occupying his thoughts, Cabral paid little attention - until he was reminded again that those three guys over there on the sidelines looked as if they deserved a little attention.
So, Cabral turned in their direction and started a slow walk towards the trio. The nearer he got, the more intrigued he became; the slow walk became a trot.
Recalled Cabral: "I saw these three guys wearing matching black-and-gold lava-lavas, gray mustaches, matching visors and sunglasses.
"I couldn't tell from a distance, but the closer I got to them, I said, 'Oh, my goodness, that's me! Holy Cow!' I ran over and high-fived them.
"They asked to take a picture (with him). I told them, 'You guys have gotta come back for Nebraska.' That was funny, a very flattering experience. Weird, but funny. Who'd have thought?"
Indeed, who'd have thought Brian Cabral would have spent his college football career as a CU player (1974-77), returned as a graduate assistant in 1989, and then take on the full-time position he holds to this day (plus, he's now associate head coach).
Saturday, when the Buffs play Texas A&M at Folsom Field (11:30 a.m., FCS), will mark Cabral's 300th game as a CU player or coach. Ponder the number and the years . . . it's an awfully long time, or in Cabral's case, a delightfully long time.
"I just know that even now, I've been so very fortunate and so very blessed to be here," Cabral told me the other day. "I've been blessed with the games, the players and the coaches . . . I've seen the best of days, and probably the worst - this season not being among them."
Earlier this week, when the milestone was brought to his attention, Cabral reacted exactly as you might expect: "I was very unaware of it, and I know it now only because you brought it up . . .
"I think my focus every week is our next opponent. So, I don't count, I probably don't understand the magnitude of 300 games in one place."
Most people don't either. But as long as he's been around Boulder, and with the impact he's made on Buffs football, it's OK to call Cabral a CU cornerstone.
He lettered three times for Bill Mallory (1975-77) and has worked for four Buffs coaches - Bill McCartney, Rick Neuheisel, Gary Barnett and Dan Hawkins, who characterizes him this way:
"He's soulful, soft-spoken . . . I'm a vibe guy; I can be around somebody 10 minutes and know them. There's a genuineness to him, a kindness and depth of personality. There's a whole lot of goodness there that overwhelms you."
Cabral, who played nine seasons in the NFL after graduating from CU in 1978, first contacted McCartney in 1988 when defensive coordinator Lou Tepper left the Buffs staff.
But McCartney told Cabral the "time wasn't right" for Cabral to return to Boulder, prompting Cabral to begin making plans to return to Chicago, where he played six seasons with the Bears, when a two-year stint as a Purdue graduate assistant ended in 1988.
But in the spring of 1989, "Mac" telephoned Cabral and said he was interested in bringing Cabral in as a graduate assistant. Cabral, though, wasn't that interested in working that job again.
"It was not really what I was hoping to hear . . . it wasn't appealing at all because I was in the mode of really trying to find a job," Cabral said.
"Then, I called 'Mac' probably the week they started spring ball . . . just to let him know I was thinking of him and praying for him - because of Sal (Aunese, who had been diagnosed with cancer)."
That was on a Monday. McCartney told Cabral the GA position had gone unfilled, and if he wanted to reconsider, McCartney needed an answer by Friday.
Cabral and his wife (Becky) pondered and prayed over the offer, "and later, it just felt right," Cabral said, adding that McCartney had sweetened the deal by promising to hire him as a full-time assistant "at the first opening."
"But he also said something interesting, too," Cabral recalled. "He might not remember it, but he said, 'I want to bring you back for a long time.' I thought that was very strange . . . I had no idea what that even meant. But it stuck out in my mind."
Twenty one seasons later, Cabral considers McCartney's words a prophecy fulfilled. Cabral has coached and mentored most of the finest linebackers to play for CU, a list that includes Butkus Award winner Matt Russell and a dozen or so other players who have played (or are playing) in the NFL.
Current Buffs linebacker Jeff Smart, a senior from Boulder, calls Cabral "an unbelievable person . . . he's given me all the opportunities I could ever ask for. He's taught me everything I know, basically. He's incredible.
"With him, it's just been constant teaching since I got here until now. His mentoring, setting examples . . . it's just been an incredible experience with an incredible guy."
Cabral also recruited an eventual Heisman Trophy winner - former CU tailback Rashaan Salaam, who played eight-man high school football in LaJolla, Calif. - and lists that achievement, as well as Salaam's 2,000-yard rushing season (1994), among his fondest Buffs memories.
Some of the others:
- CU's games for the national championship against Notre Dame (1989, 1990 seasons). "Without a doubt they're memories Nos. 1-2, in all reality," Cabral said.
- The CU-Michigan "Hail Mary" game in 1994, but not for the obvious reason. Linebacker Ted Johnson lost his best friend that week, and Cabral spent much of the consoling and mentoring the All-Big Eight player. "It turned out to probably be one of his best games as Buff," recalled Cabral.
- The Buffs' 62-36 mauling of No. 2 Nebraska in 2001. "That was big for us, for a lot of reasons," Cabral said.
- Defeating No. 3 Oklahoma (27-24) in 2007 and No. 21 West Virginia (17-14, OT) in 2008. "We've had some good wins here (at Folsom Field) in the last couple of years," Cabral said, also mentioning the Buffs' 42-31 win against No. 13 Oklahoma in 1976 (he was a player).
Cabral's former players still call, occasionally visit and try to keep in touch. But Cabral realizes the importance of letting go and allowing them to become their own men.
"My whole feeling is that once I'm done with them, I've done what I can do," he said. "They're on their own, although I always love hearing from them. Whatever they do when they leave here, that's to their credit.
"I stay in touch with a few of them - Matt Russell is the closest."
He means that geographically (Russell is the Denver Broncos' director of college scouting) and emotionally. Cabral could make a living telling Russell anecdotes, many of them centered on Russell's pure devotion to the sport.
"I love Matt . . . he loved the game, he loved to practice, he loved the sweat, the blood, the grind - he loved it all," Cabral said.
During Russell's CU career in the mid-1990s, Cabral - later to be a groomsman in Russell's wedding - recalls seeing "this group of guys on the sideline, and they're laughing. I know it's Matt telling stories. He's a great story teller.
"The worse thing I can do to him was make him stand by me for 'time out.' So we literally had 'time out' during some practices."
Russell's recollections of his time playing for Cabral what motivated him are much like those of another Cabral pupil - Jordon Dizon, now with the Detroit Lions.
When Dizon was a senior at CU, I asked him for one or two things that motivated him most. He stopped at one: "I don't want to disappoint my coach."
Added Russell: "None of us ever wanted that, and I can speak for Ted (Johnson) 'Biek' (Greg Biekert). Cabral has played in the NFL, loves the game, knows our families . . .
"The worst feeling I ever got, and it only happened three or four times, was when you came in on Sundays and he said, 'You've got to pick it up . . . you played poorly.'
"It's the respect level you have for him, and anytime he might be disappointed in you, it's a crusher. That pertained to all of us."
Among Cabral's strengths, said Russell, is the ability to adapt to the players he coaches. Recognizing whatever it took to maximize their efforts, Cabral might have handled Russell differently than Dizon, Johnson differently than Biekert.
"He had the unique ability to bring out the best in you - whatever it took," Russell said. "I always loved football, absolutely loved it, but he made me a lot better player than I might have been.
"I think about his long commitment to CU . . . I was 17 when he came to our house recruiting me, now I'm 36. Really, has there been any greater Buff?"
As his 300th game looms, Cabral has been a testament to doing it right, and for the right reasons. In a CU career brimming with memories of games, championships, players and personalities, very few of his dreams have gone unfulfilled.
But as he thinks back to two weekends ago - recalling Halloween and the three guys outfitted as what one student called "The Fighting Cabrals" - he says with a laugh, "Really, I'd give anything to get that picture."
If a copy's floating around out there, somebody can make him very, very happy. He deserves it.