Building the perfect Illinois mancave

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By Michal Dwojak, Staff writer

Some paint their faces while others paint their chests. Some collect jerseys while others collect hats.

Kevin Branson’s altar to his favorite teams sits in his tan Paris, Illinois, house. Illinois football greats like Red Grange, Jack Trudeau and Simeon Rice sit alongside current Illini Wes Lunt, Josh Ferguson and Geronimo Allison in the form of action figures. The shrine sits in a 13-by-11 room with walls half painted like a football field and half painted with the Dallas Cowboy’s shade of blue and stripes of Illini orange and blue.

Branson has turned his love of sports into a hobby in which he’s created almost 200 athlete statues and an ultimate mancave.

Branson started making athlete statuettes 10 years ago when he saw a tutorial of how to customize action figures. He already collected lots of action figures, so when he saw the video, an idea came into his mind: Why not create different players from his favorite teams?

“I totally loved the idea,” Branson said. “I thought, ‘Wow, to make figures of your team and everything like that, that would be neat.’”

The process takes dedication and patience. An average figure takes around 8-12 hours of work and usually takes him a week to make.

He starts the process when he buys an action figure that closely resembles what he wants to make — like a football player or baseball player.

He takes the figure apart and sands down each part before he applies some gray primer and lets it dry — anywhere from overnight to a couple of days.

When the parts have dried he puts a couple of coats of sealer that he lets dry for another day or two. Once it is dry, he paints the parts and puts them all together when he applies his designed decals — printed on decal paper like the ones for model cars — with water, Micro Set and Micro Sol.

“You have to be patient with it. If you don’t do this right, it’ll mess up the whole process,” Branson said. “But it’s a cool hobby and I enjoy it a lot.”

Although he enjoys making the figures for his collection, people around the nation have also expressed interest in the statues. Branson said that he sells around two to three a month and as many as nine during the Christmas season. He charges $50 for a regular figure, which is below what others sell for, and he charges $60 or $70 for action figures that are slightly bigger.

Illinois football isn’t the exclusive school sport to be part of Branson’s collection — He made four members of last season’s baseball team and made one of former Illinois golfer Brian Campbell. But football is his priority, and he’s made a lot of current players.

Illini defensive lineman Jihad Ward and wide receiver Mike Dudek have enjoyed Branson’s work that he’s shared on Twitter. For JUCO players like Ward and Allison, it’s a special reminder of the journey they’ve traveled to reach the moment where they become a statuette.

“I think that it’s a dream come true,” said Ward, who is the subject of Branson’s latest statuette. “It shows that people are really loving us and loving what we’re doing.”

“It’s great,” Allison said. “Growing up, you never in a thousand years that you’d have your own action figure, so I think that’s awesome … it’s a dream come true.”

The 42-year-old Branson created his mancave when a room in his house wasn’t in use by his family or his wife’s day care. He took a break with the hobby because of his duties at his dry cleaning business — and to spend time with his wife and four children — but returned to the craft three years ago.

Branson has made figures for his other favorite teams: the Cowboys, St. Louis Cardinals, Detroit Red Wings and New Orleans Pelicans. His mancave is divided among the five teams that he cherishes with shrines for each one. A case filled with Illinois football helmets sits with the statues of former and current Illinois players.

Fans around the world express their love for their teams and Kevin Branson has found his method. The process is long and meticulous, but when he’s done, Branson can step back and appreciate his masterpieces: a homage to the teams that he holds close to his heart.

“It’s a lot of fun, I enjoy it,” Branson said. “Never in a million years did I think that I would learn the technique to paint a straight line, stripping on jerseys and stuff like that … It’s something that helps me get away and if it has something to do with sports, well that’s even better.”

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