Ready for return, Cushing always intense

Ready for return, Cushing always intense
August 15, 2013, 8:00 am
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(USA Today Images)

Blood dripped from the head of Brian Cushing as he walked off the field following an ill-advised head butt in 2011. For many, it was a lasting image of a perceived mad man.

But Cushing’s high school coach Fred Stengel remembers a different part of that NFL mic’d up segment. In that other part, Cushing wasn’t happy with the play of some of his defensive teammates. He walked up to a few and told them they could stay on the bench, that he’d go on the field and play 1-on-11.

“He meant it,” Stengel said through a little chuckle. “That’s what (football) means to him. And yes, that might be a little crazy, but crazy in a good way.”

Stengel said that’s the way Cushing has always been. While Cushing didn’t start to become a star football player until his sophomore season of high school, he has always had the same personality.

“Any sport or anything I did, I was an intense person,” Cushing said. “I wanted to be the best at whatever I did. It turned out eventually to be football was really my main focal point. That was just kind of the attitude I had and the way I attacked things.”

Stengel, who said Cushing grew three to four inches before sophomore year, said if he were forced to describe Cushing with just one word, that word would be “intense.”

“But he’s much more than that,” Stengel added during a phone interview. “He’s bright, a hard worker and an exceptional leader. If that’s the definition of intense for him, then, yes, intense.”

Cushing, 26, tore his ACL last October against the Jets and missed the remainder of the 2012 season. He will return for his first game action in more than 10 months when the Texans play the Dolphins in the second preseason game on Saturday at Reliant Stadium.

After he went on the Injured Reserve last season, the Texans’ defense got by but wasn’t the same. With Cushing on the field, the Texans won their first five games in 2012, giving up 14.6 points and 275.6 yards per game.

In the 13 remaining games (including playoffs) without Cushing, they went 8-5, giving up 24 points and 342.2 yards per game.

The Texans certainly missed Cushing as a football player. But they also missed him as a leader and locker room presence, perhaps as much or more than his play.
 
“Cush is a true leader,” defensive end Jared Crick said. “Whenever things are getting a little slow, he’ll be the one to tell everybody to pick it up and he’ll lead by example. He’ll be the first guy to go out there and do something if needed. Cush is the epitome of what you want from a leader of a football team. Cush is one of a kind, you really can’t replace him.”

J.J. Watt had what might have been the best season a defensive lineman has ever had in the history of the NFL in 2012 but he’s not the unquestioned leader of the Texans’ defense. Cushing is.

Cushing said it’s that same unrivaled intensity that seems to draw players toward him. Stengel, who stepped down as Bergen Catholic's head coach in 2010, said even before Cushing was a star, there was “something inside of him” that made him a leader. The players who have been around the Texans since Cushing’s Rookie of the Year season in 2009 have seen it but it doesn’t take long for the newcomers to realize it too.

“Whether he’s playing or joking around, he’s got that fire in his eyes,” said Joe Mays, who joined the Texans during training camp and is the starter next to Cushing at inside linebacker. “You know, he’s a different cat but at the same time I like it. You like going to war with guys like that.”

Cushing’s intensity is extremely evident on the field in games and practice. But even when he stretches, he’s that way, violently thrashing, rolling on the ground to prepare to go to work. And that intensity extends beyond an on-field football persona.  

“I think that’s pretty much life in pretty much anything I do,” Cushing said. “That’s the way I was raised and kind of the way I’ve embodied myself throughout my life.”

It was certainly the way he was in high school. In December of 2003, the Bergen Catholic Crusaders were gearing up for a state championship showdown against their archrival, Don Bosco Prep and Cushing’s status was in doubt. Cushing, then a high school junior at the all-boys football powerhouse, hurt his knee and didn’t practice for the entire week leading up to the championship game against a Don Bosco team that is regarded as one of the best in state history.

Bergen Catholic had a 10-1 record heading into that game, with the only loss coming in lopsided fashion to Don Bosco. Without Cushing, they likely didn’t have a chance. As the game neared, Stengel, the legendary coach, finally just asked Cushing if he’d be ready to play.

Cushing, straight-faced and serious, stared deep into the eyes of his coach: “Do you really think I’m not going to play?”

And he did. The Crusaders ended up losing that state championship game by one point – a missed extra point – but a less-than-100-percent Cushing played with the same intensity he’s had since birth, the same intensity that has made him one of the best linebackers in the NFL.

The next year, as a senior, Cushing and the Crusaders beat Don Bosco in the championship game.