BLOOMINGTON — Death could have taken Kevin Bush. Yeah, it was that close. Failure and doubt could have broken him. That, too, was a possibility.
If it had, this former Homestead standout would not be standing in an Indiana Cream ‘n Crimson uniform beneath a blazing August sun at Memorial Stadium, sweat beading onto tattooed biceps, a high-energy guy waiting for the next football opportunity.
“It's nice,” he says, “to hit and throw shoulders around.”
Bush survived a 14-month tour of Iraq, a year in Korea, 40 total months of military service, a failed football attempt at the University of Toledo and some botched academics. He made it, he says, because he wanted one last shot at football. He's at IU, he adds, because he always wanted to be a Hoosier.
“Part of what got me through was that I knew I was coming back to do everything in my power to play football again,” he says. “If you're so focused on something, if you put all your energy into it, a lot of time you can accomplish what needs to be done.”
Fear sharpened that focus.
“My biggest fear was not being able to get the opportunity to do it all over again,” he says. “I try to use every day to enjoy it. You never know when it can all be gone, so enjoy it while it's here.”
Bush is here, an ex-infantry soldier, ex-factory worker, ex-quarterback and ex-wide receiver, enjoying every minute as a redshirt sophomore defensive end. He's 25 years old, hasn't played in an organized football game in six years, never played on defense and come Sept. 2, in IU's season opener against Towson, he could start.
“He's had to work for pretty much everything he's got up to this point, so he really appreciates this,” defensive ends coach George Ricumstrict says. “At times we think football is life and death, but he understands what life and death really is. He understands this is a privilege.”
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Bush surprised family and friends with his decision to join the Army in 2006. An all-state career at Homestead had only gotten him mid-major scholarship offers. He'd quit after a month at Toledo, found a factory job in Fort Wayne wasn't his thing, messed up during summer school at IPFW. He needed direction and purpose. A friend had enlisted. It seemed the best option.
“I remember telling one of my buddies I was enlisting. He was like, ‘Why are you doing this?' I was like, ‘Who would you rather have over there fighting for you?' He was like, ‘If you look at it that way…'”
Bush flashes a grin you'd see from a gambler going all in on a bluff.
“I've always been a gung-ho, crazy guy.”
His parents discovered his military future when his mother, Mary Ann, found Army pamphlets in his bedroom. She was concerned. Did he understand this wasn't like Halo, the Xbox 360 sci-fi war game? He did.
Deployment to Iraq came after eight months of training and eagerness mixed with uncertainty. He was stationed in the northern part of the country. His main duties were patrolling the desert and observing from towers. On one patrol the mine resistant ambush protected vehicle (MRAP) he was in ran over an improvised explosive device. He was listening to James Taylor's “Fire and Rain” and, “It was right after the chorus and then boom! There was smoke. It took me a second to realize what happened.”
If it had been a year earlier when soldiers were using less protected Humvees, Bush and his crew likely would have died. Instead, everyone survived.
“Those MRAPs are a godsend,” Bush says.
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Bush is intense. If you don't understand anything else about him, understand that. He is passionate and relentless, so when his 252 pounds met fellow defensive end Darius Johnson's shoulder last fall in practice, Johnson's season was over.
They are now roommates, by the way.
“He goes so hard sometimes he gets a little out of control,” defensive co-coordinator Joe Palcic says. “He's a kid you have to pull back rather than push. I'd rather have that. Guys you have to push all the time, you don't know what they'll do. Guys you have to pull back, we can do that.”
Bush reached out to IU coaches after returning to the U.S. in February of 2009. A former Homestead teammate and Hoosier punter, Michael Hines, helped. He enrolled last fall via the G.I. bill, got his grades in order and impressed everyone with his potential.
“When he talks, people listen,” Palcic says. “He's the hardest-working kid we have. He's made a big difference in terms of attitude.”
Bush's difference-making on the field remains a work in progress. His last football game was as a 210-pound receiver in a 2004 high school playoff loss to Snider.
“He's starting over as a football player and as a defensive player,” Palcic says. “It takes time.”
Adds Bush: “I've got a long ways to go. I mess up. I make corrections … I'm learning each practice.”
If learning comes from an advanced football age, his teammates don't press it.
“Some guys give him a hard time about how old he is,” linebacker Tyler Replogle says with a smile, “but he's pretty strong, so not too many.”
So here is Bush, focused, feisty and football ready.
“We've got him two more years after this,” Ricumstrict says. “He's athletic, strong and fast. He has a chance. We'll see.”