Iraqi vet takes advantage of 2nd chance at Indiana

Kevin Bush doesn’t sweat the little stuff any more.

He’ll repeat every drill and line up anywhere the Indiana

coaches tell him to go. He won’t count the minutes untll the end of

practice or the sweltering 90-degree days. The 25-year-old

defensive end actually calls two-a-days pure joy.

Crazy? Maybe, until you realize this is the easy life for

Bush.

Here, in Bloomington, Ind., home is just a three-hour drive

away, the desert is a distant memory and the days of dodging

bullets and improvised explosive devices are over. The former Army

infantryman has a new mission and that is playing football for the

Hoosiers.

”When you’re fighting, you have a lot of time to sit and think

about things and it matured me fast,” said Bush, who spent 14

months stationed in northern and central Iraq. ”I try to approach

everything, every day with every effort so I can say I left it on

the field. I’m just thankful to be here.”

Bush should be.

His academic struggles cost him a scholarship at Toledo and sent

him into a different kind of recruiting office back in the summer

of 2006. There, without telling his parents and not needing their

signatures, the young Bush joined the Army, knowing he would

eventually land in Iraq or Afghanistan.

The lessons over those 3 1/2 years were hard. Some of Bush’s

buddies died over there, others were wounded.

Bush said his dream of wearing cream-and-crimson helped him

survive.

”My biggest fear was getting hurt to the point that I’d lose a

limb because then I knew I couldn’t play,” he said. ”But over

there you did your time and you didn’t think about it.”

Yes, Bush had some close calls.

He remembers hearing the occasional pop-pop-pop of gun shots

while working out in a gym. Or sometimes the shots came in the

middle of the night. Then there was July 2008 when Bush and a

truckload of soldiers were targeted by the enemy.

Bush was driving a mine-resistant vehicle on patrol that day

when he made the mistake of pulling into the sand and right over

one of the buried IEDs. The explosion damaged the truck and left

one soldier with a head wound and concussion. Nobody else was

injured, but it was the closest Bush ever got to being seriously

hurt.

”You know, you’re bound to get blown up some time or other out

there,” he says now.

His steely attitude won over his comrades, many of whom, former

Army buddy Marcus King recalls, wanted only one guy – Bush – to

drive on their patrols.

If he wasn’t driving, Bush spent his time putting on a show at

the gym.

King recalls many times Bush would come back from the six to

10-hour patrols in the desert heat and head straight for the weight

room. And whenever the other guys discussed about what they’d buy

when they got home, Bush’s conversations covered one topic –

college football.

It didn’t take the soldiers long to realize this wasn’t just

talk.

”You’ve got a lot of guys that come in and tell you these

stories,” King said. ”Everybody says they’re a Troy Aikman or an

Emmitt Smith and they couldn’t prove it. But Bush was different, he

put the work in. He’d be in the gym and have a crowd around

watching him. He was putting up a lot of weight and he was very

devoted to it. We had some good friends over there that we lost

along the way, and I think they pushed him even more.”

That didn’t guarantee Bush a roster spot at Indiana.

When the 24-year-old transfer student with the questionable

academic resume returned from Iraq in November 2008, he had to

convince Indiana coach Bill Lynch to give him a chance. A

recommendation from his former coach at Homestead High School near

Fort Wayne, Ind., was just what Bush needed.

Turns out, the Hoosiers wound up getting the better end of the

deal.

Instead of dealing with some arrogant high school All-American,

focused on big numbers and an NFL career, the Hoosiers wound up

with the kind of scout team player coaches dream about.

Bush never complained, never questioned the coaches, never asked

for special treatment when he sat out 2009 because of NCAA transfer

rules. He played so hard in practice that he injured a teammate

last season.

”I’d say he might bring more to us off the field than he does

on it,” Lynch said. ”Having seen his work ethic and the way he

practiced in the fall. I don’t think you’d find too many

24-year-old guys who like being on the scout team. But, you know,

he’s been through a lot tougher things than this.”

Bush cannot forget.

The most common question he gets is whether he shot anyone in

Iraq. The answer: No.

A few former Indiana players have asked Bush for advice about

entering Officers Candidate School. The redshirt sophomore didn’t

hesitate to give his assessment. Bush still wears a metal wristband

as a tribute to one buddy who was killed overseas, and he has a

tattoo of a biblical verse on his arm as a reminder of how he

survived.

He’s not afraid to talk about Iraq – the good, the bad or the

ugly – and when he finally got a chance to play in the spring game

this April, King drove up from Hopkinsville, Ky., to watch.

”I was so proud of him,” said King, a semipro football player.

”I’ve been to Iraq three times, and I’ve never heard of anyone

that got out and came back and played college football. So to see

him in those colors, I was just really proud of him.”

On Thursday night, when Towson visits Bloomington, the Iraqi

veteran will finally make his college football debut at the tender

age of 25 and two days after President Obama formally announced the

end of combat operations in Iraq.

The Hoosiers hope to improve on last season’s 4-8 mark and a

victory over Football Championship Subdivision school Towson

(2-9)would be a good start.

It’s likely Bush will have an impact, too.

He goes into the game listed as the second string defensive end,

and after adding almost 30 pounds since his deployment, Bush has

grown into the prototypical rush end/standup linebacker for the

Hoosiers’ new 3-4 defense. But teammates look to Bush for something

else – leadership.

”I think because of his life experiences, everyone looks up to

him,” senior linebacker Tyler Replogle said. ”We’ve had a few

brief discussions about his experience there, and it really puts

everything in perspective.”

For Bush, too.

”People sometimes ask me if I regret doing it, but I don’t

regret it at all,” he said of his service. ”I tell it how it is

so it doesn’t get misconstrued. But I knew (at Toledo) that I was

never going to get the grades I needed to, and I know, 100 percent

that I would not be here without the Army. I’m one guy who deserves

a second chance.”