WYCKOFF, N.J. — Brian Cushing returned to his hometown in northern New Jersey for a few weeks this summer, and the visit only reinforced the passage of time since last fall. His son, Cayden, was born on Oct. 15th; asked about him eight months later, Cushing pulled up a photo on his phone of the blonde tyke sitting in a grocery cart and marveled at how he already had five teeth.
There’s also the matter of the other life-altering event that happened eight months ago—the torn left ACL Cushing suffered against the Jets on Oct. 8. Back in Jersey, those who’ve known him since he was a ferocious hitter at Bergen Catholic High could sense the aggression that’s been building up inside since his season was abruptly ended some 20 miles away at MetLife Stadium.
“I almost feel bad for the first couple of dozen guys you hit,” Brian Shannon, Cushing’s long-time chiropractor, told him in June.
Cushing didn’t laugh. It wasn’t a joke. The Texans linebacker was cleared by his surgeon, James Andrews, and the team’s medical staff just in time for training camp, and is now easing back into football. But come Sept. 9, when Houston opens at San Diego on Monday Night Football, Cushing doesn’t want to be easing into anything.
The 26-year-old is the kind of guy who scours press clippings throughout the season and carries a personal grudge if an opposing coach doesn’t recognize him by name. So you can imagine his furor after missing the final 13 games of the best season in franchise history because of a peel-back block that has since been deemed illegal.
Cushing can’t get back that lost time. But, he tells himself, he can make up for it.
“If you do it right,” he says firmly, referring to the ACL rehab, “you have no choice but to be better … you look at guys like Jamaal Charles, Adrian Peterson—you can be better than ever before. I’m looking and preparing for my best season yet.”
Peterson, the Vikings running back, set an almost unrealistic standard last season by rushing for 2,097 yards within a year of tearing two ligaments in his left knee. Cushing, who plans to be playing full-out by the second or third preseason game, has his own high marks in mind. He wants at least 100 tackles—“as a middle linebacker,” he says, “anything less is pretty unacceptable”—and to lead a defense that he believes can be the best in the NFL. He hasn’t been a Pro Bowler since his first season, in ’09, but plans to start “rattling them consecutively.” Now in the final year of his rookie contract, he has the added motivation of a potential long-term deal with the Texans.
But mostly he wants to bring a Super Bowl title to Houston—this season. “That’s my biggest goal, something I don’t really ever see myself being OK with not having,” Cushing says. “This is our time. There’s no looking in the future or in the past for this team. We have to win right now.”
Cushing’s urgency to win a ring only made his torn-up knee hurt even more. When then-Jets left guard Matt Slauson crashed into Cushing’s left leg in that Monday night game, the Texans were undefeated. They continued their hot start, building an 11-1 record by early December. Cushing had pleaded with the Texans to not place him on season-ending injured reserve, saying, “If we go to the Super Bowl, I think I can be ready.” Now, he admits, “I was a little crazy thinking that, but it was just the kind of hunger I had.”
His only option was to satisfy that appetite through rehab. Andrews repaired Cushing’s ACL 10 days after his wife, Megan, gave birth to Cayden. (Cushing’s father, Frank, his agent, Drew Rosenhaus, and one of the team doctors watched the knee procedure in the operating room.) Cushing says he began rehab about a week after surgery; was squatting within four months; and though he sat out the Texans’ minicamp in June, was doing change-of-direction drills in which he cut and ran toward flashing lights—as close to simulating football as you can get without hitting somebody.
When he returned to New Jersey last month, the only sign of his injury was the black compression sleeve on his left leg to guard against swelling. At DeFranco’s, a warehouse-style gym in Bergen County that doesn’t have air conditioning, Cushing followed the same summer workout regimen he’s done since turning pro.
The gym’s owner, Joe DeFranco, crafts nontraditional exercises that simulate what the body experiences on the football field. Cushing bench-pressed a 275-pound bar draped with about 90 pounds of chains, sharpening the acceleration needed to push off a block. (The weight increases and becomes more unwieldy as you lift, because the chains are no longer touching the floor.) After each round, Cushing leaped up energetically from the bench.
Later, Cushing completed a set of “chaos shrugs,” a lift in which he raises a bar with a pair of kettlebell weights tied on with resistance bands. His surgically repaired leg stood strong, bearing the 200 pounds of swaying without a flinch. He paused between exercises, mimicking a slugger taking a swing in the batter’s box. By the end of his workout, Cushing’s army-green dri-fit shirt was soaked completely through with sweat.
DeFranco likened Cushing to a “caged animal” and offered evidence: In recent weeks Cushing set a lifetime best with a 52-inch seated box jump, and he dragged a 750-pound sled for 30 yards (part of that weight came from onetime Texans teammate Connor Barwin). “He’s dangerous when you give him something else to prove,” DeFranco said.
Both DeFranco and Shannon have worked with Cushing since he was a teen and say they’ve never seen him better primed for a football season. Cushing told Shannon that before he left Houston at the end of the team’s offseason program, the training staff put him through a battery of tests, such as one-legged broad jumps and jumps over cones, to check his strength and balance. Cushing’s surgically repaired left leg out-performed the right one each time, he said.
In working on Cushing, Shannon says he felt more restrictions in his right leg. The only issue he found on the left side was some scar tissue in Cushing’s quad, which Shannon planned to free up the next day after Cushing’s scheduled lower-body workout. “It’s healing up really well,” Shannon told him. “Sometimes you take a step back, but you are rejuvenated.”
Peterson’s bounce-back season gives Cushing confidence—and also the will, he says, to “one-up” the Vikings’ running back. But just like his body, it took Cushing time to build this conviction. He admits there were days when he was miserable, when he felt bad for himself, when he went “a little crazy” doing the same exercises day in and day out. A couple times, Cushing says, he unfairly took that out on the Texans trainers with “little verbal confrontations.”
Nothing, though, was worse than the emptiness of game days. This absence was harder, he says, than his four-game suspension in 2010 for violating the league’s policy on performance-enhancing substances. Cushing was a fixture on the sideline after his injury, but he still felt helpless and found the what-ifs hard to block out—particularly on Jan. 13, the day of the Texans’ 41-28 divisional round playoff loss at New England.
Defensive end J.J. Watt blossomed into the NFL’s Defensive Player of the Year in 2012, but the Texans missed their defensive captain, their rabble-rouser. Since 2011, they rank second in the NFL in total defense and third in scoring defense with Cushing on the field. But in 11 games without him, they drop to 16th and 20th, respectively. His absence means opposing offenses average more than 60 extra yards and nearly seven more points.
“Certain guys can try to replicate it,” Cushing says of his effect on the defense, “but I think it was different without those guys seeing me out there to pump them up every week.”
Some of Cushing’s favorite NFL moments occur before games, when he sees opponents looking at him during warmups. He loves sensing their intimidation. And he’s ready to feel that again, for himself and for the Texans. “Week 1, they’ll be looking at me, just knowing,” Cushing says of the Chargers, who host the Monday night opener.
Forty-two days until the season opener. Forty-two days until Brian Cushing can hit someone in earnest. He plans to make up for lost time.