Brian Cushing: The wait is over

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*This article appears in the Oct. 10 issue of the *Texans Gameday *magazine, which features Cushing on the cover. 

Linebacker Brian Cushing makes his return today from a four-game suspension, and the 2009 Pro Bowler and NFL Defensive Rookie of the Year is ready to make up for lost time.

Get ready, folks.

"The thing you've got to know about Cush is he's good enough without you getting him angry," said Joe DeFranco, Cushing's long-time trainer in Wyckoff, N.J. "You don't want to give him any more motivation. The kid is self-motivated. When you give him something more to prove, it's a scary, scary thing.

"You saw what he did as a rookie. That was a normal Brian Cushing. That was happy Brian Cushing. Now he's ticked off. I don't even know what we're going to see (today). I just know it's going to be one angry, violent, motivated player. I'm not going to blink the whole game."

Cushing was a highlight reel waiting to happen in 2009, when he led the Texans with 133 tackles, snagged four interceptions and recorded four sacks as a rookie out of USC. His physical play at the strongside linebacker position was a catalyst for a defense that gave up the fewest yards in team history.

Then Cushing was suspended by the NFL in May for violating the league's policy on performance-enhancing substances. He had tested positive for a hormone called hCG. Cushing denied that he ever did anything wrong, but the suspension was upheld despite an appeal from the Texans and went into effect on Sept. 4.

From that point on, Cushing was not allowed on the premises at Reliant Stadium. He couldn't even buy a ticket to a game. He was prohibited from talking to teammates or anyone within the organization.

"I thought I was going to be alright and be able to deal with it, get my mind off of football," Cushing said. "But every Sunday was probably harder than the next. Sundays were horrible, to be honest with you. Watching the guys and not being able to be out there was just a helpless feeling and something you never want to experience. You really realize how much you love something when it's taken away from you."

Cushing spent his time at home in Park Ridge, N.J., surrounding himself with a support system that included close family members and friends. He stayed at his parents' house. He worked out with DeFranco, with whom he has trained since he was 16. He had barbeques with friends from high school and played golf in the afternoons, helping him to clear his mind.

His father, Frank Cushing, said it was great that Brian went home. That is, except on Sundays.

"Watching the games?" Frank said, chuckling. "You wouldn't want to be in the room.

"The first game against the Colts, my nephew was going, 'Oh, (the Colts) don't have a long threat.' The next play was 73 yards, and Brian started screaming at us. He was so excited when they won, but then when they lost to the Cowboys, smoke was coming out of his ears the room was so intense. He was so upset.

"That's the way he is. I mean, his whole life is football. Right, wrong or indifferent, he lives to play football. It's the only thing he ever thought about in life."

That said, Cushing did everything possible to make sure he was ready to play in Week 5, "training like he always does – like a crazy person" in the words of his father.

He trained with DeFranco for 5-6 days a week at his gym in Wyckoff, using a somewhat revolutionary workout plan specifically designed to get Cushing in football shape.

DeFranco watched NFL games with a stopwatch to chart how long an average play lasts and how much rest players get between each play, between each series, at halftime, during commercial timeouts and in TV timeouts.

He found that the average play lasts 5.5 seconds, the average break between each play is 30 seconds and the average break between series is 4-7 minutes. So DeFranco created exercises for Cushing that fit those parameters while mimicking what happens during an individual play.

One such drill involved Cushing flipping a 600-pound tire, sprinting five yards, changing direction, then sprinting five yards back and flipping the tire again – all in a span of about six seconds. Ninety percent of the time, Cushing was doing the exercises while wearing a 12-pound weighted vest, close to the equivalent of a helmet and shoulder pads.

Fridays were Cushing's "game days." Since he averaged 62 plays a game last season, DeFranco put him through 40 "plays" in the first week before building up to 50 plays, then 52 and finally 62.

"Each week, he got better, and he tolerated the workouts great," DeFranco said. "I think you're going to see the benefit of this type of training right away. He's not the type of guy that you're going to hear needs an extra week to get into game shape because he had four weeks off, because Cush's four weeks off aren't your average four weeks off. They're probably tougher than what most of the guys that actually played the last four weeks were doing."

Cushing reported to the Texans on Monday in perhaps the best condition of his life. He said that he can't remember ever feeling this good physically heading into a game.

"He's just like he would be at opening day, in my opinion," Texans coach Gary Kubiak said after Cushing's first practice Wednesday.

Kubiak's primary concern with Cushing is how sharp he'll be after missing about 250 reps in the first four games. But Cushing had eight tackles in his first game as a rookie last year despite missing the entire preseason with a knee injury, and he practiced sparingly all year because of various injuries.

The Texans got off to a 3-1 start this season without Cushing, but his return will bolster a defense that ranks last in the league in total yards (408) and passing yards (337.8) allowed per game. He also figures to help the Texans in the turnover department. They had only one takeaway in their first three games this season before forcing three turnovers at Oakland.

"He's just been sitting around chomping at the bit to get out here, and we've been waiting on him, too," Kubiak said. "There are a lot of guys counting on him. His teammates told him that they would have (the team) in good shape when he came back. They've done their part, and now it's time for him to step up and do his."

As fate would have it, Cushing's return happens to come against the New York Giants, the team he grew up around in New Jersey.

"Every single Sunday, the Giants were on TV," he said. "I remember having my Saturday football games, then I'd come home from church on Sunday and the Giants would be on. Now I've got an opportunity to play in front of the hometown fans of the Giants and all the people who haven't really seen me play in a while, who have just heard things. I get to show people back home what I've turned into and the kind of player I am now. It's going to be fun. I've got a lot of things to prove."

Cushing isn't only looking to prove something to Giants fans. He'll have 8-12 family members and friends at today's game, including his father, his mother, his sister and two nephews, DeFranco, his chiropractor and his high school coach.

"It's special that they want to be a part of it," Cushing said. "Everyone kind of wrote off what they were doing and said, 'No matter what, I'm going to be at this game.' This game's for a lot of people. It's for my team and Mr. (Bob) McNair and the organization. It's for my friends. It's for my family, for the fans. It's time to give back, and I'm ready."

DeFranco, who will be watching a Texans game in person for the first time after spending the past four weeks with Cushing, expects him to put on a show.

"I don't want to say somebody's gonna get hurt, but let's just say somebody, or a lot of people, are gonna get hit really, really hard," he said. "You're literally going to see the equivalent of a rabid animal come out on the field, because really, that's his voice. He doesn't want to say anything wrong. He has done the right thing in his interviews and kind of played it politically correct.

"But what are people going to say now if he goes out and has the best game of his life and he's bigger than he was at this time last year, he's faster and he's in better shape? I think this is going to be his way of letting his actions speak louder than any words he could say."

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