USC's hard-hitting Brian Cushing is the Bulldog of Bergen (N.J., that is)
Bergen Catholic (Oradell, N.J.) High coach Fred Stengel says his former star and current USC senior linebacker Brian Cushing has a bit of "wild dog" in him. Cross country in Los Angeles, Trojans coach Pete Carroll calls Cushing an "animal." When barking orders during practice, USC linebackers coach Ken Norton Jr., a three-time Super Bowl champion whose father held the heavyweight title and famously broke Muhammad Ali's jaw, addresses the 6-foot-3, 255-pound Cushing as the "Bulldog of Bergen."
"It's a violent sport where the more vile the name coaches call you, the higher the compliment," says Cushing. "What other business could you be in where a coach calls you a [expletive] and you love every second of it?"
When his name is announced at the L.A. Coliseum on Saturday night before USC's battle with Ohio State, Cushing, a Butkus Award candidate, will appear in front of the crowd as a hulking, impenetrable assemblage of muscles. For all his bulging-vein biceps and intensity, though, there will be few visible signs of what drives him.
To get a sense of what makes Cushing tick, you have to go back to Sept. 13, 2005. Cushing, who had one game and a single tackle to his name, returned to practice after a bye week. Slotted behind three-year starter Dallas Sartz as the No. 2 strongside linebacker, there he was, running full throttle on a punt-protection drill against the scout team. Just after initiating contact, he felt pain in his left shoulder. Refusing to retreat to the sideline, he lined up for a drill in which linebackers go against fullbacks. Again, he felt a jolt to his shoulder just after contact, and this one was so strong it was unlike anything he had felt before.
Finally, and most painfully, he went up against another fullback, pounding his hurt shoulder one more time. Told by trainers and coaches to sit out for a half hour thinking it was a stinger, he did as they said, but the pain doubled. X-rays were negative, but an MRI later revealed a dislocated shoulder. "They said I actually hit it back into place," says Cushing. "It was torn."
Cushing could not feel the left side of his body and his career was knocked off course. While USC played at Arkansas the following week, Cushing stewed at home, watching as Sartz left the field with his own season-ending shoulder separation. Seven days later, sequestered in a USC dorm room, Cushing watched the Trojans beat Oregon, 45-13, on a 13-inch black-and-white television while his father, Frank sat in the Autzen Stadium stands. "I was calling him with updates," Frank says. "Not how we planned it to be."
The Jersey boy felt like he was alone on an island. He did not travel to road games or stay in the downtown Los Angeles Marriott for home games. As matinee idols Reggie Bush and Matt Leinart raced off to their Heisman campaigns, Cushing rehabilitated. "I wasn't bleeding and sweating with the guys," he says.
Within the month, Trojans coach Pete Carroll, whose team was undefeated and outscoring opponents 178-47, phoned the Cushing home in Park Ridge, N.J., on a Friday night. Frank Cushing answered and Carroll broached the idea of medically redshirting Brian. Nearing the 11th hour of when a school could declare, a decision would have to come quickly. Frank Cushing, a jack of all trades on Seton Hall's 1964 College World Series team, was fine with the idea. "Why risk your health?" he said.
The dye was all but cast on the redshirt when, following that week's game, Carroll called again. "It's a miracle," Carroll said. "Brian can play."
"Excuse me," the father said. "What happened?"
"Brian's OK," said Carroll. "He says he can play."
"Well did he also tell you there's a bridge in New York called Brooklyn that he can sell you?" Frank Cushing said. "Brian will say anything to play."
Cushing had persuaded the coaching and medical staff that he could play, but he had little time to get ready. Unable to lift weights, he lost 14 pounds. Prior to taking the field, he received shots of a painkillers in his buttocks. After missing five games, he started slow as the medicine did not sit well. "I wouldn't be able to leave the stadium until 1 or 2 in the morning because I'd be so sick from [the painkillers]," Cushing says. "Throwing up, dizzy, just terrible. That's what I had to do to play."
Back at their Cardinal Gardens apartment, teammate and fellow freshman Mark Sanchez remembers Cushing attempting to read a book and saying, "Man, I gotta talk to the professor. I can't even read."
Fighting on, Cushing blocked a punt against Washington, recovered a fumble versus Fresno State and earned his first start at California. In front of 72,981 rabid fans, he and fellow freshman linebacker Rey Maualuga made a pact during a timeout. "Let's never leave the field," said Cushing, who led USC with seven tackles that day.
A month and a half later, Cushing, having started the final three regular-season games, played in the Rose Bowl against Texas for the BCS title. Cushing chased the Longhorns' Vince Young, but Young and Texas wore him down with counter plays. Even after Young's corner-touchdown run, Cushing -- who had one tackle in the game -- still expected the Trojans to pull through trailing 41-38 with 19 seconds remaining. "I had dreamed of going 100 mph, just feeling unbelievable," he says. "But the night before I was just praying that my arm wouldn't fall off."