People of the Year: Michael Bush

Resuming my list of the most notable people of the year in Kentucky sports, in no particular order . . .

Quick story. I’d say about every 48 hours somebody sends me an email suggesting who should be the next U of L football coach (no, there’s no vacancy, by the way). Right after he was let go by the Oakland Raiders, someone sent the name of Lane Kiffin to me.

I fired off a quick response: “Anyone who doesn’t have the good sense to give the football to Michael Bush doesn’t appear too promising to me.”

Yesterday, Bush showed what I was talking about. He carried 27 times for 177 yards and three touchdowns in an Oakland Raiders win over Tampa Bay.

Bush had been pulling sideline and special teams duty all year. But when his number was called yesterday, he showed the kind of freakish size and athleticism and speed that made him one of the best college players I’ve ever watched in person.

He ran for 129 yards in the fourth quarter — the third highest total in the NFL in 18 years.

It couldn’t have happened to a better person. In some ways, being left on the shelf for one more year might’ve been a blessing for Bush, who just keeps getting stronger and stronger after a grueling rehabilitation from a broken leg suffered in the season-opener of his college senior year.

I’ve said it many times — no player ever gave up more to come back to school at U of L than Michael Bush. And after the work he put in to get back, he deserves to be on this list of special Kentuckians in sports in 2008. The outlook for him at one time was bleak, but he’ll head into the 2009 season with bright prospects after his performance today.

Below is a column I wrote about him after a preseason performance at Tennessee:

Bush now making his own breaks

Aug. 16, 2008

NASHVILLE, Tenn.

The worst feeling I ever had on a football field was watching Michael Bush waving to the crowd at Papa John’s Cardinal Stadium after his right leg was broken in the opener of his senior season against Kentucky.

From a career standpoint, no player ever sacrificed more for the University of Louisville than Bush.

When the big debate about your sports career is whether you’ll be able to collect on a $2 million catastrophic-injury insurance policy, you know things are bad. They were that bad for Bush.

Last night was very good. I know, Bush made his official comeback in the Oakland Raiders’ preseason opener against the San Francisco 49ers last week. He had the key reception (a 23-yard screen catch and run) on Oakland’s lone touchdown drive, then scored the TD on fourth down from a yard out.

But while it’s easy to appreciate Bush’s combination of size and speed on television, there’s nothing like seeing him in person, and last night’s exhibition against the Tennessee Titans at LP Field was my chance.

If Bush isn’t in the best shape of his life, he’s close. Mike Bush Sr. said his son stepped on the scales at 238 pounds on Thursday.

At halftime, with Bush having gotten only one carry for 5 pile-moving yards (and a first down), the father was antsy.

“All my life I haven’t ever watched him sit,” Mike Sr. said. “It’s frustrating. But at least he has gotten his chance.”

Nobody really knows what went into getting that chance, the long hours and mental strain of returning from a broken tibia and some complications after that. But the biggest strain, according to the younger Bush, was sitting out all last season.

“Coming to practice every day while everybody else had pads on, it doesn’t get harder than that,” he said. “I’ve never sat on the bench in my life.”

In fact, that played into his performance a bit last night. Bush said he’d never in his life waited until the second half to get into the action. But aside from that single carry before halftime, that’s what happened against the Titans. For anyone who has been waiting for Bush, the third quarter was a long-awaited pleasure. It wasn’t spectacular, but it was Bush.

Oakland handed him the ball on 10 of its first 12 plays. After that stretch he had piled up nearly as many rushing yards (51) as the Raiders had in the entire first half (60). And it wasn’t as if the Titans were being surprised by disguised runs. It was Bush right, Bush left, Bush up the middle.

Bush back.

Nevertheless, Raiders coach Lane Kiffin wasn’t thrilled. “He wasn’t the same guy we saw last week,” he said.

Bush said he felt tight after a first half of inaction. Still, his numbers weren’t bad: 14 carries for 59 yards. They were hard yards, the kind he learned to pile up at U of L. And they were on an NFL stage.

“Just getting to play, it’s been such a relief,” Bush said. “After all the waiting and working, you can say to yourself, ‘I can still do it.'”

The good news for Bush is that he doesn’t have to be in a hurry. As eager as he was to get back in action, the most impressive thing is that he’s back at all.

And that the cart ride off the Papa John’s Cardinal Stadium field wasn’t his final run.

See all the posts on Kentucky Sports People of the Year by clicking the label of that title below, and nominate your own entries in the comments sections of these entries.

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