- Associated Press - Wednesday, September 1, 2010

BLOOMINGTON, IND. (AP) - 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.”

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