From Houston — Memo to opponents of the Houston Texans: Watch what you say about inside linebacker Brian Cushing.
And what you don’t say about him.
In helping the Texans defense improve from 30th to seventh in the NFL rankings, Cushing has become a motivation-seeking missile. He’s constantly scouring the Internet for personal slights that he can use to his advantage, so his ears perk up when he hears his name, or when he doesn’t hear it.
“I’ll use the littlest things,” Cushing said this week during a break from preparations for Sunday’s game at Baltimore. “I’ll read an article where a coach doesn’t even mention my name on another team’s website, and that will be my motivation for the week. I want to be a guy that’s mentioned all the time, no matter what.”
A year ago, the former USC standout’s name was discussed for all the wrong reasons. He was suspended for the first four games of last season after testing positive for a banned substance, one commonly used to mask steroids. He has denied using performance-enhancing drugs.
Cushing knows there are people he will never convince. He also knows there are people expecting his radar blip to disappear, that he’ll experience the kind of drop-off Shawne Merriman did after that onetime San Diego Chargers star was popped for testing positive.
“Everyone’s going to have an opinion, and you’re not going to change everyone’s opinion,” Cushing said. “But as far as family, friends, teammates, competition from other teams, that’s the respect I want. I think that the more people know about me, the longer I play, then people will know.”
So far this season, Cushing is on a tear for the Texans, tied atop the AFC South with Tennessee at 3-2. He’s back to the form that earned him defensive rookie-of-the-year honors and a Pro Bowl spot in 2009, and he has made a seamless adjustment from an outside linebacker in the Texans’ 4-3 defense to the signal-caller in Wade Phillips’ 3-4 scheme. Cushing leads the team with 36 tackles, and he’ll have to assume even more of a leadership role now that Pro Bowl outside linebacker Mario Williams is done for the year because of a pectoral injury.
Cushing’s dedication is remarkable. Even in a league filled with hard-driving perfectionists, he stands out. His daily routine is mapped out almost to the minute, and he rigidly adheres to that schedule whether he’s working out, getting a massage or eating one of his many meals throughout the day.
“His eating is timed throughout the day, and he can only eat at those specific times,” said teammate Shaun Cody, who preceded Cushing at USC. “He has one cheat meal built into the week, and I know when it is because his plate will be piled up. Other than that, he’s meticulous.”
That planning started young. Even as a child, Cushing had pretty much charted his path. His father, Frank, remembers a 9-year-old Brian asking to have a serious conversation with him.
“He said, ‘Dad, can I talk to you?’ ” the elder Cushing recalled. “I put the paper down, and he said, ‘Dad, I’ve got a plan: I’m going to Bergen Catholic, I’m going to Notre Dame, then I’m going to go to the Dallas Cowboys, and I’m going to be the greatest player ever.’
“I said, ‘Well, you just stick with that plan, because at 55, I still don’t have a plan.’ ”
Turns out young Brian wasn’t too far off the mark. He won a New Jersey state championship at Bergen Catholic High School, was a highly decorated player for the Trojans, and wound up playing 250 miles south of Dallas for a franchise that — with Indianapolis quarterback Peyton Manning out of the mix — is in good position to make the playoffs for the first time.
But is all that intense focus a good thing? Sometimes, Frank Cushing wonders whether his son is having any fun in life, or whether he’s so goal-oriented he hasn’t bothered to stop for a moment and appreciate what he has achieved.
“Playing linebacker, I know you’ve got to be at the edge, but let’s not go over the edge,” the father said. “That’s a concern I have. Let’s not flip, maybe have a nervous breakdown or maybe go into depression. You’ve got to smile and have fun. It’s not all work.
“When he comes home, all he does is watch game films, or he’ll watch the NFL. It’s all football, football and more football. He’s comparing himself to everybody, watching everybody. He wants to be the best, and he’s intense.”
There was no mistaking that in last Sunday’s loss to the Raiders, when Cushing’s helmet slipped forward on his first contact of the game and opened a deep cut on the bridge of his nose. Hemoglobin rivers ran down both sides of his face, and the TV cameras zoomed in for tight shots that underscored the intensity of the game. Cushing stayed on the field; he’s the only Texans linebacker who plays every defensive down. It’s a good thing Brian’s mother was watching from the stands and not the family’s living room, Frank said, “or she might have fainted.”
“It was like Jack Lambert,” Cody said, referring to the scowling, growling Hall of Fame linebacker for the Pittsburgh Steelers. “You look back there, it looked like somebody threw a blood balloon at Cush because his whole face and eyes were covered. It was nuts. On the sideline he’s huffing and puffing, looks like he’s dying, and then he goes back out there and does the same thing.”
Cody said Cushing is one of the few players he can consistently feel whipping past him, a different sound quality as the linebacker whooshes by and makes a play. He said fellow Texans defenders have to be mindful to stay out of Cushing’s way on the field.
“He’s knocked our guys out too,” Cody said. “You see Cush running to the pile, you’d better watch out.”
So there is something friendly about Cushing on the field, after all.