The process college football teams use to recruit high school players is sometimes controversial but usually very simple. Coaches scout players, then, if they like what they see, offer them positions on the college’s team. Players can then choose to accept or decline that offer.
But the path to big-time college football was much different and much more complex for Kevin Bush, who plays defensive end for Indiana University. Before arriving at IU, Bush attended two different smaller colleges, worked at a factory and served as an Army infantryman in Korea and Iraq.
That journey ended in Memorial Stadium on Sept. 2, when Bush, at the age of 25, lined up alongside his Indiana teammates, ready to sprint down the field into kickoff coverage. It was a stark contrast to where he was two years before: dodging IEDs in an armored vehicle in Iraq.
“I went and did it,” Bush says of his service. “Thousands of people do it every day. I don’t really feel that special or that I deserve any special treatment.”
Bush might not be special, but he is in a rare class as a collegiate athlete with a service background. What’s relatively normal is the story of how he joined the military. He suffered some academic struggles in college, floated between schools and eventually came to a crossroads in life where he “impulsively” decided to enlist.
Coming out of Homestead High School in Fort Wayne, Ind., Bush was a renowned football talent. He was a three-year letter winner and made the all-state team as a senior. He rarely left the field, playing quarterback, wide receiver, punt returner and even a few defensive positions. But it wasn’t enough to get him noticed by college recruiters.
He walked onto the University of Toledo’s football team without a scholarship but left after his first semester, returning home to Fort Wayne to work in a factory. His plan was to enroll at a local college in the summer, take a full slate of classes and raise his GPA to where he could gain admittance to the school he always wanted to attend: Indiana University. But things didn’t work out as he’d hoped.
“At that time, I was trying to make moves to get down to IU,” he says. “I was working at a factory. I tried to take summer classes. The transfer didn’t work out. It was just kind of a crossroads as far as where my life was going. I didn’t really know what I was going to do.”
The solution, as it is for many his age and in his position, turned out to be the military. In July 2005, he found himself in an Army recruiter’s office, ready to sign a three-year contract.
“I had a buddy who joined probably about year prior,” Bush says. “I talked to him about things and really just kind of acted impulsively and signed up. That was that.”
He quickly shipped off to Fort Benning for basic training, then to South Korea for a year. He briefly returned stateside to Fort Campbell and deployed to Iraq in September of 2007 - exactly two years before his first game as an Indiana Hoosier.
Until November of the next year, Bush and his unit performed security jobs and patrolled central and northern parts of Iraq. His brush with danger came from something common to warfare in the Middle East: an IED. Luckily, he was driving a heavily armored vehicle that was able to withstand the blast.
“We were out on patrol like any other day, and we just happened to roll over an IED and got popped,” he says. “It happened to us probably eight or 10 times. It’s one of those things that, when you’re infantry over there, you just kind of expect to happen. The way things are, it’s not really a firefight over there. It’s really just about avoiding those types of things. I was driving and ran over it. It was like any other day.”
After a 14-month tour, he returned home and enrolled at IU with the GI Bill, eyeing a potential football career. He was certainly looking the part, weighing around 240 pounds - about 30 more than his weight as a high school senior. Through his high school coach and an old teammate, Bush was able to arrange a walk-on tryout with the Indiana coaches. He easily made the team and became a backup defensive end. He says he owes a debt of gratitude to the service.
“I learned to be more mentally tough,” says Bush, who blocked a punt in his first game. “I think that starts in basic training. You learn to deal with the hard things and move on. That’s how it is. If you’re not feeling like you want to go into work the next day, you don’t really have an option. You’ve got to go.”
At first, Bush stood out among his teammates - most of whom were almost half a decade younger than him. But he says he quickly learned how to relate to them and provide a unique perspective as an older person who has served his country.
“When people ask questions about the Army, I never shy away. There were a lot of questions when I first got here,” Bush says. “Really, it’s just like having a bunch of different little brothers. That’s how I treat it. I am as close with these guys as guys in the Army. In the Army, you bond with guys real fast. It’s kind of the same thing here.”
With four wins and a near-upset against nationally ranked Iowa, Indiana is currently fighting to reach college football’s postseason. Bush has done his part, filling in at defensive end and recording 11 tackles this year.
On Veterans Day, he’ll be honored in programming on ESPN and The Big Ten Network. He admitted that portions of the interview segments were, at times, tough to get through. But he was glad to help bring recognition to the holiday.
“Everyone always tells me that people want to hear the story, and I am always willing to tell it,” Bush says. “It’s been interesting, and it’s been an experience.”