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Hard lessons from his father set Devin Bush Jr. on path to NFL

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PHOENIX -- Devin Bush Jr.'s hunger is reaching a critical stage. It is early March, and for the previous two months he has been living far from home, holed up in a sprawling apartment complex that looks like stacked earth-toned ice cubes. His focus has been singular: preparing for the NFL Scouting Combine and his pro day at the University of Michigan. That has meant five workouts each weekday and two more on Saturdays.

But on this afternoon, the All-America linebacker has made the mistake of fasting, and now his stomach is letting him know. He has a taste for soul food, so he's off on a 30-minute drive to Lo-Lo's Chicken and Waffles, where he requests a made-to-order burger topped with an over-easy egg, a side of smothered chicken and a slice of red velvet cake.

He attacks the meal as if it's an unprotected quarterback. Only one thing slows him down: a question about whether his status as a projected first-round draft choice was preordained because his father, Devin Bush Sr., was a 1995 first-round pick of the Atlanta Falcons who played eight seasons in the league. His eyes roll as he shakes his head, and the exasperation in his voice can be heard over the loud music and elevated chatter in the restaurant.

"If you were in my shoes, you wouldn't say that," he says. "If you were in my shoes, I promise you nine times out of 10 you would have stopped playing football because of everything my dad did. You'd be like, 'F--- that, I'm good, I don't want to play football.' "

* * * * *


DEVIN AND HIS FATHER are extremely close, sharing a telepathy that allows them to know what the other is thinking without words being spoken. But it wasn't always that way. For much of his childhood, Devin was perplexed by his father. He could not figure out why his dad pushed him so hard on the athletic field, creating an Orwellian environment in which the youngster was told he was wrong even when he was right. On some days it confused Devin, on others it angered him. The situation also scared him enough that for years he could not bring himself to ask his dad the question he desperately wanted answered: Why are you always so hard on me?

Sometimes a father's love can be misinterpreted by a son not old enough to see the big picture. Bush Sr. recognized his son had the athletic ability to be special the first time he watched him on a football field as a 7-year-old trying out for the Pasadena Lakes Panthers youth football team in South Florida. He could see the exceptional vision and balance, though in hindsight neither surprised him. It was common for Devin to be uncommon, like when he went from learning to walk to literally running overnight. Most toddlers might stumble around for a day or two after taking their first steps, but young Devin bypassed the awkward stage.

"He would run everywhere," Bush Sr. said. "You would have to tell him to slow down before he ran into the wall, but he'd run into the wall, hit it hard, bust his head open, get up and laugh, thinking it was funny. Or he might cry for half a second before going back to what he was doing."

Watching his son on the field that afternoon for the first time as a 7-year-old, Bush Sr. could clearly see the talent. He had won a national championship as a safety at Florida State in the early '90s and participated in two Super Bowls as a professional, losing one with the Falcons before winning one with the St. Louis Rams, so game was recognizing game. But instead of enjoying the moment, he found himself worrying that football was coming too easily for his son. Young Devin's instincts were high, his reactions quick. Concerned it could dull his son's competitive edge, Bush Sr. formulated a plan to keep Devin humble and challenged.

"I wanted him to feel like he wasn't good, so I made him play against older guys who were bigger, stronger, faster," he said. "That way the game wouldn't come as easy, or the things he was doing wouldn't come as easy."

But before that, he needed to know if his son wanted to play for the right reasons. Was it because he loved the game or because he was seeking his father's approval? Bush Sr. had told his son on multiple occasions he would be fine if the youngster pursued other interests, but Devin, who was known for keeping things inside, never reacted strongly -- until the day he and his dad returned from that initial tryout.

Bush Sr. was in the kitchen when Devin walked in and asked if he had made the team. The squad was supposed to be announced that night. Dad knew ahead of time his son had made the final cut, but he told Devin the coaches had yet to call. It was a test; he wanted to see how badly it mattered to his son. Later that evening, Devin asked again.

"You didn't make it," his father said.

"I didn't make the team?!" a stunned Devin replied.

"Nah, you weren't good enough."

Devin fell to the floor, kicking and screaming.

"I want to play! I want to play! Please let me play!"

The pleas ensued for five minutes, with Dad staying silent. Kesha Bush turned to her husband and asked why he was punishing their son.

"Just leave it alone," he said. "Let me do what I'm doing."

Finally, Bush Sr. had the answer he had been seeking. Devin wanted to play because he wanted to play for himself, not anyone else. His father had handed him a Get Out of Football Free card, but the son refused to take it. Bush Sr. picked him up off the floor, told him to wipe his face, then informed Devin that he had, in fact, made the Panthers��� final roster.

It was only an indicator of things to come. As Devin's youth coach, Bush Sr. wanted to teach lessons to his son and the entire team that could be applied to life as well as football. Such as the reality that life can be difficult, and you need to know how to adjust to circumstances. He stressed the importance of being prepared, getting up when knocked down, and finding a light in perceived darkness.

"I really believed in what my message was for the younger guys, and I didn't care how they took it because I knew what I was trying to instill in them -- that one day they would wake up and recognize those lessons and understand what I was trying to teach them was for their benefit and they could pass it on to others," said Bush Sr. "I wasn't worried about how delicate it could get or if it could push them the wrong way at that time, because when you get in intense situations, which tends to happen, and you work your way through them, you come out on the other side better than you were before. I really believed in the game and the lessons it taught. I wasn't there for them to be feeling good all the time, because life doesn't make you feel good all the time. I wasn't going to cheat them out of real lessons."

The goal was to keep his son grounded, hungry and hard-working, which meant treating him as a guy instead of the guy.

* * * * *


THANKS IN PART to his son's athletic talents, Bush Sr.'s team advanced to the Florida Youth League "Super Bowl" in 2008, but on the morning of the big game, Devin was slow to get ready. He knew his dad was supposed to pick up a teammate on his way to the game, but he still moved at a glacial pace. That angered his father. Punctuality was as important as preparedness in their house. It's why the parents made their three children iron and lay out their school clothes before going to bed, and why Devin was told to gather his equipment and uniform the night before the championship.

But on this morning, the 10-year-old was dragging. His father gave him another warning to hurry up, but it did no good. Finally, he threatened to leave without him. Devin shrugged and waved his hand.

"You just won't play today. Get there the best way you can," Dad said.

"I won't play then," Junior responded.

"I don't need you to play," Bush Sr. said. "You don't make the whole team."

Yeah, right, Devin thought to himself. He was a star player who when he wasn���t wreaking havoc for quarterbacks as a pass rusher was running up and down the field as a running back on offense. There was no way his dad would leave without him -- except he did.

"All I could think was, He really left me. He isn't playing around," said Devin, whose mom circled back and took him to the game.

His dad wanted him to understand that one player, no matter how valuable, did not make up the entire team, and that punctuality mattered.

"I wanted him to know that that's how this business is going to be," Bush Sr. said. "If you're not ready to be ready, this game -- and life -- will leave you behind."

His words to Devin were often coated with vinegar rather than sugar. Devin was not particularly fast as a child, and one day he asked his father why that was the case. "Because you suck," Bush Sr. answered.

Harsh, yes, but it was just another test. Bush Sr. knew, based on his own career, that a time would come when someone would say things like that to Devin. So, he wanted to see how his son would react. After Devin was done staring at him silently, Bush Sr. provided a figurative flashlight out of the dark.

"If someone says you suck, I want you to stand and look them in their eyes and tell them: Prove that I suck," he told his son. "I didn't want him to go leaning on their words, which really have nothing behind them or may not be true. You need to go work on it. You need to go figure out how to get faster. You need to run. Put in your mind that you're going to be fast, because one day you're going to be a 230-plus-pound guy and you're going to run a 4.4 (in the 40-yard dash)."

* * * * *


THE LESSONS BECAME EVEN HARSHER when Devin got to Flanagan High School, where his dad was an assistant coach in Devin's freshman season before taking over as head coach the following year. Because everyone recognized Devin's talents, his dad held him to the highest of standards.

Bush Sr. once noticed that Devin was going easy against teammates who were not his equal, doing just enough to get himself ready for that week's game. Devin's linebackers coach didn't have a problem with it, but Bush Sr. did. And he let it be known for everyone to hear.

"I didn't want him to get used to that," Bush Sr. said. "If he goes to a high school where the coach doesn't know him, he's going to have to push himself. So, he had to be disciplined."

It was a lesson that could be applied to life as well. Bush Sr. and his wife believed in a home filled with not only love, laughter and family time, but also manufactured adversity that tested the critical thinking and independence of Devin and his two older sisters, Jazmin and Deja.

On some nights, Bush Sr. cut the power to the house so the kids had to figure out how to get by in the darkness. Other times, Kesha would refuse to prepare dinner, forcing the children to fend for themselves. Need school supplies to start a new school year? The kids had to find a way to come up with them on their own.

Despite living in the Miami suburb of Pembroke Pines, Bush Sr. -- a product of Miami and the first in his family to go to college -- never wanted his children to get too comfortable or complacent in their surroundings. So, he occasionally loaded them into the car and drove them to Miami's impoverished inner-city areas to show them what real struggle looks like and how material things should never dominate their happiness. He also highlighted the type of attitude and determination it takes to prevent circumstances from defining you.

Devin could handle those lessons; it was the on-field ones he struggled with, largely because he always seemed to draw the ire of his father. Feet too far apart? Gotta do better. Wrong hand placement? Not acceptable. Even when he did things right, say forcing a fumble and returning it for a score, his father might chide him for not tucking away the football. It was maddening for the teenager, who didn't know his dad was purposely aligning him in the wrong spot to make the game harder.

"I always wanted to ask him why he was always on me, but I didn't have the courage because I wasn't sure I wanted to hear the answer," Devin said. "I didn't know if it was on purpose. I did ask him that question one time, but it was very brief. I think he said, 'I'm hard on you because I want you to be the best.' "

"At that time Devin was not old enough or mature enough to understand why his father treated him the way he did," said Kesha Bush. "His father was tougher on him than anybody else. Devin could never really do anything great. Even though he might have done everything right, his dad never patted him on the back and said, 'You're awesome. You're great.' He never tooted his horn because he didn't want Devin to think he had arrived."

* * * * *


THE CRITICISM AND LACK OD PRAISE occasionally created friction between Devin and his father, though never to the point that Devin wanted to quit football. You had a father who felt he knew best, and a son who felt his best was not good enough, all of which made Dec. 12, 2015, so memorable.

From the time Devin began playing football, his father always had been his coach. And now, after all the turmoil, shouting matches, uncertainty and feelings of being targeted, the two arrived at the Orlando Citrus Bowl for what was supposed to be their final game together: a showdown with Osceola for the state Class 8A title game.

It was a time of reflection for Devin, who thought back to one of his early practices at Flanagan, when his dad called the team together because some players were clowning around.

"Any of you guys ever won district, raise your hands," he said.

No one did.

"Any of you guys ever made All-County, raise your hand."

No one did.

"Any of you ever made third-team All-County, raise your hand."

No one did.

"Then there ain't s--- to be talking about back there," he said.

It was there, as a sophomore and second-year varsity member, that Devin set a goal of winning district and becoming All-County. He also set his sights on winning a state title, something neither the school nor his father had ever done before. Now, on a warm Saturday night in Orlando, he was in a position to achieve the last of those goals, with the man who had been with him for every step of the journey.

There was nothing suspenseful about the game; Flanagan dominated early en route to a 26-7 victory. The drama came afterward, when Devin ran past a group of reporters and wrapped his dad in a firm bearhug at midfield.

"Appreciate everything you've done," the youngster said, his face firm against his dad's cheek.

"Thanks for the ride," Bush Sr. responded, kissing his son on the right cheek, then the forehead.

They were not just coach and player. They were father and son.

"There was a lot going on in that moment because when he became the head coach, that's all we talked about -- being the first to win a state championship, and winning it together," said Devin. "We had always been together and won together, ever since he was my coach in Little League. But he had never won a state title and I had never got to a state title. Just to do that together, and everything that led up to that, him being so hard on me and wanting the best for me and for me to be the best I could be, that was a moment when everything kind of showed itself. I was leaving for college two weeks later (Bush was an early enrollee at Michigan), and all the hard work had paid off. I told him, 'Everything that you taught me just showed itself.' It was perfect."

During the long embrace, Devin said things to his father he had previously kept inside, perhaps because his lack of life experience caused him to see the world -- and his situation -- through such a narrow prism. But now the lens was opening, and the picture was coming into focus, and he wanted his father to know that he got it, if not completely then more than he had before.

We did it. You said we were going to do it from the first day, and we worked so hard and did it. Man, you're the best coach in the world. You're the best dad. I couldn't have done this without you. I'm going to miss you because it could be our last game together. I'm so glad we won and were able to share this.

"The words hit me hard," said Bush Sr., who broke down in tears during the embrace. "I couldn't contain it."

"To see those two embrace each other and let those emotions go and just be thankful that they did it together, to have Devin tell his dad, 'I love you. You're the best coach. You're the best dad,' it's indescribable," said Kesha. "I've watched that clip so many times because it brings so much joy to me and my girls. What they set out for was accomplished. And they did it together. It was unbelievable."

* * * * *


BY THE TIME THE STATE TITLE GAME was secured, Devin had yet to announce publicly where he would attend college, and there were questions about whether he would follow in his father's footsteps at Florida State, where Devin's sister, Deja, played softball. He had enjoyed his visit to the school and, afterward, told his dad that then-coach Jimbo Fisher had him ready to commit to the Seminoles. But Bush Sr. advised him to take another trip. "When it's right," he said, "it will hit home. You'll know."

Once he arrived in Ann Arbor to visit the Wolverines, he knew. It felt right, in part because it was not Florida State. He had grown tired of people telling him what he was going to do or should do, treating it as a fait accompli that he would build a legacy on the Tallahassee campus. What they didn't know is that Devin, at age 10, Googled his name, and every link that came up was about his father. Devin had expected to see stories about himself, even at that young age, and he didn't like it. He told his dad he was on a mission to change that.

"He was in competition to be better than me, to do what I did and beyond," Bush Sr. said.

By attending Michigan, he knew he could create his own legacy. Every tackle, every sack, every interception would not be compared to his father, whom he shared a similar build and ferocious playing style. At Michigan, he would have a sense of independence -- though not totally after his dad was hired on the Wolverines staff as a defensive assistant. Devin didn't play much as a freshman, but he quickly caught the eye of upperclassmen because of his physicality and maturity.

The Wolverines would run a drill in which a defender would go one-on-one against a blocker in a confined space while trying to tackle a ball carrier. Devin opened eyes with his ability to consistently win his opportunities, but what really impressed fellow strong safety Jabrill Peppers, one of the team's veteran leaders, was his maturity.

"He knew when it was time to have fun, knew when it was time to work, and knew when he could combine both," said Peppers, a first-round pick of the Browns in 2017 who was traded to the Giants three weeks ago as part of the Odell Beckham Jr. deal. "His maturity level was through the roof. He was definitely a special kid. A lot of it was his upbringing. Dev Sr. definitely instilled all the qualities and traits in him to be successful. Coming in as a freshman he already had the work ethic, he already knew what to do, what not to do. He was never in any trouble while a lot of his peers were getting into trouble. That's more than half the battle."

Michigan was loaded at the time with talent -- the school sent more than a dozen players to the NFL off that 2016 team -- and Bush's playing time was limited because of it. But he assumed a starting role as a sophomore and was the Big Ten Defensive Player of Year last season, as well as a consensus All-America.

At 5-foot-11 (and 234 pounds), some have questioned whether his lack of height will be an issue in the NFL. Bush chuckles. His entire athletic childhood was about overcoming challenges, so what's another one?

Truth is, he believes his game is perfectly suited for the next level. With offenses relying so much on spread formations and the passing game, he has the athleticism to play in space and the physical presence to defend the run. In other words, he views himself as an every-down player, a valuable asset for NFL teams to have in today's game.

Leaning on his upbringing and the importance of hard work and preparation, he switched his pre-combine training from Miami to Phoenix, where there would be fewer distractions. He didn't know anyone there and didn't care. It was time to go to work. His efforts showed as he set personal records in every event at the combine, including a 40-inch vertical jump and a 4.43-second 40-yard dash, fulfilling the prediction his father had made to 10-year-old Devin.

Before leaving Indianapolis and returning to Arizona to train for additional position drills at his pro day in Ann Arbor, Devin FaceTimed his parents, who were attending his sister Deja's softball game in Orlando (Deja is a redshirt junior outfielder with Florida State). They had been live-streaming Devin's performance from the combine, so they knew how well he had done even before the call.

"That phone call was crazy because I knew I made them proud, and I exceeded my expectations for myself," said Devin. "I knew I was going to do well, but I did off-the-charts well. It was a proud moment for everybody, because everybody has always been there. I was sharing the moment with the two people that supported me the most. It wasn't just me that day. I told them, 'Y'all played a part in it, too. Without your support, who knows where I'd be right now.' "

The words hit home with Bush Sr. His work had paid off. His lessons had been learned. His son now understood not only what he had done, but why.

"It's not just about football," Devin said. "It's about life."

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