HOUSTON – Linebacker Brooks Reed was getting an IV in the Houston Texans' locker room just before halftime of the game against the Cleveland Browns last November when suddenly the equipment crew burst in with a bunch of bloody towels.
"I'm like, 'What the heck happened?' " Reed said. "Somebody said, 'It's crazy, Cushing just head-butted some guy with no helmet on."
Cushing delivered the blow after taking off his own helmet, slamming his dome against the covered noggin of Browns guard Shawn Lauvao. Not exactly the smartest move, as Cushing found out with the combination of stitches and a throbbing skull. At the same time, the move was representative of what Cushing is for a Houston defense that made stunning strides last season. Strides that make them a Super Bowl contender this season.
"We used him as an example last year to the rest of the players," said Texans defensive coordinator Wade Phillips, who puts Cushing on a level with such high-motor greats as Robert Brazile, Karl Mecklenberg, Bryce Paup and even Hall of Famer Rickey Jackson. "We said, 'Hey, if everybody plays as hard in the game as he does then we'll be good.' We told the players that and they started catching on to what we wanted."
On a defense that features the likes of Reed, J.J. Watt, Connor Barwin, Antonio Smith and Johnathan Joseph, Cushing is the talented instigator. Former USC defensive coordinator Nick Holt had a more blunt description of Cushing.
"In college, my defensive coordinator always called me, 'The Prick,' " Cushing said. "In any other profession, you don't want to be the prick. But he said [in football], that was one of the best compliments you can get."
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Cushing has a healthy sense of humor about himself that tempers his confidence. On NFL Sundays, after he arrives at the stadium and heads to the field for warm-ups, the confidence is unleashed in a form of all-out effort and non-stop talk. In the game against Cleveland, Cushing was mic'd up. Aside from the head butt, Cushing was overhead talking about how his arms looked "sweet," how he was unstoppable and how he could give Matt Schaub a break at quarterback.
"You need a [rest], let me know," Cushing said to Schaub. "I have a hell of an arm."
To a man, Cushing's teammates laugh at what they hear on Sundays. They also appreciate the energy Cushing provides. He's the lighter for the barbeque. The Texans used that ignition (along with the addition of Phillips, Watt and Joseph, among others) to go from the 30th-ranked defense in the league in 2010 to No. 2 in 2011. The team gave up 91 fewer yards per game and went from giving up 427 points in 2010 to 278 in 2011.
That allowed the Texans to win the AFC South and reach the second round of the playoffs despite losing Schaub and linebacker/defensive end Mario Williams to season-ending injuries. With Schaub back and players such as Reed stepping in for Williams, who signed with Buffalo in free agency, the Texans are the favorite to repeat as division champs. Particularly if Cushing, a former first-round pick who has had more than 110 tackles in two of his first three seasons, continues his dual role as player and leader. (The lone season he didn't reach the 100-tackle mark was 2010, when he served a four-game suspension for taking a performance-enhancing drug.)
"For six days a week, he's like everybody else in the locker room, joking around, having a good time, cutting up with the guys," Watt said. "On game day, he's like an animal. You look at him and you see him like that and it gets you ready to go out there."
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Barwin said he has never encountered a teammate with the ability to "flip the switch" to beast mode on game day the way Cushing can. "The thing about it is, it's genuine," Barwin said. "He's not putting on some act just to get attention. That's who he is and what Sunday is like for him."
Cushing isn't sure if that's a matter of nature or his Jersey nurture. Either way, it's foremost in his mind.
"I do want to be the toughest guy out there and I do want to set a tone," he said. "It's kind of a presence I feel when I step out on the field coming out of the tunnel on Sunday. I think everybody in the stadium is looking at me and it's something I love and embrace. They're there for a show and I'm there to give it to them."
In the offseason, the Texans affirmed Cushing's role as a team leader by trading fellow linebacker DeMeco Ryans, who was the defensive signal caller the past six years. Last season, Ryans started to see that Cushing was taking over. Ryans played primarily in running situations, leaving Cushing on the field almost all the time.
"I couldn't have had a better teacher than him," Cushing said of Ryans. "He's the most unselfish guy I have ever been around to just accept that role and the way he taught me … he was the one pushing me to go out there and take over and do all the things I can do. He saw my potential and he wanted me to be in there 100 percent where other guys might not help as much. "It's weird. I don't want to say he knew the future, but he kind of groomed me for that role as if he wouldn't be here one day or something would happen to him. In my mind, I thought DeMeco Ryans would be here for 15 years. He was the face of the franchise."
At least from a defensive perspective, that face now appears to be Cushing.
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