NFL: Houston’s Cushing is AP top defensive rookie
By KRISTIE RIEKEN
AP Sports Writer
HOUSTON — Brian Cushing stood up in his third grade classroom and proclaimed that when he grew up, he’d be the best player to ever play in the NFL.
He’s not there yet, but on Tuesday he took a step in reaching that goal when the Houston Texans linebacker was voted The Associated Press 2009 NFL Defensive Rookie of the Year.
“He knew since he was small,” his mother Antoinette Cushing told The AP. “He’s living his dream. A lot of children aspire to something like this, but it has to happen to someone, right? And it happened to him.”
He received 39 of 50 votes in balloting by a panel of NFL sports writers and broadcasters, joining fellow linebacker and 2006 winner DeMeco Ryans as the only Texans to receive the honor.
Cushing had 133 tackles, including 86 primary, five sacks, four interceptions, two forced fumbles and a safety in helping the Texans to a franchise-best 9-7 record.
The former Southern Cal standout was the 15th overall pick in the draft and was immediately set to start for the Texans at outside linebacker. Their plans hit a snag when he sprained his knee in training camp and was forced to miss all four preseason games.
Houston was so impressed with Cushing that the team decided to start him in the season opener anyway. The time off didn’t seem to slow him down any, and he finished tied for the team lead with eight tackles in his NFL debut. Looking back, he admits that he was a bit concerned about how he’d respond without the benefit of a preseason game.
“There was no question that missing the preseason was a little worrisome for myself, not being able to be out there with the team and contribute,” he said. “From another standpoint, I was really able to step my game up mentally. I wasn’t able to physically participate, but as far as film and watching practice and just being in there for extra hours, I was able to really get a jump start on that.”
Cushing started every regular-season game, but rarely practiced while dealing with numerous ailments including a sore foot, injured ribs and finally a broken pinkie finger.
Texans general manager Rick Smith said he was surprised Cushing was able to develop so quickly without the benefit of practicing with the team.
“He was able to go out on Sunday and produce and perform and I think that speaks to his mental approach to the game and how he elevated that,” Smith said. “That was probably the most impressive other than the physical battles that he battled.”
Cushing downplayed his injuries throughout the season and never considered sitting out.
“Every single Sunday, it’s going to be rough,” he said. “On every Monday, it’s going to be worse waking up that next day. It’s all about love. That’s why I do it. There is no question I was banged up, but so was the whole team. It’s just one of those things you have to fight through.”
Ryans, the middle linebacker and captain of the defense, was excited when the Texans drafted a linebacker from the high-profile USC defense. When he met the 6-foot-3, 260-pound Cushing, he was shocked at his size.
“I had to step back because, wow, this is impressive for this guy to be as big as he is ... a big guy running around,” Ryans said. “He’s very athletic.”
Ryans led the Texans in tackles his first three seasons after joining the team as a second-round pick in 2006. This year he finished second with 123 to lose that title to the rookie.
“I’m used to being the leading tackler on the team,” Ryans said. “This rookie is making more tackles than I’m making. He impressed me every week we stepped out there.”
Ryans was a mentor to Cushing this year, but the veteran said the first-year player helped him improve as well.
“It’s just that competition between me and him, just trying to be the best, that’s what took our games to the next level,” Ryans said. “We always talk about being the best one-two punch out there and just leading the defense. This is what we’re looking to do for years to come.”
Cushing said the bond he developed with Ryans was key in his success this season.
“There is no question that I couldn’t have done this without him,” Cushing said. “Every single step of the way, he was always helping me or trying to improve my game. I just felt that every single week, I was getting better due to his mentoring and watching him as a person and player, on and off the field.”