For 10 months, Brian Cushing hasn't been able to play the sport he loves, make the hits on which he thrives and stand in the middle of the defensive huddle as their leader.
Saturday night, for a few moments, the Texans' defense finally felt like things had gone back to normal.
"It just seemed like it was right," outside linebacker Brooks Reed said. "We’re used to seeing him making calls. It was fun flying around with him today. Seeing his reaction getting back to the bench after a three-and-out. Just how happy he was to be back, get back to doing what he likes doing best."
Cushing hadn't played at Reliant Stadium since September. He suffered the torn anterior cruciate ligament in the Texans' Week 5 win over the New York Jets that rang a little bit hollow given what they had lost.
Players come back from major injuries regularly. And there wasn't any real doubt that Cushing would eventually return. But Cushing's return felt different because of all he means to the Texans' defense.
It's easy to forget given all that J.J. Watt has done in the past year, but when Cushing suffered that injury he was the unquestioned leader of that defense. He made the pregame speeches. He yelled at his teammates after a bad series. He gave them an edge.
Football is the perfect outlet for Cushing's maniacal intensity.
"He’s just kind of a different person," Reed said. "He knows he can turn it on. He puts himself in that mindset off the field, he’s more laid back. He’s not really laid back. He’s just a different cat."
"He had some nervousness to get out," defensive end Antonio Smith said. "The play before that he messed up and came right back and had the big play on the screen. I think that's what the preseason is for, for him to knock the cobwebs off, for all of us to kind of get that game-type feeling. He did pretty good to me, from what I've seen."
In the tunnel before Saturday night's game, Gary Kubiak walked with Cushing, who was introduced to fans last. He could sense the importance of the moment -- the magnitude of what this meant to the inside linebacker.
"You’re just real proud of him and what he’s done," Kubiak said. "We’re all rooting for him. You know, it’s a big, big year for him and for our football team."
The crowd's loudest roar is normally saved for Watt. That night, their embrace was just as warm for Cushing, back home at last.