From battlefield to football field

According to MapQuest, Kevin Bush's dream destination is 171 miles from his hometown of Fort Wayne, Ind.

Two interstates and a state highway. That's it. Three hours by car, tops.

On the night of Sept. 2, Bush reached the end of the line: Indiana's Memorial Stadium. As the 2010 college football season dawned, so did Bush's career; he blocked and recovered a punt and recorded a tackle at defensive end for the Hoosiers in a win against Towson.

Bush's road to Bloomington, Ind., stretched a little bit longer than three hours and 171 miles.

Try six years and approximately 29,000 miles.

Bush's journey to Indiana made stops in Toledo, Ohio; Fort Benning, Ga.; Fort Campbell, Ky.; Korea; and Iraq. Some would look at the roundabout route and the 25-year-old sophomore walk-on and say that somewhere, Bush lost his way.

They might be right. But in the process, he also found himself.

"It definitely has been a long road," Bush said. "Fortunately, everything I shot for really came through. I look at the last four or five years as working and living and growing.

"Now I'm just trying to enjoy myself a little bit."

At Fort Wayne's Homestead High School, Bush was the model teammate, willing to do it all. He threw passes, caught passes, returned punts and dabbled on defense. He started for three years and earned all-state honors as a senior.

"He would do anything to please his teammates," said Drew Wood, Bush's coach at Homestead. "If anything, he probably carried too big of a burden. If he would make a mistake, it would be more, 'I let people down.' He hated it."

Wood expected Bush to receive scholarship offers, most likely from Mid-American Conference schools, but they never arrived. The fact Bush had played so many positions didn't help, but he faced a larger obstacle.

"My grades were an issue," Bush said. "It was just one of those things, I fooled around a little bit too much."

Bush never gave his coaches trouble, but like many teenagers, he had maturity issues.

"We were pretty crazy back then, did a lot of stupid things, got into a lot of trouble together," said Michael Hines, a teammate of Bush's at Homestead.

Hines, a year older than Bush, went to Indiana as a punter. Bush made several trips to Bloomington to visit his friend and quickly fell in love with the school. If he could have gone to IU straight from high school, the story would be over.

"There was no doubt he wanted to go there," said Bush's father, John. "That's always been his dream."

Instead, Bush landed at Toledo as a preferred walk-on tight end. But Bush never felt right at Toledo. After the fall semester, he returned to Fort Wayne after a semester, planning to boost his grades and transfer to IU.

In the summer, Bush enrolled at Indiana University-Purdue University Fort Wayne. He bulked up on classes for the first session, thinking a strong performance would help his chances for a quick transfer. Unfortunately, the heavy course load buried Bush.

"I got overwhelmed," he said. "I realized at some point that I didn't think I was going to pull [the transfer] off. At that point in my life, I felt a little lost."

Bush became intrigued by the possibility of joining the military after talking with one of his friends who had served. He felt it would offer the elements he loved most about athletics: teamwork and competition.

But there was a larger draw, one that tugged right at Bush's core.

"Leaving Toledo, a lot of people stuck their necks out for me," he said. "Part of me felt like I'd let them down. I felt like this, not to say it would make up for it, but in some way or form, it would be something redeemable."

Without telling anyone, Bush met with an Army recruiter, eventually signing a contract in July 2005.

His parents were "a little shocked," Bush recalled.

"We weren't overjoyed," John Bush said, "especially what was going on in the world then with Afghanistan and Iraq, knowing that he's going to end up in one of those places. But as parents, you support your children."

Bush's secretive approach was by design.

"Not everyone really understood why, and I don't know if I really understood why," he said. "There were a lot of questions that I couldn't necessarily answer, but it was done and that was that."

After basic training at Fort Benning, Bush first served a yearlong tour in Korea. The luxuries of home were gone, and communication was a major struggle.

"That was my maturity, learning to deal with that," Bush said. "I went to Toledo and I wasn't happy and came back. Well, then they sent me to Korea and I had no choice but to grow up a little bit."

Bush returned from Korea early in 2007. In September of that year, he left for Iraq.

The tour provided major mental challenges, but Bush learned to cope and even found a little peace of mind in the war zone.

"When you can get yourself to a place where you don't worry and you just accept that things are going to happen, it's a pretty stress-free environment," Bush said. "You don't have bills, you have food, you're getting a paycheck, you're working out all the time.

"But you realize you're in a situation where things can go wrong. Tomorrow isn't always guaranteed."

Bush learned that lesson one night, at the wheel of a 20-ton truck called a Mine-Resistant, Ambush-Protected (MRAP) vehicle.

"Suddenly, there was a quick little jolt, smoke and I just reacted, yelled for my buddies to make sure they were OK," Bush said.

Bush had driven over an improvised explosive device, or IED, the most common cause of injuries and death for U.S. troops in Iraq. But aside from one soldier who hit his head upon impact and recovered, Bush and his crew came away unharmed.

"If it wasn't for that truck," Bush said, "I might not be able to sit here and tell the story."

During his 14-month tour in Iraq, Bush kept Indiana and a return to football in his thoughts. His initial Army contract lasted five years, but before signing, he reduced it to three to keep his football options open.

He returned from Iraq in November 2008. Before being discharged the following February, he visited Wood, who was coaching at Bloomington South High School, just down the road from Indiana.

"He came back jacked up, looking good," Wood said.

Bush weighed about 210 pounds when he graduated from high school. Upon returning from Iraq, he was north of 240 and built.

Wood, who coached Indiana quarterback Ben Chappell and knew the coaching staff well, introduced Bush to Hoosiers offensive coordinator Matt Canada. Hines, who punted for Indiana from 2003 to '07, sent e-mails about his friend to coaches.

Wood also told head coach Bill Lynch about Bush and his unique background.

"It truly is a walk-on situation," Lynch said. "If it hadn't been his high school coach telling his story and recommending that we give him a chance, he wouldn't be part of our program."

Bush earned admission to Indiana for the 2009-10 academic year through the G.I. Bill and went through walk-on tryouts. He made the team -- as a 24-year-old freshman.

Bush worked with the scout team last fall. While he had played almost exclusively on offense in high school, he became a defensive end-linebacker hybrid with IU.

The 6-foot-3, 248-pound Bush entered this season No. 2 on the depth chart at the standup end spot.

"He's a good football player, don't get me wrong," Wood said, "but how many people get out of the military and walk on at a level higher than they were? And then to watch him play, he's supposed to be out there."

Bush admits he's still taking steps as a college player. He already has made leaps as a man.

"Being in the Army, he grew up so much," Hines said. "Before, he was just open to do whatever and was all over the place. Now he's got a goal, he's determined and he's doing what he wants to do."

Time will tell how much Bush contributes on the field for Indiana, but he has already played an important role.

"He's had a dramatic impact in our locker room," Lynch said. "Not only the life experiences he's had through the military, but a little bit even before that, when he went to college and maybe wasn't quite prepared.

"All those experiences, he's shared with our guys: to appreciate the opportunity you have to go to Indiana University, play football in the Big Ten and not waste any opportunities."

Bush took the road less traveled, and he's better off for it.

"This was my goal," Bush said. "Finally getting here, I feel like I've given everything I had. Anything is possible."

Adam Rittenberg covers Big Ten football for ESPN.com. Check out his work in the Big Ten blog. Adam can be reached at espnritt@gmail.com