Devastating news helps Frank Bush launch new career as Miami Dolphins assistant head coach

Dolphins assistant head coach/linebacker coach Frank Bush during organized team activities Wednesday. (Allen Eyestone / The Palm Beach Post)

DAVIE — It’s possible that the best linebacker at the Dolphins’ training facility won’t make a single tackle this season, won’t break up a single pass and won’t be known to most fans.

Frank Bush is 55 now. Coaches linebackers rather than lines up with them. Isn’t living in the past.

But nobody could blame him if he did.

It didn’t take the Houston Oilers long in 1985 to realize that their fifth-round draft choice should have gone higher. Bush won a starting job as a rookie. Was a guy who, in the eyes of coach Jerry Glanville, “had it all.”

Or at least he did until the third game of his second season, when he collided with running back Mike Pruitt of the Kansas City Chiefs and lost it all.

Bush lost feeling for a few seconds as he hit the ground. A specialist diagnosed a narrow spinal canal and told Bush — who’d never been seriously injured — he risked paralysis if he kept playing.

So Bush went to another specialist.

Then another and another and another. Six, in all.

“I was trying to get somebody to say yeah,” Bush said Wednesday.

This is where it’s important to point out Bush laughed as he said that. He could have stayed bitter over a promising career cut short, but what would be the point? Even then, he had enough of a grasp of the bigger picture that he told a reporter it would be “a total waste of my life” if he risked playing and ended up paralyzed.

“It opened some doors for me,” said Bush, Adam Gase’s assistant head coach. “It’s allowed me to be in the league for over 30 years. I’m not sure if that would have happened if I would have taken another path.

“I’ve made some great friends. I’ve learned a lot. I’ve grown up a lot. I always tell some of my players and some of my friends I’m kind of the epitome of the NFL: You try hard, keep doing what you’ve got to do and you’ll have a long career.”

It’s easy to think this way now. Then? When a guy in a white lab coat is telling you at age 23 your career is over? Not so much.

“I played since I was 6 years old,” Bush said. “It was one of the things that really gave me a lot of joy. I never felt like I was working when I was doing it. At that time I felt like, ‘Wow, this is devastating. If I can’t do this, then what can I do?’ ”

The Oilers quickly made him a scout and he worked his way up, spending time coaching with the Broncos, Cardinals, Texans, Titans and Rams before joining the Dolphins in 2017.

Ask Kiko Alonso, Raekwon McMillan or Jerome Baker about Bush and you might get a blank stare. Most of today’s Dolphins linebackers know little about the player Bush could have been. That’s OK.

“Not important,” Bush said. “What they do is important.”

Bush the coach can be a bit of a sledgehammer like Bush the linebacker. Asked Wednesday about Alonso’s performance in 2017, Bush made no attempt to sugarcoat.

“I’d kind of say it was up and down,” Bush said. “I was expecting a lot more from him. I’m sure he expected more from me. He did what we thought he should do and he can play better. He can play better in coverage. Some of his tackling was suspect; but we’re working on all of those things and I think he’ll be better.”

Oilers coaches in the mid-‘80s weren’t making apologies for Bush’s play. They didn’t need to.

“He had it all,” Glanville said at the time. “Here we are trying to teach our outside linebackers to blitz, shake and bake without contact, and there stands a guy who did that as well as anybody in football,” Glanville said. “He was our best.”

In was an unforgiving time in the NFL. Almost the same time Bush went down, Tim Lewis, a defensive back who had 16 interceptions in his first four NFL seasons for the Packers, saw his career end under nearly identical circumstances after he hit Bears receiver Willie Gault.

Bush and Lewis have compared notes. At least in Bush’s case, he can’t help but wonder what might have followed had today’s medicine been available to them then.

“They have spinal surgery now where they kind of widen that canal out a little bit,” Bush said. “Guys go play.”

Guys like Peyton Manning.

“Every time a guy has some instance and they come back from it, I think about myself and what could have been,” Bush said.

And when a guy like McMillan gets hurt on his first professional play, robbing him of his rookie season, Bush feels that, too.

“Anytime a kid has an injury situation, you kind of feel for him and you’re hoping he can get back from it — what Raekwon’s done,” Bush said. “You’ve got a little bit more empathy for the kids.”

And if any of his players ever get the same devastating news he did, Bush will be there as a voice of reason.

“You kind of live with it,” Bush said. “You’ve just got to focus on something else. What else can I be good at?”

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