Oct. 18, 2012
You could hear Lee Sawyer's smile all the way to Colorado Springs.
In just a few hours, he would coach the next game of his ninth season at Strom Thurmond High in Johnston, S.C., a rural patch of the South that proudly professes itself, `Peach Capital of the World.` Yet Sawyer was only too happy to take a few more minutes to share a few more anecdotes about a legacy associated with the town's other great tradition: his football team.
Since Sawyer started coaching them in 2004, the Thurmond Rebels have won nearly 80 percent of their games, annually ranking among South Carolina's top small schools. All that while seeking results more enduringly meaningful than Friday victories.
It's why, for instance, Wednesday practices have long ended with what Sawyer calls life lessons. Sometimes he addresses his kids. Occasionally he invites outsiders in. The weekly moral of their message relates to life after high school, life after football. What Sawyer really wants are Rebels with a cause: good citizenship.
Perhaps no one better embodies what Sawyer wants his program to represent than someone he last coached in 2008; the young man who keeps him spinning stories in his deep Southern drawl late on a Friday afternoon.
"I could talk all day about him," Sawyer says of Tra'ves Bush, the exemplary ex-Rebel who on this day as a Navy Midshipman awaits his final encounter with Air Force.
And so Sawyer continues, until he comes across a memory that seems to say it all.
He starts by offering a bit of background. Every summer, Sawyer tells his listener, the Rebels start out practicing in red jerseys. But as individuals distinguish themselves through on-and-off field effort, they're awarded blue shirts.
During Bush's career, he was annually the first to earn one. Eventually, a good number of teammates got theirs too.
But one day, well into Bush's senior season, Sawyer was caught by surprise as he walked onto the practice field.
"All of our players had red jerseys on," he recalled. "I wondered, `What in the world is going on?' I called Tra'ves over and asked him, `Where's your blue shirt?` He told me, `Coach we didn't play well enough to wear them.'"
Though undefeated at the time, Thurmond's recent level of play had slipped below Bush's standards. He decided that neither he nor anyone else was worthy of his honored attire. Before leaving the locker room, Bush ordered everyone back into red.
"I was floored," Sawyer says, still marveling at the thought of a teenager holding his team accountable, while commanding the respect of so many willing to go along with him. "That's all you need to know right there."
If it isn't, simply consider the declaration of independence Sawyer once made to assistant coaches. Contrary to his conservative coaching philosophy, he granted Bush the right to run a fake punt. His explanation was succinct, yet about as expansive as you can get.
"I trust Tra'ves Bush as much as anybody I've ever coached," Sawyer told his staff then, and his audience now, on the fifth of this October.
Nearly 1,600 miles away, at a hotel in a cold and misty Colorado, another football coach could clearly identify. Buddy Green was about to test his game plan, as Navy's defensive coordinator, the following morning against an academy rival.
Responsibility for carrying out that strategy would rest largely with a senior safety, and easily the most experienced member of the Mids' secondary. As he'd often done before, Green would place his trust in Tra'ves.
Just like Sawyer. And, in fact, thanks to Sawyer.
Green first heard of Bush four years earlier, while manning the recruiting beat in the Carolinas. Bush had good grades, high test scores and an invitation to his state's North-South all-star game in Myrtle Beach. What he didn't have was the size of your typical Division I linebacker; or, as a result, a scholarship offer from a Division I program.
But Bush was tenacious, making him hard to overlook when it was time to select the showcase's MVP. His North-South position coach was Robin Bacon. A few years earlier, Bacon had tutored another future Midshipman, Gee Gee Greene, during his freshman year at A.C. Flora High. According to Sawyer, his colleague Bacon described Bush as "one of the best kids he's been around."
Green was getting similar feedback.
"`You really need to take a look,'" Green remembers Bacon telling him. "`(Tra'ves) has everything you're looking for in an Academy guy: character, grades, toughness."
Never one to drop the ball, Green dropped a line to Sawyer. Twenty-four hours later, an overnight video tape arrived in Annapolis. Just as expeditiously, Green reached out to Bush.
"I loved what I saw," Green said of Bush's highlights. "He was relentless. He had all the things you're looking for in a football player to make plays."
"I didn't know much about the Naval Academy before Coach Green called me," Bush said a couple of weeks ago. "Initially, when he called me I wasn't even thinking about coming here."
But his outlook changed. As it did, his high school coach, who believed he was cut out for Academy life all along, had to make sure that Bush was certain of what he was getting into.
"For him to come from way out here in the country, with his (grades), that's a testament to his self discipline," Sawyer said of Bush, who ranked 12th in a high school class of 183. "When I found out Coach Green was interested in him, I knew he could handle it, but I wanted to make sure Tra'ves understood what was involved.
"I sat him down and said, `Now look, can you handle this?' He didn't even crack a smile. `Yes, coach,` he said. `I've already researched it.'"
It was the kind of conversation they often engaged in. Trust traveled both ways. Tra'ves was already fortunate to have a large and loving family foundation. Sawyer served as an extra layer of invaluable support.
"Throughout my high school years, my coach was a big factor in the person I am today," says Bush, who learned Sawyer's life lessons any day of the week. "He was a great mentor and a person I still talk to today, a great inspiration in my life."
Theirs sounds like the kind of relationship one wishes for every young athlete and coach, or any student and teacher. Sadly, it's one that not nearly enough enjoy.
And yet, it's not the only one to benefit Bush. Since coming to Annapolis, he's forged a similar connection to Green.
"He just made me feel comfortable about the whole place," Bush said of his introduction to both Green and the Academy. "He's been a great help since I've been here. Anything I need help with, he's always looked out for me. He's been a great coach and mentor since I've been here."
Admiration, like the rewards of their rapport, are mutual.
For one thing, Bush's parents, Scotty and Sabrina, don't attend home games empty-handed. Often, they arrive bearing the main ingredient for Sharon Green's peach cobbler.
But more than winning over Green's heart through his stomach, Bush does it by way of his coach's eyes. He appears to Green each day as a player dialed into the game's finer points.
"Tra'ves is so detailed in the way he studies the opposition," says Green, in his 11th year overseeing Navy's defense. "His eyes are always in the right place. He wants to know very detail of our game plan. He controls what we do in the secondary."
If there truly is such a thing as a player's coach, then Bush is the quintessential coach's player. Within the walls of the meeting room for defensive backs or boundaries of the field, he is the football equivalent of the old Shell Answer Man. Even when he's the one seeking answers, others are enlightened.
"His questions in meetings help the other guys," says Green, whose secondary is the youngest group on Navy's roster, including several sophomores and freshmen playing extensively.
"Throughout meetings and throughout practices, a lot of times (younger guys) won't ask questions," Bush explains. "But you can see that they have a (puzzled) look on their faces."
Bush's understanding of the Mids' defense is also enriched by his versatility. When it comes to experience, he's got plenty of currency, appearing early in his career in Navy's `Nickel' and `Dime' packages. Now he's the regular at Rover.
Wherever he's been, including the so-called Mike linebacker, Bush has made his mark.
Two years ago at East Carolina, he made 14 tackles and recovered a fumble. A couple of weeks later he returned an interception 32 yards against Arkansas State, bettered only by a 49-yard return for a score last season at Western Kentucky. One of three career thefts in 18 starts, his `pick six' against the Hilltoppers was the greatest highlight of an ECAC All-East campaign.
Bush shows the hands of a true defensive back, while wearing out opponents with the mentality of a linebacker. Most importantly, he has the football IQ to understand the distinctions between the two.
"At linebacker you can be a lot more aggressive than in the secondary," Bush explains. "At linebacker, if you have a ball thrown over you, you have the secondary behind you. At secondary, if they throw the ball over your head, it's six points.
"I played linebacker all my life. Then when I came here, I got moved to safety. Sometimes I've got to try to be more passive because I'm the last line of defense."
Attached to that line is the anchor of Navy's secondary.
"You need a guy back there with confidence," Green asserts, "and a great understanding of what we do."
When Bush was younger, `that guy' was 2011 graduate Wyatt Middleton, his predecessor at Rover.
"That's the role I've been preparing for so long, being behind Wyatt," Bush says. "Everybody knew he was a great player, but what people fail to realize is that he knew everything about the defense. If you had a question about anything, he knew (the answer)."
Sounds familiar, doesn't it? Edit Bush's words into the present tense, and you'd think he's talking about himself.
But the last time the Midshipmen were at home, on Sept. 29, they were left without Middleton's one-time understudy, and their current go-to guy.
On the third play of San Jose State's opening series, running back Tyler Ervin charged into a hole created by the right side of his offensive line. Bush sped forward, closing in on the ballcarrier. Helmets lowered and heads collided, causing Bush's second concussion in as many years.
Seventy-two hours later, following a totally-inactive Monday, he remembered only running to make the tackle, before lying on the field. What occurred in between, literally a knockout blow, remained a blank only others could fill in.
But as the week unfolded, Bush cautiously met all the baseline criteria to ease into action. And by the time the Mids departed for Colorado Springs on Thursday, he was cleared to play. Assuming he stayed symptom free, Bush would have a prominent role defending the Falcons.
As much as he told himself not to rush back, Bush returned in a hurry. He had celebrated an overtime win over Air Force as a plebe, when Navy captured the last of its seven straight Commander-In-Chief's championships. More recently, he lamented two close losses, including last year's one-point overtime decision.
"It stays on your mind," Bush said of the 35-34 defeat in 2011. "Throughout winter workouts, spring ball and the summer, that's all you're thinking about."
His mind at ease, Bush returned. And three minutes into the 2nd quarter, his Mids trailing by four, he took part in an early turning point. Falcon fullback Broam Hart was hit by Cody Peterson, losing the football at Navy's 24-yard line. Bush scooped it up and ran 15 yards in the other direction. The Mids capitalized on his recovery, redeeming it for a seven-play, 61-yard drive to a 10-7 lead.
Much later, with Navy ahead, 28-21, in still another overtime, Bush assisted on a second-down tackle. It was his team-leading 12th of the afternoon. Two more snaps, and two more stops by the Mids, and he was celebrating with his teammates.
The victory was as important as any in Bush's career. It was at the expense of a rival academy, and decided with high drama. And, with Navy at 1-3, it was the kind of win that could salvage a season. The following Friday, in fact, the Mids improved to 3-3 with a rout of Central Michigan.
Imagine what it must have been like for Bush in the hours after marking his return in such a significant way, considering how he felt just a few days before.
"As a young child it was my dream to play college football," Bush said in a hushed voice, still uncertain at the time whether he'd be ready to face Air Force. "Now I sit back and sometimes think, I'm actually living out my childhood dream. It's a real humbling experience."
Made possible by hard work, rooted in humility; the kind he observed from his mother and father, who labored in a textile and fiberglass plant, respectively.
"They've always wanted the best for me, and my brothers and sisters," says Bush, whose three siblings range in age from 4 to 13. "Just seeing them work hard pushes me to try to do my best."
Bush's family didn't just set examples; they fed his dreams with a steady diet of encouragement. They also sounded a constant and consistent message about schoolwork.
"His mother and father are great, hard-working people," Sawyer assures. "His grandaddy and grandmother are good, solid people."
"I have a big family on both my mom's and dad's sides," says Tra'ves, who jokes that his uncommon, if not unique first name has "no cool story behind it" and was simply suggested by an aunt. "The way I was brought up, grades were always number one. I always had a lot of help. My parents were always supportive."
So were friends and neighbors, like Sawyer.
"A lot of people helped me," Bush says. "I had the right people push me. People were always encouraging me down there."
Bush would like to pay them back by paying it forward. According to Sawyer, he already has by reaching out to the kids who came behind him at Thurmond.
For instance, there was the time Bush, then a Naval Academy plebe, addressed a letter to the Rebels. They were in a rare losing rut -- all of two games. He challenged them to climb out of it. Sawyer was so impressed by Bush's words, and the thought behind them, he faxed a copy of Bush's missive to Buddy Green.
Obligations as a Mid, especially one who has his own football schedule, keep Bush from regularly returning to Johnston. But when he can, he does.
"He very seldom gets a chance to come back," says Sawyer, who nonetheless shared the thrill of Bush's `homecoming' appearance on Navy's visit to South Carolina last season. "(But) the last couple of years, he's had a week off at Thanksgiving."
And since South Carolina's Upper State championship game falls on that holiday weekend, Bush and Sawyer had a deal. You qualify, and I'll be there. The Rebels missed out in 2010, but not last fall.
"That night (we qualified) I called him and said, "I want you there,'" Sawyer recounts. "Tra'ves came and talked to the boys on Thanksgiving morning."
Bush showed up in his Navy warm-up gear.
"At the end, he told them, `I want you all to know one thing: I'm proud of you guys,'" Sawyer continued. "You could see some of the guys tear up. They were so proud of him."
Sawyer describes the kids he coaches as a "bunch of country boys who can run and hit." In any given year, a couple of them are recruited by college teams, usually at the Division I-AA or II levels. But here was Bush. Not only does he play D-I; he does it for the United States Naval Academy.
In less than a year, preferably as a Surface Warfare Officer, Bush will go from the Peach Capital to seeing the world.
"It's something I've always dreamed of," says Bush, an Economics major. "I never really got out of state (in my youth)."
Wherever his adventure leads, however, Bush won't be leaving Johnston behind.
"Coming from where I come from, you don't get a lot of opportunities to see a lot of good athletes that make it out, because of certain circumstances," Bush said. "There's definitely not a lot of help or people there to motivate the youth. It's definitely in my plans to take on a role to help some of the young guys there understand their worth, and not give up on their dreams."
He'll stress the same thing to them that he does to his brothers and sister.
"The biggest deal is the academics," Bush says. "I try to make sure they're staying in the books and keeping their grades up. That's the biggest thing that can open doors for you. I wasn't heavily recruited in South Carolina (but) my grades made it a lot easier for Coach Green to come and recruit me at such at late stage."
When his military duty is done, Bush wants to be a coach. Green expects he'll be a "great" one. Regarding Sawyer's view, well, a recent dose of deja vu suggests the same.
Like so many times before, Sawyer sauntered out to practice. Thurmond had won the weekend before, only their performance was less than stellar. As Sawyer reached the Rebels, they had him seeing red.
Once again, as in the fall of 2008, he summoned a senior to explain why all the blue shirts were missing. At that moment, Tra'ves Bush was probably off practicing in Annapolis. But, as Sawyer was about to discover, his legacy was definitely at play in Johnston.
"Coach," Sawyer said, audibly beaming as he repeated his player's words, "that's just the way we did it when I was a freshman."