It’s been a little over a year since Matt Bushman felt a big pop in his leg and crumpled to the ground.

The devastating Achilles injury happened a week before BYU’s 2020 season opener and cost Bushman his senior year.

More than 12 months later, the 25-year-old undrafted free agent is back on the field as a member of the Las Vegas Raiders’ practice squad. He’s grateful for the opportunity to play in the NFL, doesn’t worry about his Achilles and says the overall experience has blessed his life.

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“I see myself as more of a complete person now,” Bushman told the Deseret News.

Bushman is one of more than 20 players on NFL teams this season who are also members of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints.

The 6-foot-5, 245-pounder from Tucson, Arizona, served a two-year mission in Santiago, Chile, and was a star tight end at BYU before his injury. While in college, Bushman married former BYU volleyball player Emily Lewis, daughter of ex-BYU and former NFL all-pro tight end Chad Lewis. The couple has a daughter.

While riding the team bus to the airport to travel to the Raiders’ game at Pittsburgh on Sunday, Sept. 19, Bushman spoke with the Deseret News about life on the practice squad, his interactions with Las Vegas head coach Jon Gruden, his family and how he drew strength from his faith while recovering from his previous season-ending injury, among other things.

Note: This interview has been edited for length and clarity.

Deseret News: What is a day in the life of a Raiders’ practice squad player like?

Matt Bushman: Here with the Raiders, they treat us pretty fairly like the rest of the team. I’m grateful for that. We go to meetings. We lift (weights). We do everything the team does. The only difference is we are the scout team or service squad. Last week I was pretending to be Mark Andrews of the Baltimore Ravens. This week I was Eric Ebron for the Pittsburgh Steelers. I’m trying to mimic the tight ends on the opposing teams and give our defense a good look so we are prepared. It’s the same thing for special teams. I’m doing all I can to make plays and hopefully the coaches can see that I’m improving and being a better player.

Las Vegas Raiders’ tight end Matt Bushman (84) runs a pass route during a preseason against the Los Angeles Rams.
Las Vegas Raiders’ tight end Matt Bushman (84) runs a pass route during a preseason against the Los Angeles Rams at SoFi Stadium, Saturday, Aug. 21, 2021, in Inglewood, California. The former BYU star was signed to the Raiders’ practice squad. | Las Vegas Raiders

DN: Raiders’ head coach Jon Gruden once coached your father-in-law Chad Lewis when he was a rookie with the Philadelphia Eagles. What interactions have you had with Gruden and is he aware of your family connection to Lewis?

MB: Yes, he (Gruden) does know. The first little rookie minicamp he came up and was talking about how he coached Chad and how he thinks I have potential to have a similar career as he did if I keep making plays, getting better and show I can stay healthy. It’s been super cool getting to know coach Gruden and seeing his leadership style. It’s always entertaining in meetings because he’s cracking jokes and keeping the players engaged. He knows and appreciates Chad’s career. Hopefully I can have a similar career. That would be huge.

DN: What is the best NFL advice Chad Lewis has given you?

MB: He would always tell different stories ... and sprinkle in little pieces of advice. He’s super encouraging. When I was put on the practice squad, he was like, “No, this will be a great opportunity, and coach Gruden sees your potential.” I have both my parents and Chad and my mother-in-law Michele who are encouraging and supportive of me.

DN: What have you learned from Raiders’ starting tight end Darren Waller?

MB: I’ve learned a lot from him. He’s arguably the best athlete on his team and I’m grateful to have him in this tight end room and to be able to learn from him. He’s been super cool to me. He’s treated me respectfully. You know, I’m like the new guy. Like Chad, he gives me words of encouragement when I make good plays or tells me that I belong in this league. That’s been cool to see from a guy that’s arguably, if not the best, one of the best tight ends in the league right now.

Las Vegas Raiders tight end Matt Bushman (84) runs after making a catch during a preseason game.
Las Vegas Raiders tight end Matt Bushman (84) runs after making a catch during a preseason game against the Los Angeles Rams at SoFi Stadium, Saturday, Aug. 21, 2021, in Inglewood, California. | Las Vegas Raiders

DN: It’s been a year since your Achilles injury. Looking back, what have you learned from that experience?

MB: I’ve learned that season-ending injuries are no fun. I was playing at my best and was super motivated, then had that fluke accident. So trying not to think about “What if?” or “What could have happened?” or “Where could my life be if I didn’t get hurt?” That’s something that I was definitely battling at first. But you can’t focus on that. You just focus on the present, control what I can control. I was motivated to get back and be healthy, show that I can play football again. There’s still a lot of room for improvement in my game, but I don’t worry about my Achilles at all. I’m grateful for that and the work I put in to get back. I haven’t missed a practice because of it with the Raiders, I hope not to, and that’s been a big blessing.

This life is a time of trial and you can’t expect all good things to happen. You can’t be down in the dumps all the time. You’ve got to have faith. Learning about Christ, his example and what he went through for all of us, I was able to gain strength through that and rely on him when I was having tough days where I didn’t know if I could see myself playing in the near future. With faith, those days would turn around and positive things would happen. Here I am. My faith carried me during the tough times.

DN: Shortly after your injury, you experienced the birth of your daughter. What have you learned about fatherhood in the last year?

MB: My daughter being born soon after my surgery has also helped me grow a lot. Fatherhood has been super awesome. It’s the best to come home and have my daughter smiling and excited to see me. It has helped me to respect what women and mothers do each day, which is not easy. I’m grateful for my wife, Emily, and her sacrifice to take care of our daughter when I’m away a lot of the time playing football. My daughter has taught me a lot; my wife has taught me a lot; I’m learning every day.

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DN: What has been the best part of being a Raider so far?

MB: I think the best part has just been being able to get my foot in the door and to be able to stay here. You learn how ruthless of a business this profession is and how quickly you can you can be out of the league. So I just come in day-by-day, just showing that I want to be here and deserve to be here. I’m grateful that I am. Hopefully I can have a great year here with the Raiders.

Other Latter-day Saints in the NFL

More than a dozen returned missionaries are on active NFL rosters as part of the two dozen Latter-day Saints in the league. Here’s the list:

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Like Bushman, these Latter-day Saint players were signed to their team’s practice squad:

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