Five months ago this week, Matt Bushman and his fellow tight ends gathered on BYU’s practice field and talked excitedly about how the Cougars’ season opener at Navy was just a week away.

Parts of the discussion were serious, other topics not so much, Bushman recalled last week from Scottsdale, Arizona, where he is training daily for April’s NFL draft and launching a charitable foundation to provide sports equipment and athletic opportunities for underprivileged youngsters.

The players on Aug. 31 talked about how brownies never taste as good as they smell coming out of the oven, about how fortunate they were to be playing football again in the middle of a pandemic, and how grateful they were that athletic director Tom Holmoe had cobbled together a schedule after six games against Power Five opponents were canceled.

“I just felt a big pop in my leg. It just felt like someone kicked it super hard. My leg gave out and I crumpled to the ground. It was just a fluke thing.” — BYU tight end Matt Bushman on his Achilles rupture

As practice was wrapping up, coaches asked the players to run a trick play they had worked on throughout fall camp and were planning to spring on the Midshipmen on Labor Day night in front of a national television audience in Annapolis, Maryland.

Bushman says he was pretending to block a defender, then started to look up for the football. What happened next would begin the most difficult stretch of the All-America football player’s young life.

“I just felt a big pop in my leg,” he said. “It just felt like someone kicked it super hard. My leg gave out and I crumpled to the ground. It was just a fluke thing.”

Bushman’s Achilles tendon was ruptured, an MRI conducted the following day revealed. But the senior knew it was bad seconds after it happened. 

“I just knew it wasn’t a typical little muscle strain, or anything like that,” he said. “I knew that something had gone terribly wrong. I was pretty sad. I will never forget that moment.”

As his crestfallen teammates huddled in prayer, many of them openly weeping as he was carted off the field, a “sinking feeling” came over Bushman that he would probably never suit up for the Cougars ever again.

He was right.

Becoming a father, turning pro

Weeks before Bushman sustained the injury, the NCAA ruled that the 2020 football season would not count against a student-athlete’s eligibility, so he knew he could return to BYU and play in 2021 if he wanted. Having served a two-year mission for The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints to Santiago, Chile, before he enrolled at BYU, Bushman made the decision quickly that he would be moving on, although he didn’t publicly reveal his plans.

“I have turned 25,” he said. “I am a couple years older than most of the rookie class. That definitely makes it harder.”

Bushman had considered turning pro after his standout junior season, but after going through the NFL’s assessment process last winter, he decided to return and work on some of the weaknesses in hopes of improving his draft stock. Now his biggest task is to rehab his Achilles tendon and show scouts he is back to where he was physically before the injury.

“Last spring, I was really motivated to work hard and improve and showcase the steps I had made in the offseason, and I worked really hard through the pandemic and all that,” he said. “It stinks that I couldn’t showcase that improvement on the field in my senior year.”

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Indeed, BYU tight ends coach Steve Clark raved about Bushman’s progress last summer when quarantine ended and the Cougars reconvened in July. Clark said BYU’s offense would be built around Bushman and fast-rising junior quarterback Zach Wilson, who is expected to be one of the first quarterbacks taken in the draft.

“We are going to wear him out, I can tell you that,” Clark said of Bushman. “He is not going to come off the field unless he asks to come off the field.”

Three days after BYU pummeled Navy 55-3 to begin its magical season that concluded at 11-1 and a rousing win over UCF in the Boca Raton Bowl, Bushman and his wife, former BYU volleyball player Emily Lewis Bushman, gave birth to a daughter, Andie.

“It was probably the worst timing to get injured for me — a week before first game,” Bushman said. “And then I got surgery five days before our daughter was born. … I had a cast on, had to be laying down a bunch, and was in a little knee scooter. So I just felt bad not being all the way there, and not being as helpful as I could have been. So that was tough.”

Becoming a father actually became a “good distraction” from his injury as he found ways to help Emily with the baby, he said.

“I was down in the dumps about the injury, for sure,” he said. “But having her there was definitely helpful, so I am grateful for that.”

When word got out that Bushman was bypassing the opportunity for an “extra year” and turning pro, agents began calling. Bushman and his family interviewed several, he sought advice from his father-in-law, former Philadelphia Eagles tight end Chad Lewis, now a BYU athletics department official, and he chose California-based agent Steve Feldman.

“They understand the NFL lifestyle, and they understand how important it is to maximize the opportunity out there, and I just trust what they said,” Bushman said of that decision. “I just kinda went with my gut, prayed about it. They felt like the right people to go with; I feel good about it.”

Thoughts on BYU’s season

Having never missed a game during his first three seasons at BYU, Bushman remembers seeing junior quarterback Tanner Mangum go down with an Achilles injury in November of 2017, his freshman season, and deciding that was one of the worst injuries a player could sustain.

“I would think how brutal that would be and it would kind of give me the heebie-jeebies,” he said.

Now he was dealing with one, and facing a six-month recovery process. Still, he stayed engaged during the season, attending most home games and watching all the away games on television as the Cougars went 11-1 and finished the season ranked No. 11 in the final AP Top 25 poll, their highest finish since No. 5 in 1996.

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“Going into this season, we knew we had a special group of guys and we just knew that no matter what our schedule was, we were going to be able to compete,” he said. “So it was fun to see the guys have fun and bring excitement back to BYU football, and not just have a mediocre season like the previous three years. … Not being able to be a part of it was tough. That’s the reason I chose to come back for my senior year was to have that kind of a season. But obviously I was super pumped for my teammates.”

Bushman said he and Wilson, who finished eighth in the Heisman Trophy voting, worked together all summer. He’s not surprised Wilson soared up NFL draft boards and posted one of the best seasons a BYU QB has ever had.

“We all knew he had the smarts and the athletic ability and the drive to make it happen, to be able to be an NFL-caliber quarterback,” Bushman said. “But yeah, it was definitely crazy to see the rise that he had from one season to the other, and the attention that he got. I hope he gets drafted as high as possible and has a great career. Who knows? Maybe I will be catching balls from him next year, too.”

Of course, in football one man’s loss is often another man’s gain, and in BYU’s case Bushman’s injury opened the door for redshirt freshman Isaac Rex to have a phenomenal season. Rex caught 37 passes for 429 yards and 12 touchdowns and garnered several postseason honors.

Bushman saw that coming, too.

“There were times when I was like, ‘Man, I wish I was out there to show my improvements and see how I could help the offense,” Bushman said. “Yeah, there were times when I thought, ‘This stinks. I came back after my junior year to prove more, and make plays out there, and to not be able to do that, that was tough.

“But seeing the great year Isaac had, I was really happy for him. He has always been willing to listen and improve. He’s got a bright future. Obviously, he is one of the top tight ends in the country coming back next year.”

Rehabbing while preparing for NFL

Because he decided to turn pro, Bushman’s task now is not only to rehab his Achilles, but get the rest of his body ready for the combines and pro days leading up to the NFL draft, which begins April 29 and runs through May 1.

He rehabbed in Provo during the season and graduated in December before heading with Emily and Andie to Arizona to train at EXOS physical therapy and Sports Medicine in Scottsdale.

He is on an accelerated plan and “ahead of schedule” with his Achilles rehabilitation, but is still not 100% five months after surgery.

“The next couple months will be key,” Bushman said. “I will begin pushing the limits to see what I can do. I am just trusting my physical therapists and doing everything they say. I am happy with the progress I have made and feel good about it all.”

There will be no NFL scouting combine in Indianapolis this year, so Bushman and other prospects will have to settle for regional combines and the like where pro scouts will be invited to attend, along with respective pro days at various schools. 

BYU has not announced yet whether it will have its annual pro day this year.

For now, Bushman and about 30-40 NFL hopefuls train daily at EXOS. He arrives each day at 8 a.m., has an hour of physical therapy, then does various speed and conditioning drills. He doesn’t leave the facility until 5 p.m. or so.

“It is like a full-time job,” he said. “I have to modify things with the Achilles recovery and everything, but it has been awesome. There are top-tier speed and strength coaches and physical therapists, everything you need.”

He said there is an emphasis on proper nutrition.

“We are eating super healthy food every day,” he said. “And that makes a big difference, honestly. It has us looking good.”

Already giving back

After his freshman year at BYU, a year that saw him catch 49 passes for 520 yards and three touchdowns and earn freshman All-America honors, Bushman watched a video about Houston Texans star defensive end J.J. Watt creating a foundation to help fund school athletic programs and organizations and started thinking he would like to do that, too.

He put the plan on pause for a couple of years while he found help with the paperwork and legal issues, then launched the Matt Bushman Foundation last week. He said a silver lining from the Achilles injury was that it gave him some free time to get the foundation off the ground.

“The main mission is just to provide underprivileged kids with sports opportunities,” Bushman said. “We are just trying to keep it vague for now so we can help in any way possible. We are just trying to be a light to kids who need it.”

Bushman’s work has already caught Watt’s attention. The NFL superstar tweeted Saturday that he is “honored to have been able to pass along the inspiration, having once been inspired in a very similar fashion myself.”

Bushman said he also drew inspiration from working with BYU coach Kalani Sitake’s More2Life Foundation, which has also helped provide athletic opportunities for impoverished children. Sitake’s foundation conducts an annual camp in Harlem, New York, for youth football players and takes BYU football players to the East Coast to direct the camp.

“Going back there and seeing how much kids loved sports and seeing people that weren’t as privileged as I was growing up, having two parents and having a dad that could provide equipment and training for whatever sport I wanted to pursue, I realized that some kids don’t have that,” Bushman said. “It would be awesome in the future to do a camp like that, but for now we just want to provide sports equipment for teams, things like that.”

Bushman said his foundation will begin its work in Utah County, targeting youth correctional facilities and youth recreation centers in underserved neighborhoods.

“If anyone wants to donate, we would be super, super appreciative,” he said.

Go to https://www.mattbushmanfoundation.com/home to donate.