While University of Miami starting safety Deon Bush lay at his Miami home in June recovering from outpatient hernia surgery, his dad, Gary Bush Sr., lay in another room dealing with liver cancer.
“I was Nurse Bush at the time,” said Michele Bush, a former UM and North Carolina Central basketball player who is the assistant principal at Coconut Palms K-8 Academy in Homestead. “We’ve struggled, but God always makes a way for us.”
The Bushes, who met when she was a sophomore at UM in 1986 and he was a graduate of Mississippi Valley State (he played wide receiver with this weekend’s Pro Football Hall of Fame inductee Jerry Rice), have raised two star football players and an accomplished basketball player. But right now they’re just three devoted children trying to stay positive for their ailing father, a 51-year-old Miami Southridge High science teacher known throughout Miami-Dade for his generosity in helping young athletes in need.
Eldest son GJ (short for Gary Junior) will soon begin his redshirt senior season as a starting receiver at Purdue; Deon started six of his 10 games as a freshman last season and was named by Miami coaches as Newcomer of the Year; and daughter Nya, 13, is a middle-school hoops standout.
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They used to struggle to keep up with their ultra-fit dad. Now they’re cheering every step toward what they hope will be his full recovery. The journey continues with expected surgery next week to hopefully remove part of the cancerous liver and his damaged gallbladder.
“I want people to be aware you can be a healthy, strong person and still have things going on in your body that you don’t realize until you get a checkup,” said Gary Bush, now on leave from Southridge. “Cancer is the last thing I ever imagined. I was getting up at 4:30 a.m. and doing five miles at the gym, lifting weights. I don’t drink, don’t smoke, and all of a sudden it happened to me.
“My health wasn’t the first thing on my mind – kids, school, work. I was always running, running, running. A year ago I couldn’t even tell you where the liver was located.”
With the help of friends, Gary Bush and his family have created a website to inform others of his situation, make them aware of the importance of checkups and share his strong faith. Bush, an avid churchgoer and follower of pastor Alphonso Jackson at the Second Baptist Church in Richmond Heights, takes joy in online messages of hope from outsiders. And as much as it pains them to admit it, the family is struggling financially with exorbitant medical bills.
“He’s a very down-to-earth, great person, and I’m a changed young man because of my father,’’ said GJ, who played football, basketball and ran track at Columbus High. “I get up every day and push myself like it’s my last day. I don’t take anything for granted. I appreciate things more.”
Deon, who came to UM as a four-star recruit and has been urging Twitter followers to go to his dad’s website, turns 20 on Aug. 14. He played football, ran track and played one year of basketball at Columbus. He finished his first college season with 34 tackles, three pass breakups and tied for second in the ACC with three forced fumbles.
UM begins training camp Saturday, and players aren’t available for interviews until then. A person close with the program revealed that Deon had the offseason surgery to repair a slight tear in his groin, and sports hernia repairs also were made. He has been rehabbing and is expected to make a full recovery, though a time frame has not been revealed.
“Deon was more concerned about me,’’ said Gary, who had eight chemotherapy sessions, including one in which “they shot the chemo right into my liver.
“At first Deon wasn’t that strong, but we talked about prayer and what God can do. Deon and [UM cornerback] Tracy Howard and [tailback] Duke Johnson came by to see me recently. I told them, ‘Don’t take any day for granted.’ I never did lose my faith.”
Many in the community are rallying around Gary Bush, including fellow teachers and even fathers of former Hurricanes football players. Gary Bush started Team Miami in 2008 for teenagers who were looking to play AAU basketball but weren’t quite good enough to make the high-profile teams that often receive funds and equipment from national sponsors. Bush spent his own money over the years to provide teens with registration fees, uniforms and equipment so they could play, too.
“He’s the most decent person I know,’’ said Michelle Williams, who is close with the Bushes and works as an aide at Southridge. “Gary is a giver. He’ll give you the last cent in his pocket. He always helps out the students, whether it’s with lunch money, ID money, or a kid needs to pay for something or he won’t graduate.
“Now, it’s Gary who needs help. I don’t know how else to put it.”
Florida City police chief Pete Taylor, father of late UM and Washington Redskins star safety Sean Taylor, coached Deon in youth basketball at Kendall’s Suniland Park and has been friends with the Bush family for years. He said Deon – “He has a smile on his face and the heart of a lion” – and his dad have drives “that won’t quit” and are “tough-minded, humble and respectful.
“The Bushes show their kids the right way to do things, and Gary amplifies that to the community with his spirit and generosity. He cares about the people, and he needs their prayers and support. I know he’ll overcome this.”
Curtis McGee, father of Canes cornerback alum Brandon McGee – who is about to begin his first season with the St. Louis Rams – heard about Gary Bush and said he was praying hard for him. Curtis, 53, was diagnosed with late-stage throat cancer in 2000 and had his larynx removed in 2001. Today, he is thriving.
“I never was sick before, never had a broken bone in my life, but I just put my faith in God and prayed on it,” Curtis McGee said. “All my prayers go out to Deon Bush and his family.”
To learn more about Gary Bush Sr. and his fight against cancer, go to teammiamibasketball.com.