His is a journey that few have taken, through the challenging academic hallways of Tulane University, grinding through a career-threatening knee injury, entering the professional world as a teacher first before Xavier Rush stepped into his dream: Playing in the NFL.
"I've talked about the NFL all the time, the game of football, I missed it when I wasn't playing and to be here, in this position, it's part of my dream," said Rush, a rookie wide receiver who is vying to make the Eagles' 53-man roster when it is pared down in September. He's here now, part of the 90-man team, and he's ready for the start of Training Camp practices on Monday at the NovaCare Complex.
How Rush got here is an example of a young man who didn't give up when he had plenty of opportunities, and other options, to do so. Highly sought after as a high schooler, Rush was wanted just as much for his brains as his football ability. Offers from Harvard and Cornell were considered before Rush accepted one from Tulane, where he majored in, and has since received his bachelor's degree in, neuroscience.
Rush had a good career at Tulane, marred by a torn ACL in his seventh game of his senior season that took him out of the NFL picture. Rush caught 99 passes and scored 12 touchdowns in the 45 games he played at Tulane, and his 6-3, 202-pound body had some scouts paying attention. But then there was the injury. Rush wasn't healthy enough to fully show his talents for teams ahead of the 2015 draft, so he spent the year rehabbing his injury and teaching at a prep school in Arkansas.
"When they told me it was my ACL, I was bummed out because I had been playing well and I was hopeful of being invited to the Senior Bowl," Rush said. "And then I had a change of mind. I knew that if I worked hard I would someday be able to have my Pro Day and show the NFL what I could do. I had belief in my talent. I just had to keep working at it."
Rush ran a 4.58 40-yard dash at his Pro Day five months after knee surgery and the Eagles expressed some interest way back then, but Rush wasn't ready. He needed time. He needed more work.
And he also needed a job, so Rush started teaching kids in grades 5 through 8 and learned as much as he taught.
"I learned, standing in front of those kids, that I wasn't mature enough to teach right then. I wanted to play ball. I was exhausted after teaching the kids, but I still had to get my workouts in and push myself," Rush said. "It was a great experience for me, helping kids who maybe wouldn't have gotten an opportunity otherwise. I had my college degree as an African-American man and it gave those kids someone to look up to. I accepted and embraced that role."
By the end of December, Rush pushed teaching to the side and went out to Arizona to train. The Eagles called him in for a tryout over the winter and Rush was impressive enough to win a contract.
And so he's here, understanding the business side of the NFL. Dreams die quickly and without emotion in this league. Rush is a long, long shot to make this team. He's still got some rust to knock off, given he hasn't played a football game since October of 2014.
"I've come a long way and I still have a long way to go," he said. "Every day, I'm here with a smile and I'm here to work hard. That's all I can do."
Hard work hasn't been a problem for Rush, who was raised in an achievement-oriented environment, expected to get straight "A" grades in his studies. If he wanted to play ball, he had to be superlative in the classroom. Rush competed to be the best in school and in sports -- he finished third in his high school class -- and his expertise ranged from chemistry first to neuroscience.
A smart guy who took class like "Brain And Behavior," and dissected human brains.
And an athlete who had his heart set on the NFL.
"I'm all about being the best in everything I do," Rush said. "I had people who believed in me along the way and they have allowed me to follow my passion. I'm interested in the brain and how the sport impacts the brain. I understand the impact football has had on the brain. I want to someday be an innovator in the field and I think that the fact that I'm playing the game will give me a chance to have respect in that field, to have some knowledge that maybe others don't."
That's the future for Rush. The present is somehow impressing wide receivers coach Greg Lewis enough to get more reps in Training Camp. Rush has good size and he's worked hard on his game. The numbers are the numbers. Rush is just taking it day by day.
"It's really just about improving every time I'm on the field," Rush said. "That's the mindset and I think I'm coming along and getting better."