A warm summer breeze cut across a little league baseball diamond in Marysville, Ohio. Pitcher Thomas Rush stepped onto the rubber, took a deep breath and remembered a life lesson his father taught him.
Even though Rush was having a difficult inning, he didn’t let any negative thoughts creep into the next pitch. He instead centered himself, delivered a hard fastball and struck out the batter. Rush did exactly what his father, T.R., once told him in the dugout – be mentally tough and focus on the next pitch.
“He told me you have to be calm and collected and think about the next pitch. It was something that I had gotten ingrained in me every game, every year,” Rush said. “It was always, be calm, be collected, control yourself, control your emotions, don’t make a decision off of emotions and keep yourself intact.”
From that day on, Rush, a former Minnesota Golden Gophers pass rusher, carried his father’s “next pitch” mindset forward. He remained calm and laser focused through every important life decision, football play, or academic exam.
“Those lessons my dad taught me have ultimately carried me through sports, through college football, but also through life in general and how I process and do things,” Rush said. “Just being calm and understanding the situation and not making a decision harshly, or not thinking about the bad play that happened in the game.”
The next pitch mindset, along with other lessons, guided Rush as he pursued his passion for football.
Raised by Buckeyes
Thomas Rush fell in love with football while growing up around a family of passionate Ohio State alumni and fans. Rush played Saturday morning middle school football in his hometown of Marysville, a suburb of Columbus, before hurrying home for afternoon Buckeyes games.
“I would play football, go home and watch guys on the screen from when they were a freshman, to when they graduated, or declared early, and then they’d go to the NFL,” Rush said. “The feeling is very hard to describe and put into words, but it was really kind of when I knew it was something that I wanted to do. I knew I one day wanted to go play football.”
Rush dreamed of playing for the Buckeyes, but eventually found himself watching other college teams, including Minnesota, Iowa, Wisconsin and Penn State. Once that happened, Thomas had a new goal – to play in the Big Ten and the NFL.
“Every decision revolved around [those goals]. Going to school and making sure I got good grades because that’s what I needed to do to make sure I didn’t have an issue getting into college,” Rush said. “Eventually, everything became centered around – how would this decision affect me? How will this help me get to playing college football, and eventually, be able to help me play in the NFL? It was a central focus at that point.”
Rush became a star running back at Marysville High School. As a junior, he rushed for 1,400 yards and 12 touchdowns while earning First Team Ohio Capital Conference team honors.
Later that summer, Rush caught the attention of Minnesota’s coaching staff at a satellite camp in Canton, Ohio. The Gophers offered Rush and he immediately accepted. At Minnesota’s 2018 Signing Day press conference, head coach P.J. Fleck said Rush’s 40-yard dash, movement skills and intelligence immediately caught his attention.
“We have a camp in Ohio. He comes to it and runs an incredible 40 time. It matched his film. This is a guy that when you see him, you’re like, he’s a pretty football player, he’s a pretty individual,” Fleck said in 2017. “And then he puts his pads on and you’re like, now that’s what they’re supposed to look like – that’s him. He’s never had a B on his report card his entire life….he’s had all A’s his entire life, so that’s what we’re bringing in.”
Life in the Big Ten
As a senior in high school, Rush not only played wing back, but gained experience at linebacker too. The Gophers initially developed Rush as an off-ball linebacker, but moved him to rush end ahead of the 2020 season. Rush spent three practices at the new position before the COVID-19 pandemic shut down in-person practices.
“It was three spring practices and then not being back on campus until some time that summer and then really not getting to work on anything at all that summer,” Rush said. “Even in the number of days we had for fall camp, with what we were doing in fall camp was very reduced and sectioned off. It was not the most ideal form of practices.”
Despite all of the lost practice reps, Rush kept working hard. He learned hand combat techniques and developed a feel for new reaction times.
“As a linebacker off the ball, you’re given space to take time to make a read, to see the offensive linemen, to see the set, to see the quarterback and running back mesh action and then make a decision on your initial step and what you’re doing,” Rush said. “And then you get up on the ball as a defensive end, that space is taken away and that time is taken away. So instead of necessarily having all of that time to process information and make decisions, it’s pretty much gone. Your first step is the step you get and that’s your reaction. You have that step to make a decision and then you have to go.”
Thomas didn’t let the unique circumstances define his career though. After learning the position for most of 2020, Rush turned a major corner during the 2021 season. While sharing snaps with future second-round pick Boye Mafe (Seattle Seahawks), Rush recorded 31 tackles (7.5 for loss) and 5.5 sacks. Reflecting back, Rush credits Mafe and the coaching staff for helping him take a major step forward.
“I don’t think I’d be in the position I’m in without [Boye] and the information, advice and technique [he shared] and being able to work with him,” Rush said. “Watching what he did in offseason work, the way he approached the game, just everything about him. I would not be who I am and where I am without being in that room with [Boye].”
Additionally, Rush said he wouldn’t be the player or person he is today without one of his most influential mentors – Minnesota defensive coordinator Joe Rossi.
“Joe Rossi is probably one of the best coaches that I’ve ever been around. As intelligent as they come – schematically, technically, you name it. He overall encompasses what you want as a coach and as a person. To me, I think what’s so special about him is his ability to connect football, decision making, your thought process and reasoning, with life. And kind of being able to talk about football and life almost hand in hand during meetings,” Rush said. “It would be so hard to describe all of it if I didn’t have all of my notebooks to go through. He is a special individual and I don’t think people in Minnesota outside of the football facility know just how special he is not just as a coach, but as a person.”
The Photo of a Lifetime
Thomas remembers many moments from his college career, but one stands above the rest – beating Wisconsin and winning Paul Bunyan’s Axe in 2021. Rush will never forget the euphoria he felt as fans stormed the field. Once it happened, he quickly found his parents, T.R. and Lana. The two of them stormed the field and shared a special embrace with their son. Not long after that, they took a photo that Thomas will always hold close to his heart.
“That was a memory I have of both my parents being at that game and coming down on the field with me. Getting a picture with them and being on the field with them. Ultimately, for me, that was the last day I saw my dad before he passed away, so it is something that I will remember forever.”
Two weeks after celebrating the special victory with his son, T.R. Rush unexpectedly passed away at the age of 51.
Thomas said his family instantly received support from everyone in Minnesota’s football program, including head coach P.J. Fleck, staff members and teammates.
“Coach Fleck and the staff were tremendous in getting me through that. As soon as it happened, everything was there for me. There was nothing I really needed to do. Going home, getting a flight home, getting flights back,” Rush said. “There was never a conversation asking when I was coming back or how long I was staying. Phone calls and talks that I had with Coach Fleck, even while I was home for that process, it was just, take care of yourself, if you need anything, we’re here. We’re always here for you.”
Rush kept in touch with his teammates after he returned home. However, not one of the coaches or players ever asked whether he would return for Minnesota’s bowl game. They were solely focused on helping Thomas and his family through an extremely difficult time.
After spending time at home for the funeral, Rush reached out and told the coaches he was coming back for the Guaranteed Rate Bowl. Thomas had a difficult time leaving his mom and family, but knew his father would want him to play in the game.
“I ultimately went back to play in the bowl game that year because I knew it was something that my dad would have wanted me to do,” Rush said. “Just being the person he was and how much he loved the game, who he was as a person in the years I had known him, and the conversations he had given to us about playing games or playing football, and stuff like that and not missing anything. I knew I needed to play.”
A few weeks later, Rush took the field and played the game in memory of his father. He recorded a pair of tackles and Minnesota left Phoenix with a 19-6 win over the West Virginia Mountaineers. Rush knew his father would have been proud of the result.
Carrying Life Lessons Forward
Every day, Rush leans on the life lessons he learned while playing in Minnesota’s “Row the Boat” culture. Thomas saw firsthand how powerful Row the Boat was as he coped with the loss of his father. The former Gophers pass rusher knows all of the life lessons he gained from Coach Fleck and the staff will last a lifetime.
“I know I’ve been at Minnesota all five years, but being recruited by some other schools when I was younger and looking back on them now, and also having guys that I’m familiar with at other schools across the country, I talk with them about their coaching staffs and experiences. It’s so mind-boggling to me that Minnesota is the only one doing this,” Rush said. “That Coach Fleck is the only one actually adding an extra element to a football program by intertwining football and life.”
Thomas wants recruits ands fans to know how much he enjoyed his experience at the University of Minnesota. He said players learn about so much more than football in the Gophers’ program.
“It is difficult to explain to people the value you get from being a player at Minnesota because you’re not just a player. As cliché as it can be used sometimes, it is so hard to attempt to tell somebody that you aren’t just a player there because of the vast amount of effort and resources that the coaching staff pours into the players,” Rush said. “Not only them, but even the academic staff and how much they care. They go out of their way to help you and will do anything to help you achieve what you want to achieve. Just how much everyone cares for you, it’s ridiculous.”
The NFL Journey Begins
Rush began the first step of his NFL dream by playing in last month’s NFLPA Bowl. Throughout the week of practice, Thomas showcased his versatility while playing both off-ball linebacker and rush end. Rush spent the first two days of practice at SAM linebacker, but finished the week playing rush end.
“It was a great experience overall. Just being there surrounded by guys at the highest level and playing with those guys. And being around coaches and staff and people that really care about what they’re doing and the players,” Rush said. “The overall premise of that week was to go out there, go be you, don’t worry about anything, don’t overthink anything, don’t try to be something you’re not and just go play to my capabilities and what my strengths are.”
Once the game kicked off, Rush showcased his speed, bend and quickness while accumulating a pair of sacks. Looking back at the week, Rush was pleased with how everything went.
“I got my footing there to make it known that I am capable of playing both [the off-ball] position and the stand up rush end spots,” Rush said. “I got to pretty much talk with half of the teams in the NFL. It was a good outing and I think it was something that really helped me moving forward with kind of having that knowledge of what to expect with interviews here on out.”
As Rush takes the next step in his football career, he finds himself thinking about football Sundays with his late father. He remembers the two of them plotting out what his football future could look like. Now, years later, Rush is steps away from making their living room vision a reality.
“I remember being younger. Just him talking about the best quarterback and linebacker when he watched the NFL as a kid,” Rush said. “The journey to college football and the opportunity to do that, making this a priority and talking about if the NFL was what I wanted to do, what the journey would look like, the hard work involved. Those conversations with him, it’s all part of my drive.”
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