Climbing back from tragedy

TAMPA — Their voices echoed through Plant High School gym as they streamed in the doors and collected in the bleachers. With prom two days away, the collective rumbling centered on dresses and limos and after-parties. Down in front, a young man in a blue shirt and tie and slacks paced across the half-court line.

"I had my first drink at 12 years old," Brian Rushing began.

He told the teens how he got high for the first time toward the end of middle school. He mentioned the arrests before senior year: once for walking around Ybor City with a beer at 15, another time for a fist fight with his father while he was blacked out. He said he managed to coast through Land O'Lakes High School with a spot on the wrestling team and a decent GPA. But things tanked after graduation.

In the summer of 2007, he dropped his classes at Pasco-Hernando Community College, lost his job for falling asleep after partying late and had to sell his car. The drugs took hold. The partying never stopped until one night that November.

Brian and his older brother Nathan had gone to a bar where the family of a friend killed in a drunken-driving accident was trying to raise money for a funeral. Nathan, who was 21, slipped Brian beers at the bar. He took a few pills. He doesn't remember any of the drive home until a hard swerve off Parkway Boulevard in Land O'Lakes.

He came to upside down in his SUV. Nathan was no longer in the car. Brian found him lying under a tree in the dark.

The gym had fallen silent but for Brian's story.

"Get off my chest," Brian recounted Nathan saying. But he wasn't on Nathan's chest.

Brian talked about his trip to the hospital and his mother walking into the room after checking on Nathan. The look on her face revealed the news before she could say it.

"Kill me now," Brian remembered screaming from his hospital bed. "I've killed my brother."

When the assembly was over, the bleachers cleared. A few students stopped to thank Brian, now 24, before he headed off to work at Starbucks — the first foothold on his long climb back.

• • •

This is Brian's world now: an apartment he shares with his fiancee, Hayley, and his dog, Lucy, occasional Bucs games, dinner once a week with his mom in Land O'Lakes.

He bikes or takes the bus most everywhere because he'll never drive again.

But his main focus is nursing school. He was accepted into USF's program in April and is on track to become an RN in two years.

It's a picture both promising and happily ordinary. But not long ago, it seemed audacious to hope for anything like this.

Five years ago, he stood in orange and white stripes before a circuit judge, accepting responsibility for killing his brother. At 19, he was staring down 15 years in prison.

Judge Pat Siracusa remembers Brian's nerves showed, but that didn't overshadow what he'd learned since the accident.

Brian had been through rehab and spent most nights in Alcoholics Anonymous circles that helped him stay sober in the 17 months leading up to his plea and sentencing for DUI manslaughter.

Tragedy struck the family again on Valentine's Day 2009 when Marvin Rushing, Brian's father, died suddenly at age 54 of a heart attack. That was the hardest night, but Brian stayed sober.

At his plea hearing a dozen witnesses spoke on his behalf. His employers — a pool deck installer and a restaurant manager — said how reliable he was, even though he wasn't allowed to drive himself to work. Other addicts — some many years older and with many more years of sobriety — talked of what an inspiration Brian was to them.

A man who met him in a recovering addicts' meeting testified in the hearing, and later told the Times that he'd never seen someone so young take recovery so seriously.

"I wish that everybody approached their recovery with the zeal and enthusiasm that he has," said the man, who asked he be identified only as John L. "He's so open and honest about it, and I think that's why he's able to do so much good in the community. He doesn't shy away from it. It's not a dirty little secret."

The judge detected true maturity in Brian's demeanor, and in what others said about him.

"In Brian's case, I believe I saw the potential that he could turn a horrible situation into an opportunity to help some people," Siracusa said. "In his sentence, I told him that he had to save one person's life every year."

The sentence was a second chance: nine months in jail, license revoked for life, 10 years probation, two hours a month talking to young people.

• • •

But the judge wasn't done with him.

Brian and the judge did speaking engagements together at high schools all over Tampa Bay and at a victim impact panel where they both explained their perspectives.

Siracusa commissioned a video to be shown at schools, too. In it, Brian tells his story from a jail cell in orange and white stripes like what he wore on his day in court. Pictures of the crushed car on the side of the road flash on the screen. One of the last photos taken of Nathan fades in.

There's no certain way of telling how many times Brian's story kept his listeners from getting in cars when they shouldn't. FHP doesn't report when crashes don't happen.

The hardest part didn't come as a judge's order.

After jail, applying to jobs became his job. He spent four months, six to eight hours a day, filling out applications. Every time, he would check the felony box and never hear back — until a Starbucks manager surprised him with an interview when he handed in an application. He explained everything: the wreck, jail, sobriety. She hired him on the spot. He would later meet his fiancee, Hayley, on the job.

Brian's steadiness earned him a cut in probation time by about half. He calls probation easy. He spent his time at Hillsborough Community College, at AA meetings or home studying. There wasn't time to think about partying. His consistency paid off with a 4.0 GPA.

He applied to USF while he was still on probation. The first response was meant to let him down easy, suggesting he reapply in 2019. Brian asked for reconsideration. He explained everything in a letter. This time he was granted admission. He starts classes Monday.

Brian's eyes well when he talks about his sentence. His voice quivers.

"I will be forever grateful to this man (Siracusa) for giving me a second chance at life," he says. "I would never have the opportunity to do any of this stuff if it wasn't for him."

The judge puts it this way: he knows prison populations are at capacity. Prison is the best option for some people, he says, but not everyone. He fashions his sentences specific to his defendants.

"Society is better off when we help these people fix themselves," Siracusa said. "I mean, we can't fix anybody. All we can do is give them the opportunity. When they do it, we all benefit."

Perhaps first on the list of beneficiaries is his mother, Barbara Rushing, who after losing her husband and a son, could have lost her other to prison. Brian tells her sometimes that he hopes to make it all up to her one day.

"I tell him that every day he's sober," she said, "he repays me."

Alex Orlando can be reached at aorlando@tampabay.com or (727) 869-6247.

Climbing back from tragedy 05/08/14 [Last modified: Thursday, May 8, 2014 4:32pm]

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