STILLWATER — Look at the tattoo on the inside of Jonathan Rush's left forearm, and you'll notice the word running from elbow to wrist.
But look again, and you'll see the year that forever changed the Oklahoma State offensive lineman. The year his grandma and his grandpa died of cancer. The year his brother was sentenced to 45 years in prison. The year another brother was killed in a car accident.
The year: 1999.
Rush was 10 years old.
"Just a lot to deal with," he said. "But you live. You overcome."
Rush sure has.
A year ago, the would-be starter was sidelined with a shoulder injury that forced him to miss the entire season. Now, he is part of an offensive line that has gone from question mark to success story. Heading into Saturday's game at Texas, it has allowed only nine sacks through nine games, best in the Big 12.
Brandon Weeden has been able to pick apart defenses because of these big fellows.
Then again, Rush has no problem helping protect the Cowboy quarterback. Handling a blitzing linebacker or a bullrushing nose guard is nothing for a guy who has already taken some of the biggest hits that life can offer.
Rush didn't see any of them coming.
The first hit blindsided him in the spring of 1999. An out-of-the-blue call delivered news that was as devastating as it was surprising. His grandma was in a Houston-area hospital, and doctors said she had cancer that had gone undiagnosed. She only had a couple hours to live.
Rush's family was three hours away in Killeen, Texas. They drove as fast as possible.
"But we didn't make it there in time," Rush said.
Only a few months later, Rush's grandpa lost his own battle with cancer.
Losing his grandparents was sad, but what really crushed Rush was seeing how badly it hurt his parents. His father, David, was a career Army man, his mother, Gerilyn, worked to make ends meet, and while times could be tough and money could be tight, the youngest of six kids always felt protected and sheltered.
Rush thought of his parents as superheroes.
"To see your superhero... get hurt," Rush said, shaking his head, "it's like, 'Oh, gosh, the real world can touch you. You're not in a bubble.'"
That reality hit Rush again that summer, twice.
First, his older brother Kenya was arrested and charged with aggravated robbery. Even though he was only 17 years old at the time, he was sentenced to 45 years in prison.
Then only a month later, Rush's older brother David was returning to Killeen when his car swerved off the road. No one knows exactly what happened, but he overcorrected, went into the ditch and crashed into a tree.
A trooper with the Texas Highway Patrol knocked on the family's door a few hours later with the horrible news: David was dead.
Rush remembers his father wailing, gasping to catch his breath between sobs.
"He was just crying like I've never heard anybody cry before," Rush said. "'David's dead.'"
Worse, though, was going to the jail to tell Kenya what had happened. He and David were best buddies, and when he heard the news, he broke down.
"He's behind the glass," Rush said. "You're inches away, but you can't do anything for him."
He pursed his lips.
"The worst memory I have."
Even though Rush was only 10 years old, that year changed him. He learned at that young age that nothing in life was a given. There would be tough times. There would be devastating circumstances.
But he also learned that he could overcome.
That's why he got that tattoo a decade later.
"If I can make it through that year and still be the man that I am... then nothing can break me," Rush said. "You can just chip me, but that's about it."
There have been times he has been knocked off balance. That shoulder injury last season was among the worst. He needed surgery, he endured rehab, but all along the way, he had doubts. He heard the voice in the back of his head telling him that he couldn't do it, that he might as well give up.
Then he would catch a glimpse of that ink on his left forearm
"I can't say I'm unbreakable and then get broken," he would think. "I can't quit."
Rush didn't, and now, he is enjoying a season that he says is more fun than his previous three combined. The left guard even got a rare offensive lineman highlight last weekend when he laid out a Baylor defender on a screen pass late in the first quarter.
"We ran it back a couple of times" in the film room, right guard Lane Taylor said. "That's a pretty good hit he laid on him.
"He has a mean edge to him."
That isn't Rush's personality off the field. He is easygoing and witty, joking around and poking fun, often at himself. The other night during post-practice interviews, the 6-foot-4, 308-pound hulk worried that one of his answers had sounded too effeminate.
He is also refreshingly honest.
Asked about the success that the offensive line has enjoyed this season, he thought a moment.
"I mean, we haven't even faced... the two teams that determine whether this is a different year or not," he said of Texas and Oklahoma. "Years in the past, we've beaten all these teams. This is like the truth. It's like whenever you decide to challenge big brother. 'I think I'm prepared enough. I think I'm old enough. Now, it's time.'"
No doubt challenges remain for the Cowboys.
None, not the Longhorns, not the Sooners, not any team, will provide any bigger test than what Jonathan Rush has already endured. He has been staggered. He has been blindsided. But he is still standing.
"Everything you do in life is a part of what you are," Rush said. "You're only a reflection of your past experiences."