Former Sabino High tight end Matt Bushman chose BYU over Arizona, Utah, Colorado and Washington.

Living in Tucson was an abrupt change of pace for Matt Bushman. Tucson wasn’t expected, it just happened.

In 2005, Bushman’s family moved from New Orleans to Tucson following the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina, which left the city in gruesome condition and caused thousands of residents to transplant to a different city or state.

He attended Sabino High School, and played varsity football for the Sabercats from 2011-13.

As a child growing up in a college town like Tucson, if football players didn’t dream about playing for the Arizona Wildcats, they likely envisioned playing under the lights at Arizona Stadium as an opponent in front of their family and friends.

Bushman will have that opportunity Saturday night as a tight end for BYU, when the Cougars open their season against Arizona.

“I never played inside (Arizona) Stadium, so I’m pretty excited to finally play in that stadium,” Bushman said.

While at Sabino High School, Matt Bushman was the top receiver as a senior, netting 1,583 yards and 26 touchdowns. He was named to the Parade All-American team in 2013.

Last year, the 6-foot-5, 245-pounder played significant snaps and recorded 520 yards and three touchdowns as a true freshman at BYU. The Cougars finished the season 4-9, but played against reputable opponents including LSU, Mississippi State, Wisconsin and Utah.

Ironically, the game against LSU was originally scheduled in Houston, but the effects of Hurricane Harvey forced the game to New Orleans. That means Bushman gets to enjoy the luxury of playing in two homecoming games as a college football player.

Before BYU, Bushman wasn’t expected to play tight end. Upon arrival at Sabino, he was a string-bean freshman that was one helluva baseball and basketball player. He could have had an impact as a tall wide receiver.

Former Sabino coach Jay Campos will be the first to tell you not to judge a book by its cover, as Bushman showcased physical toughness, quickness and grit as a defensive end. Campos says Bushman was on pace to mold into the best edge rusher in program history. Reminder: Current Atlanta Falcons linebacker Brooks Reed played at Sabino.

“I remember thinking watching him in a freshman football game — and this is the honest truth — that this kid could be the best defensive end we’ve had come through Sabino. And we’ve had some pretty good ones,” Campos said. “As a pass catcher, this kid was going to be dominant by the time he got to his junior and senior year. … I thought he could become one of the best prospects in his class.”

Bushman established himself on the defensive line, but the more he grew into his body, the more Campos used him as a weapon on offense. As a three-year starter, Bushman gradually improved as a pass catcher and was Sabino’s top receiver as a senior, netting 1,583 yards and 26 touchdowns.

“His senior year what he did? There’s a reason why he was ranked the No. 1 pass-catching tight end in the nation based on statistics,” Campos said. “He was incredible. He had the best single season of anyone I ever coached when he had those 1,600 yards receiving and all of those touchdowns. It was unheard of.”

A 2013 Parade All-American, Bushman picked up college offers from UA, BYU, Utah, Colorado and Washington. As part of his recruitment, he mostly spent his Saturday evenings standing on the sideline at Arizona Stadium, watching the Wildcats.

”When I was being recruited, I went to all of the games and got up close to the players and saw what it was like,” he said. “Being recruited by your hometown team, that was really cool.”

As a member of the Mormon church, Bushman always planned on traveling the world for his two-year missionary service regardless of which college he selected.

His parents, Shannon and Ben, are BYU alumni so all signs pointed to Matt doing his mission and playing for the Cougars. For his mission, Bushman lived in Santiago, Chile. He said the experience outside of the United States was a life-changer.

“You learn a lot when you go to a totally different country. It’s a whole new language at first, you learn the language and you develop these relationships with different types of people. It’s really cool,” Bushman said.

Once he returned to the United States, that’s when his football career picked back up and a year later, he married a BYU volleyball player, Emily Lewis, who is the daughter of Chad Lewis, a longtime Philadelphia Eagles tight end and former BYU standout. Irony. Now a sophomore, Bushman was named to the John Mackey Award watch list over the summer, which is an award given to the best tight end in college football.

Bushman will start that campaign Saturday night as he returns to Tucson and hopes to show his hometown crowd that he’s going to be a household name.

“I just want to keep getting better,” Bushman said. “I don’t want to be someone that plateaus, I just want to keep improving as my college career goes on.”


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Justin Spears is an award-winning sports journalist and Tucson native. He can be reached at jspears@tucson.com. On Twitter @justinesports.