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Bush Won't Be Defined by Company He Keeps

Former USC tailback has signed only as an endorser, not yet as a Saint, but he's invested in New Orleans.

July 28, 2006|Sam Farmer | Times Staff Writer

Determined to make football his singular focus, Reggie Bush passed on several lucrative sponsorship offers in the months leading up to the NFL draft. The former USC star has made up for that in the three months since, however, signing big-money deals with Hummer, Pepsi, Subway and Adidas.

But now, as training camp is set to begin, the New Orleans Saints are ready for Bush to turn his attention back to football. It's not that he has lost focus -- he typically spends at least three hours a day working out to stay in top shape -- but his pro career won't truly begin until he's under contract with the team.

"This is the business part of it," Bush said recently. "This is when it gets nasty between the team and the agent."

The Saints, who selected Bush second overall, open camp this afternoon in Jackson, Miss. Bush's agent, Joel Segal, and team officials have been mostly mum on negotiations, although Mickey Loomis, the Saints' general manager, said this week in an e-mail to the New Orleans Times-Picayune that talks were "proceeding on a normal course."

It's not unusual for NFL teams to wait until the last possible moment to sign their top picks, and sometimes not until camps are underway. By the end of today, 26 camps will have opened yet just 11 of the league's 32 first-round selections are under contract -- and six of those were announced Thursday, including quarterback Vince Young with Tennessee.

Young, the No. 3 overall pick out of Texas, agreed to a five-year deal, with an option for a sixth, with $25.7 million guaranteed and an overall value that could reach $58 million with option and roster bonuses and salary.

There are hints that the Bush negotiations could be more arduous than most. The first indication of that came the day before the draft, when the Houston Texans presented similar offers to Bush and North Carolina State defensive end Mario Williams. It was Williams who took the deal, and subsequently became the first pick, signing a six-year contract worth $54 million with $26.5 million of it guaranteed.

That the Texans took Williams over Bush, the 2005 Heisman Trophy winner, was not only shocking but a message they were not going to be strong-armed into an unfavorable contract. Bush, meanwhile, is seeking an even more lucrative deal.

"Reggie's a competitor; he wants to go," said Mike Ornstein, who heads Bush's marketing team. "The important thing is not to agree on a contract that's a bad contract. All these guys that are trying to renegotiate their contracts now are ones that signed bad contracts in the first place."

There is an Internet report citing an unnamed NFL source saying Bush would consider sitting out an entire season and re-entering the draft in spring 2007 if he doesn't like the Saints' best offer. That scenario seems highly unlikely for a number of reasons, among them the potential he could lose a lot of money in endorsements.

"It doesn't do any of these companies any good if the only press he's getting is negative, and if he doesn't showcase what made him marketable in the first place," said Paul Swangard, managing director of the Warsaw Sports Marketing Center at the University of Oregon.

Bush attended a Saints mini-camp in May and it's premature to suggest he might miss a significant portion of summer training. To keep prepared, he has been running and lifting weights, usually at USC and sometimes with former Trojans quarterbacks Carson Palmer and Matt Cassel. He also spends time in New Orleans, where he recently purchased a $1.8-million condominium on the riverfront and has donated significant amounts of money and time to Hurricane Katrina relief.

Among those donations were $86,000 to help seed and maintain the playing surface at Tad Gormley Stadium, the city's oldest field; a $50,000 pledge by Adidas to Holy Rosary Academy to keep open a school for autistic children; and the one-year use of a dozen Hummers for the Slidell Police Department.

Skeptics have suggested that Bush, by so ingratiating himself with the New Orleans community, is piling even more pressure on the Saints to give him the contract he wants. Ornstein says that's not it.

"It's because it's the right thing to do," he said. "That wasn't even on his mind one bit. It was always about going through the Ninth Ward, and if you don't get hit in the stomach any time you drive anywhere and say, 'Oh my God! What a mess!' ... This was Reggie's decision from the first day he came to New Orleans."

Even before Bush embraced the city, the city embraced him. Hundreds of Saints fans in evacuation shelters gathered around TVs to watch the draft, and erupted in cheers when he was selected. Soon after, season-ticket sales took a dramatic jump.

Last month, at the NFL rookie symposium in San Diego, Bush said he hoped to be in training camp on time but hinted that might not happen.

"We're going to try," he said. "Obviously that's the goal. In the perfect world that's what happens, but I'm not too sure about that."

Agent Leigh Steinberg said it's typically easier for running backs to get up to speed after missing part of training camp than it is for, say, a quarterback or offensive lineman. And, he said, teams sometimes have incentive to drag their feet in negotiating with ballcarriers.

"There's a theory that with certain key high-round running backs, teams might not be champing at the bit to expose them to every last hit of training camp," Steinberg said.

He recalled a time he was negotiating a contract for a high-profile running back and, even though camp had already started, he couldn't generate any momentum in the talks.

"I became convinced that the general manager had a date circled on his calendar," Steinberg said, "and he didn't want the player to report until then."

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