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Caring to Share

Reggie Bush has spent his first months as a New Orleans Saints player spending his own money and that of his sponsors to aid those affected by Hurricane Katrina. He's earned the gratitude of those on the Gulf Coast.

September 01, 2006|Sam Farmer | Times Staff Writer

NEW ORLEANS — Shortly after the New Orleans Saints selected him second in the last NFL draft, Reggie Bush toured some of the city's neighborhoods destroyed by the flooding that followed Hurricane Katrina.

House by pulverized house, he studied the bright orange numbers that relief workers had spray-painted on the front -- a grim count of the dead found inside.

"It's a humbling experience, and it's sad," the Heisman Trophy winner from USC said. "It makes you appreciate what you have, makes you appreciate life in general. It can be taken away from you at any time."

Katrina was the costliest natural disaster in U.S. history, flooding 80% of the city and displacing more than a million people. In the storm's wake, Bush's first few months as an NFL player largely have been defined by his charitable works and donations, acts that have ingratiated him with the people of the Gulf Coast and fans of the Saints, almost always among the more pitiful franchises in professional sports.

Even before he signed his contract, which included a reported $26 million in guarantees, Bush -- often with the help of his sponsors -- was signing checks for charitable causes. Through Adidas, his shoe and apparel sponsor, he donated $56,000 to Holy Rosary School, ensuring 105 special-needs students wouldn't be forced to attend schools that don't specialize in educating teens with learning issues such as dyslexia and attention-deficit disorder. As part of his endorsement deal with Hummer, the Slidell, La., police department was given 12 of the vehicles on loan for a year.

Pepsi has announced a "Neighborhood by Neighborhood. Yard by Yard," program to build 25 homes in the New Orleans area based on a donation system calibrated by the number of yards Bush gains this season. And Bush personally pledged $86,000 to resurface the field at Tad Gormley Stadium, which was damaged in the flooding and where six high schools play their football games.

"Some guys just play in a place and then head home when the season's over," said Indianapolis quarterback Peyton Manning, who grew up in New Orleans. "Reggie's a kid from California who's dived right in to help the community. I commend him for that."

Several other NFL players have made significant contributions to relief efforts, but some say Bush's philanthropy has set a new standard for what is expected here of professional athletes.

"Everybody's been rearranged here, philosophically, spiritually, in their DNA," said Chris Rose, columnist for the New Orleans Times-Picayune newspaper. "There's no patience for anyone who's got it all who's not giving anything back."

One of the city's Catholic leaders even compared Bush to a real saint -- St. Reginald of Orleans, who in the 13th century had a vision of the Blessed Mother instructing him to work with St. Dominic to establish the Dominican order.

"May you be the burning Bush that lights the way of so many," said Father William Maestri, superintendent of Catholic schools for the archdiocese in New Orleans, presenting Bush with a fresco of St. Reginald during a ceremony.

But at least one well-known observer is hoping any further saint talk is confined to Bush's accomplishments for the Saints football team.

"It's a big burden on him," said filmmaker Spike Lee, whose HBO documentary "When the Levees Broke: A Requiem in Four Acts" chronicles the "inept and disorganized response" to Katrina by the Federal Emergency Management Agency.

"I love Reggie Bush," Lee said. "I hope he's rookie of the year. At the same time, he's just a football player. He's not Mayor Ray Nagin, Governor Kathleen Blanco or President Bush. And he's not trying to be.

"If you're a football fan in New Orleans, Sunday's going to be heaven and the other six days are going to be hell. That game's going to end when the ref blows the whistle, and it's back to reality. You're back living in the FEMA trailer."

Bush has experienced how quickly fortunes can turn. He was on top of the world as the 2005 Heisman Trophy winner, but the start of 2006 was not so kind. USC lost the national championship game to Texas in the Rose Bowl, and soon after Bush found himself embroiled in controversy as the focus of a joint Pacific 10 Conference and NCAA investigation into whether a fledgling marketing company provided his family with "extra benefits" -- including free housing -- while he was playing for the Trojans. A lawyer for the company's founders, who ended up abandoning their plans, has threatened to file suit against Bush and his family. Bush has denied wrongdoing.

Meantime, the Houston Texans passed on making Bush the first pick of the NFL draft, instead selecting North Carolina State defensive end Mario Williams after he accepted their pre-draft contract terms. Bush was offered a similar deal but turned it down, leaving critics to wonder whether he was being greedy.

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