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Saints shine their light under Bush

Former USC star's brightness has waned, but he's counting on a stellar comeback.

August 24, 2008|Brett Martel | Associated Press

NEW ORLEANS -- So spectacular were some of Reggie Bush's long gains in college, so full of abrupt cutbacks, spins, leaps and sudden bursts of speed, that he began to draw comparisons to Hall of Fame running back Gale Sayers.

Bush, many thought, could be one of the greatest of all time. That was Bush's own stated goal when he turned pro following a Heisman Trophy-winning junior season at USC. He certainly got a messiah's welcome in New Orleans when the Saints seized the chance to draft Bush second overall in 2006, after Houston had passed on him in favor of defensive end Mario Williams.

But it's been a while since anyone uttered the names Bush and Sayers in the same sentence.

Entering his third season, Bush has yet to be selected for a Pro Bowl.

Following a handful of mesmerizing touchdowns his rookie year, his second season had as many lowlights as highlights.

That was even before a knee injury sidelined him for the last four games, leading a few critics to wonder aloud whether Bush was a bust as the Saints stumbled to a 7-9 record.

"I know I'm not a bust. I know I'm far from it," Bush said after a recent practice at the Saints' suburban training headquarters. "I know there's a lot of hard work, focus, patience and determination. It'll all come to pass. You've just got to weather the storm while it's there and just continue to work your way through it."

Bush's platform remains the same as when he was drafted. While he readily acknowledges NFL football is a different, more difficult game than he played in college, he is unwavering in his conviction that he will become an elite player.

Included in his stated goals this season are to surpass 1,000 yards rushing and 1,000 yards receiving -- and to make his first Pro Bowl.

"I definitely feel like I have something to prove this year," Bush said. "I'm ready to prove I'm one of those elite running backs year in and year out."

So far, Bush has at least proved to be a solid pitchman, regardless of his production on the field. His face remains a constant in television advertising for numerous local and national sponsors.

But at this point, there is some debate over whether his rising celebrity is less a product of his performance on the gridiron than his appearances in a music video, a commercial with David Beckham or the reality TV show based on the life of his girlfriend, Los Angeles socialite Kim Kardashian.

Bush's photo shows up in celebrity magazines and websites, not just sports publications. This summer, the paparazzi caught up with Bush and Kardashian during a June vacation in Florence, Italy, shortly before the running back jetted off to London to promote the Saints' contest against San Diego later this season at Wembley Stadium.

Bush said he'd prefer to have more privacy, but sees advantages to being famous, even if it opens him up to criticism when his yardage totals fall short of what football fans expect.

"I welcome the celebrity with open arms because I feel like I can use that to make a difference in people's lives," Bush said.

Indeed, few criticize Bush's commitment to New Orleans. He has steered a substantial sum of his endorsement money into rebuilding athletic fields destroyed by Hurricane Katrina, providing vehicles for a suburban police department and feeding the needy. His popularity in New Orleans remains high; his No. 25 jersey is among the most visible around town and at the Louisiana Superdome.

While Bush must deal with the controversy caused by a marketing agent's allegations that Bush and his family received improper benefits during his time at USC, the matter is of little concern in New Orleans because it has no bearing on his pro career.

Bush rarely talks about it (Saints public relations officials have asked reporters not to question Bush on the matter while he is performing team duties). On occasion, he's said only that he's done nothing wrong and that he ultimately will be vindicated.

For now, he's seeking vindication on the field, where his 2007 numbers were decent, but far from spectacular. He had six touchdowns, 581 yards rushing and 417 yards receiving in 12 games, then missed the rest of the season with a partially torn knee ligament. His longest run was 22 yards and his longest reception was 25.

The game-breaking plays Bush has said he expects of himself never came, unlike the mistakes he hoped to avoid.

He was fortunate the Saints recovered most of his eight fumbles, including a punt that bounced off his facemask during a win over Jacksonville.

He lost a fumble at the Houstonone1-yard line in a loss to the Texans and botched a toss to Devery Henderson on a reverse while the Saints were trying to protect a 23-20 lead in the final minutes of a loss to Tampa Bay.

When Bush has played well, the results have been memorable. The highlights of his rookie season included a game-winning, 55-yard punt return for a touchdown against the Buccaneers and a screen pass that he turned into a weaving, 61-yard score at Dallas.

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