JACKSON, Miss. -- They screamed and yelled his name, shrieking girls giving the moment a rock-star feel.
"Over here, Reggie," one screamed as she jumped up and down. "Please. Please. Over here."
|Reggie has millions of reasons to smile, and his female fans are loving it. (Getty Images)|
As Bush wandered over, another teenage girl leaped from behind the ropes. She crossed over to security-guard hell, carrying a huge handmade sign with Bush's name on it. She looked toward Bush and implored him in her direction.
Eventually he made it that way and autographed the sign, before he continued to mingle with the rest of the crowd, his peeps.
The girl sauntered away to join her friends, as if she just had a visit with Elvis or, even, God himself. That's the way it is with Bush. He hasn't even taken a real handoff in an NFL game and already he's the face of this franchise, a face for a region of disoriented fans looking for something, anything, to make them feel better.
Already, some have taken to calling him The Savior. That's heavy stuff for a 20-year-old kid who simply totes a football for a living. To ask him to assume that role for a hurricane-ravaged region and a city that isn't close to bouncing back to where it once was is mighty big indeed.
"I feel like it's God's plan for me to play football and make a difference in people's lives," Bush said after the autograph session while sitting on a bench in a shaded area. "I don't look at myself as a savior, just a guy who has a passion for doing what I do."
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The seventh-round pick out of Hofstra has impressed the coaching staff. He is a big, physical receiver who has come in and displayed a knack for making plays. He doesn't run that well, but he plays faster than his 40 time. He could push for time in the lineup at some point this season.
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It's a role that few would choose, particularly not an NFL player. Yet the Saints play in a city that was crippled by Hurricane Katrina a year ago, a city that still hasn't come close to recovering. This is a scarred region, one looking for anything to take them away from the pain of the past year, even if it is only a temporary tonic.
Football can help that healing. As they like to say in New Orleans, the city is known for three things -- the Saints, Mardi Gras and Bourbon Street. The other two have come back, sort of. The Saints are the last to return, and will play their first game back at the Superdome in the third week of the season.
They were forced to play home games in San Antonio and Baton Rouge last year because the Superdome was devastated, causing separation anxiety for those who still had the energy to care about such things.
As New Orleans started to rebound, with French Quarter restaurants and their tasty treats re-opening at the beginning of the year and party revelers starting to come back, the Saints gave the city a couple jolts of excitement. First, they signed quarterback Drew Brees as a free agent in March. That was nice and all, but the real charge came in late April when the Houston Texans passed on Bush with the first pick in the NFL draft, giving the Saints the chance to take him with the second.
The Savior fell into their lap.
"I think the things that have happened with our team in the offseason have been real positive, feel-good things for the city," Saints general manager Mickey Loomis said. "I definitely think Reggie falls into that category. It was surprising he dropped to us, but exciting for us and the city."
The Saints are careful to hold off on the Savior talk. After all, he is just a football player -- a rookie at that.
"I think that's a little overplayed," Loomis said.
But it's hard not to feel the excitement and the draw he has with the fans, even here in Jackson, some 200 miles to the north of New Orleans. His wide smile seemed to grow wider with every encounter with each fan.
Make no mistake about it: If he isn't the Savior, he is the Man.
"I think he knows he has to be part of the team," Saints first-year coach Sean Payton said. "It's not like tennis or golf. He has to understand that. The people do as well. They're excited. They have the Heisman Trophy winner and it's a positive thing. He's a polished guy. He's sharp, a hard worker. He has a lot of those things you look for. He's handled it pretty well and his teammates have handled that part well too."
|Reggie quickly shows his cutback style can open big plays in the NFL too. (AP)|
Bush thinks he knows why.
"They make fun of you about it, but everybody is cool," Bush said. "Nobody is demeaning or anything like that. It's because I work my butt off. It's one thing to come in with all the accolades and all the stuff and practice only when you want. I work hard every day in practice and work hard every day in the weight room. Guys see that."
They also see the special skills he brings. Although veteran Deuce McAllister is the starter, Bush will get his touches. He will sometimes team in the same backfield with McAllister.
On the practice field, Bush has put on displays at times, his amazing moves and quickness opening eyes wide. Payton and Loomis both said they have seen many of those "wow" moments on the practice field, the same moves that made some scouts call him the next Gale Sayers.
There was one of those moments last week in his first preseason game. When Bush was entering the draft, some scouts said he wouldn't be able to outrun the speed of NFL defenses like he did in college at USC. He was known for his cut-back runs, where he would start one way, see it clogged up, change direction and rip off a 65-yard touchdown.
Won't fly in the NFL, they said.
That's what they thought. Against the Titans last week, Bush took a handoff to the left side, saw it clogged up, changed direction to the right side, took a wide turn and outran two defenders with pursuit angles for a 44-yard run.
"They said I couldn't do it," Bush said smiling. "I was eager to prove that I could. It's kind of like I have a chip on my shoulder."
Payton isn't sure about how many carries or touches Bush will get. But with McAllister there, he won't get as many as he might if he was the lone feature back. Bush also has to work on blitz pickups and the nuances of the position, Payton said. He will get some time as a return man, a role in which he dominated at USC.
"We'll balance out the carries," Payton said. "It's a good problem to have. The bad problem is when you don't know who you can give it to."
Bush has already endeared himself to fans in another way -- aside from on the field. Shortly after he was drafted, he walked into one of Emeril Lagasse's restaurants and received a standing ovation. He's also donated $50,000 to help re-open a school that was damaged in the hurricane. Along with Adidas, his shoe company, they donated $85,000 to help re-open a high school stadium that is used by many of the city's schools. It was a stadium that was under 5 feet of water for months, ruining the field and the electrical system. They will play games there when the high-school season opens.
That's the kind of kid he is already, mature beyond his years. This all might be way too overwhelming for some, but Bush embraces it. When the Saints picked Ricky Williams a few years back, he ran from the attention. Not this kid. He loves it -- every minute of it.
That can be tough, too. Everything he does is news. There was the pre-draft story about his family living in a house, courtesy of an agent, which could have been a violation of NCAA rules. It was one of the few missteps in his career -- one that had no bearing at all, despite some might want you to believe -- on his being passed over at No. 1.
When he wanted to wear jersey No. 5, his college number, it became national news. The NFL said no, and he's now wearing No. 25. When he was a holdout to start camp, it was the news of the day on a national level. Last week, when he was fined for wearing Adidas shoes -- not an NFL-sanctioned shoe company -- he was fined $10,000, and it again was big news.
"Yeah, another big story," Bush said. "I guess it will be that way until I'm done playing football."
The good thing about that is that he's OK with it. He is as enjoyable a kid as you can find, unbothered by the enormity of what he's dealing with.
"I wouldn't have it any other way," Bush said. "I'm enjoying it while I can. Someday it can all be taken away."
A city found that out a year ago, which is why New Orleans and Saints fans are so eager to embrace something good. The Savior talk might be a bit much, but don't tell that to the people of this region. That shrieking girl with the big sign is just one of many who can't get enough of Reggie Bush.