American Football: Bush's promise gives New Orleans reason to start hoping again

Except it is not the President but rookie running back Reggie Bush whose arrival at the Saints has lifted the devastated city, writes Nick Halling
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The Independent Online

This time last year, the New Orleans Saints were preparing for the rigours of a new American football season from a headquarters of borrowed offices and playing fields shared with local high schools in San Antonio, Texas.

The players and coaches had been on a road trip in northern California when Hurricane Katrina tore into the Louisiana coastline and engulfed their city. Their training complex under water, their stadium, the Superdome, transformed into a scene of appalling human misery as refugees sought sanctuary under its crumbling roof, the Saints were - like the citizens they represented - homeless and hopeless.

The bedraggled franchise won only three games last season, their coach was fired and there was talk that the Saints might relocate permanently to Texas. But since those dark days of last autumn there has been regeneration in both the city and its only professional sports team.

The Saints are staying put, the Superdome has undergone an extensive facelift and the club have appointed a promising new young coach in Sean Payton who, as a 23-year-old in 1988, had begun his coaching career in the unlikely venue of Leicester in the British American football league.

The gulf between the Leicester Panthers and the National Football League is vast, but then again so is the gap between the Saints and gridiron success. Only one of Payton's 14 predecessors has managed an overall winning record and, as they enter their 40th year, the suffering Saints have compiled one solitary play-off victory.

This year, however, there is renewed optimism in the "Big Easy". A club-record 55,000 season tickets have been sold in advance of the new campaign, which begins this weekend, but in truth the resurgence of interest has little to do with the arrival of Payton or the revamped Superdome.

Instead, the gossip in New Orleans is all about the rookie running back Reggie Bush. If the hype is to be believed, the quietly spoken 21-year-old from San Diego could soon be more famous than his namesake in the White House.

Quite simply, Bush is considered by many experts to be a once-in-a-generation talent. His extraordinary running style enabled his college team, Southern California, to win consecutive national championships, while his exploits led to him winning last year's Heisman Trophy, awarded to college football's most valuable player.

Tipped to be the first player selected in the annual collegiate draft, Bush was preparing for life in Houston, but when the Texans surprisingly drafted elsewhere, New Orleans, picking second, gratefully snapped him up, the city celebrating an unexpected early Mardi Gras.

Since draft day five months ago, Bush has been in the eye of a media frenzy, but he appears unimpressed by his celebrity. "You take it for what it is, and enjoy it while you have it, but at the same time you have to stay humble," he said. "I'm determined to enjoy it, because it can be taken away from you at any time, but my feet are on the ground.

"I have been fortunate to have good people around me," Bush added. "I came from a good family. They raised me well, kept me level-headed."

Blessed with an abundance of talent, Bush boasts other qualities which suggest a person of genuine depth. "He's very exciting to watch, but what impresses me most is that he is a respectful gentleman," the veteran receiver Joe Horn said. "He shows me a lot on and off the football field. He is articulate, very mature and has obviously been groomed well."

"He is one of the most talented athletes I have ever seen," the quarterback Drew Brees said. "Give him the ball in space and he will make people miss, and suddenly its 70 yards and a touchdown. There are a lot of expectations, but it seems he can handle them. He's humble, but very confident in his ability. He understands that expectations are high but he is working very hard to meet them."

What has impressed Horn and Brees most, however, is the youngster's dedication to the rebuilding of his adopted city. Horn has long been a passionate advocate for the displaced, while Brees, who arrived in New Orleans from San Diego in the off-season, has demonstrated his solidarity by buying a downtown apartment instead of living in one of the more affluent suburbs.

Bush has followed suit, and has also been active in a number of regeneration campaigns. A rich man as a result of his six-year, $62m (£33.5m) deal, the new kid in town has proved prompt in sharing his wealth. He is active in the Yard by Yard foundation, which aims to build 25 new properties in New Orleans this year, has donated money to keep open a special needs school, funded for a new artificial football field for use by local schools and is loaning a fleet of vehicles to the police department in Slidell, Louisiana, which remains badly flooded a year on.

"The entire region is in need of a winner, something to think about other than the daily problems of Katrina," said Rob Callahan, Slidell's police captain. "Reggie Bush is, for want of a better word, a god. I don't think there's anyone here who doesn't know what he's doing for victims of the hurricane."

Without playing a single game for the Saints, Bush has already become a symbol of hope for a beleaguered population. It is a responsibility he appears happy to accept. "It is going to take a lot of work to bring New Orleans back on its feet. We at the Saints are going to do our part to help get that done and hopefully we can be a light and an inspiration to the city. I embrace that. It is both a privilege and a blessing to be in this position.

"I'm not trying to be a saviour, and I don't need to be praised for it. I'm just doing what I think anybody else would do in my position."

Bush has spent much of the summer learning the finer points of the professional game at the humble Millsaps College campus in Jackson, Mississippi. The Saints' practice field stands in the shadow of the Jackson State Tigers stadium. It was here that the legendary Walter Payton played his college football before going on to glory with the Chicago Bears.

Like Bush, Payton was an extraordinary running-back talent, one of the best in the history of the sport. He, too, was respected for his commitment to those in need. Following his premature death from liver cancer at the age of 45 in 1999, the NFL renamed their Man of the Year award the Walter Payton Trophy, given annually to the player who has provided most to the less well-off.

Parallels between the two are irresistible. "Walter Payton was one of my idols growing up," said Bush. "He was one of the best ever to play the game. It is an honour just being in the shadow of that stadium." Were he alive today, the great man would doubtless look at Reggie Bush and recognise a kindred spirit.