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NEW ORLEANS – One by one on Saturday night, the extended palms came out of the crowds gathered in seemingly every corner of the Louisiana Superdome. And Reggie Bush(notes) wanted to oblige them all, because this is how it was supposed to be.
Only hours earlier, prior to the New Orleans Saints rolling over the Arizona Cardinals 45-14, Bush was huddled on the field with Brad Pitt, the Hollywood icon whose philanthropic works in post-Hurricane Katrina New Orleans had facilitated a friendship between the two men. A few cameras swooped in to catch the semiprivate moment, capturing an embrace that would eventually seem to extend to the furthest fan in the furthest row in the house. Bush would feel the love from all of them, too, as the New Orleans faithful exploded in unison after a pair of pivotal touchdowns. It was an outpouring of affection that grew to include handshakes, hugs, slaps on the back … and even a postgame peck on the cheek from Saints coach Sean Payton, who doesn't make a habit of such displays.
It was a single-serving victory parade, marching through the intersection of where have you been? and how long will you stay?.
It certainly wasn't difficult to draw the parallels. We moved to the edge of our seats when Bush pancaked Cardinals cornerback Dominique Rodgers-Cromartie(notes) on his first touch of the game, a seven-yard gain that ended with a shoulder-driven declaration. We felt the surge of adrenaline on his 46-yard touchdown run, which saw Bush bounce off a tackle and then leave Arizona defensive end Calais Campbell(notes) diving into vapor. And when Bush made the decisive cut on his 83-yard punt return for a touchdown, we could only blink in awe and wonder whether we were finally seeing the player we had expected for so long.
There should be no illusions – this is what the outside world has craved for so long from Bush. In the pantheon of sport, pulse-quickening brilliance is a drug, and four seasons ago Bush seemed destined to be an NFL addiction.
That reality puts Saturday into an even sharper perspective. When Bush has a performance like the one (217 all-purpose yards) against the Cardinals, it has a way of instantly resurrecting the immense hopes and predictions placed on him when he entered the 2006 NFL draft. We get teased, and it makes us think that Bush hasn't quite passed his window of potential greatness. It's the very reason why, despite putting up only 725 yards from scrimmage this season, he still graced more Sports Illustrated covers (one) than Tennessee Titans running back Chris Johnson, who rushed for 2,006 yards and nearly tripled Bush's total output on the field this season.
And so here we are again, looking at Bush and wondering if the player lost in the Saints' sea of talent might end up being the component that brings it all together. You could even argue that this is what Payton had in mind months ago, when he talked to Saints general manager Mickey Loomis about limiting Bush's workload and unleashing him in the postseason, when he would be fresh and ready to hit his stride.
"A few months ago," Payton said, "I told [Reggie], 'Just keep chopping the wood and keep working hard. You're too explosive of a player [not to be a factor].' "
That philosophy was in full display against Arizona, with Bush looking as healthy and running as hard as arguably any point in his career. That's a testament to what he has done since having to undergo microfracture surgery on the left knee that plagued him in both 2007 and 2008. The procedure creates small bone fractures to help alleviate pain caused by cartilage damage. Depending on the amount of damage and the extent of the surgery, it can be considered one of the more precarious procedures for athletes.
"It's a tough feeling when you hear that word, 'microfracture'," Bush said. "It's kind of a gut-wrenching feeling you get because it's one of the toughest injuries. … That type of injury is pretty extensive. It really takes a full year to be yourself. You can play at six months, seven months, but you really won't be 100-percent healthy until about a full year."
Bush marked that full year earlier this month, then in his own way celebrated that milestone with his performance against the Cardinals. But he wanted to go a step farther, too, after continuing to hear the label "draft bust" attached to his name more consistently this season. Whether it was the critics who said he wasn't a player who could run between the tackles, or had too much finesse in his game to deliver a blow, he decided before facing Arizona that he would make a point of showing that he was entirely back and capable of being stronger, tougher and just as dominant as we expected him to be when he entered the league.
It's part of the reason why he so readily took Payton's slightly cheesy "laying the wood" speech to heart last Friday night, when the coach presented the team with baseball bats meant to symbolize their commitment to being tough and physical against Arizona. Bush embraced it like no other, running out onto the field with his bat, and then running over Rodgers-Cromartie on his first carry.
"If anybody was going to set the tone for the day, I was definitely going to take that into my hands," Bush said of his first play.
Added Saints running back Pierre Thomas(notes): "When I see that, I'm saying to myself, 'Man, that kid is unbelievable.' Seeing him all the years in college and the things he could do, I knew he had it in him. He really made me proud when I saw him just lowering his shoulder and knocking guys over and breaking tackles. I knew it was in him."
The question now: What comes next? That has always been the trick with Bush. He has put up brilliant games on the big stage before. But sustaining that success has been as elusive as anything.
Not that he acts like someone who thinks his window to greatness has closed. He still carries with him an aura of someone who expects success. As he straightened himself Saturday night, buttoning his vest and tugging on the fabric of his suit, you could look at the environment orbiting around him and see the fit. A host of camera crews had all lined up outside the locker room, with producers locked in combat as they sought out quick one-on-one interviews. His mother, Denise, wandered through the crowd with a beaming smile. Even his former business manager, Mike Ornstein, was engaged with a few national writers, doling out analogies to Bush's success.
In the middle of it, Bush seemed to be absorbing the moment. He was the last player slated to take the stage for the press conference – the main event, just as it was supposed to be.
Maybe it was Sharper who summed it up best as he recounted the moment.
"He's still young. He still has a chance to do all of those things that were expected. He can still be great."