Reggie Bush and USC get Heisman Trophy back 14 years after it was forfeited

USC tailback back Reggie Bush pauses while delivering his Heisman Trophy acceptance speech in 2005

Reggie Bush, after years spent fighting to retake his place among college football’s most prestigious fraternity, is finally getting his Heisman Trophy back.

The Heisman Trust had for years dragged its feet in acknowledging the legendary Trojan running back as its 2005 winner after he forfeited the trophy in 2010 amid major NCAA sanctions against USC that found he had accepted improper benefits. Bush had pushed harder in recent years to see his trophy returned, even going so far as to sue the NCAA for defamation. Still, the trust continued to balk at the possibility.

But that tone changed abruptly on Wednesday as the trust announced it was officially reinstating Bush, a decision the organization said was spurred by the upheaval in the college sports landscape.  

“We are thrilled to welcome Reggie Bush back to the Heisman family in recognition of his collegiate accomplishments,” Michael Comerford, the president of the Heisman Trust, said in a statement. “We considered the enormous changes in college athletics over the last several years in deciding that now is the right time to reinstate the Trophy for Reggie. We are so happy to welcome him back.”

Read more: Plaschke: Enough is enough. Give Reggie Bush back his Heisman Trophy

To Bush, one of the most electric talents in college football history, the decision to return the trophy marked a major moment of vindication after nearly two decades spent declaring he’d done nothing wrong.

The former Trojan running back reiterated that belief on Wednesday as he celebrated a decision he called “a personal victory” and “a validation of the tireless efforts of my supporters.”

Bush made clear through his attorneys that in no way had he apologized to the Heisman Trust or shown contrition for the NCAA violations that led to him relinquishing the trophy .

“I have always acted with integrity and in accordance with the rules and regulations set forth by the NCAA,” Bush said. “The allegations brought against me were unfounded and unsupported by evidence, and I am grateful that the truth is finally prevailing.”

As part of his reinstatement, the 2005 trophy will be officially returned to Bush, while a replica will once again sit in the lobby of USC's Heritage Hall, alongside the record seven other Heisman trophies won by Trojan football players. Bush will also be invited back to all future Heisman ceremonies, beginning in December.

“This is a momentous day for Reggie Bush and the entire USC community as we celebrate the rightful return of his Heisman Trophy,” USC athletic director Jennifer Cohen said. “Reggie’s impact at USC and on college football as a whole is truly unmatched. He has displayed the utmost resiliency and heart throughout this process and is so deserving of every accolade and trophy he’s ever received. We are grateful to the Heisman Trophy Trust for making this happen."

USC, which now boasts more Heisman winners than any other university, hadn’t always been so publicly supportive of Bush’s plight. But leaders at the school celebrated the decision Wednesday. University President Carol Folt said in a statement that Bush “deserved to have his well-earned honor restored,” while head football coach Lincoln Riley declared Wednesday “a historic day.”

“For a long time, the Heisman and USC have been synonymous,” Riley said in a statement, “and being able to acknowledge all eight of our winners is extraordinary.”

One of those winners, Matt Leinart, wasn’t sure he’d ever see the 2005 trophy returned to his superstar teammate.

“Everybody knows how long of a road this was, over 10 years in the making,” Leinart, the 2004 winner, said in a video posted on social media. “But better late than never.”

The sudden reversal from the Heisman Trust comes not only after years of public pressure, both from Bush and other trophy winners, but also amid a new paradigm that allows college athletes to be compensated for their name, image and likeness.

It was new rules governing NIL, passed back in 2021, that initially spurred Bush to begin lobbying publicly for his trophy’s return. The Heisman Trust expressed a willingness to welcome Bush back at the time but passed the responsibility of that decision on to the NCAA, which still refused to acknowledge Bush’s official statistics and records from his 2005 trophy-winning season.

The NCAA refused to budge on Bush. So the Trust, hewing tightly to its rules, stood pat.

Read more: NCAA says Reggie Bush won't get his Heisman Trophy back despite new NIL rules

“Bush’s 2005 season records remain vacated by the NCAA and, as a result, under the rule set forth by the Heisman Trust and stated on the Heisman Ballot, he is not eligible to be awarded the 2005 Heisman Memorial Trophy,” the trust’s statement read at the time.

A torrent of backlash followed. Bush criticized the trust at the time and noted that Comerford, the organization’s new president, had refused to return his phone calls.

Three years later, the Heisman Trust pointed to the same changes to college athletics as the reason for its about-face on Bush.

“Recognizing that the compensation of student athletes is an accepted practice and appears here to stay, these fundamental changes in college athletics led the Trust to decide that now is the right time to return the Trophy to Bush, who unquestionably was the most outstanding college football player of 2005,” it said.

Few players, if any, in the storied history of college football have managed to captivate the sport quite like Bush. His presence in the Trojans' backfield would be central to one of the most dominant runs that sport ever saw. As a junior in 2005, he rushed for 1,740 yards, averaging a stunning 8.7 yards per carry, and scored 19 total touchdowns as USC mounted a dominant run before falling short to Texas in the 2005 BCS national championship game at the Rose Bowl.

Read more: Who is behind all those billboards demanding return of Reggie Bush’s Heisman Trophy?

But months later, reports surfaced that Bush and his family had accepted impermissible benefits from two prospective sports agents during his Heisman season that included cash, travel expenses and a rent-free San Diego-area home. A four-year investigation by the NCAA ultimately led it in June 2010 to issue some of the harshest sanctions in its history against USC, which was forced to vacate the 2004 national title as well as 14 games Bush played in, relinquish 30 scholarships and permanently disassociate from its famed running back.

Any mention of Bush at USC was erased. Every image was scrubbed, and all records from his tenure as a Trojan were tagged with an asterisk. Bush forfeited his Heisman Trophy in September 2010, becoming the first winner in history to relinquish the prestigious award.

For a decade, the university was left unable to even acknowledge the existence of one of its foremost football legends. The NCAA finally loosened its rules on disassociation bans, allowing Bush to officially be welcomed back to campus in June 2020. Still, hurt feelings between Bush and USC would linger.

Bush, who was inducted into the College Football Hall of Fame in 2023, would still have to fight a bit longer to see his trophy returned. Last August, Bush took his most substantive step toward that end by suing the NCAA for its claim that he accepted "pay for play" while at USC.

At a news conference announcing his lawsuit, Bush said he dreamed of coming back to the L.A. Coliseum and running out of the tunnel to see his No. 5 jersey hanging at the peristyle end of the stadium.

“But I can’t rightfully do that without my Heisman Trophy," Bush said.

In recent years, as the tides of change continued to turn in college sports, others took up that fight alongside him. The university began to push behind the scenes, spurred by new leadership in the athletic department. Billboards demanding his trophy’s return popped up all over Los Angeles. Other Heisman winners offered their full-throated support, adding to a cacophony of voices calling for Bush to get his Heisman back.

Those voices were finally heard Wednesday, as the bronze trophy was finally back with Bush, who’d been waiting 14 years to hoist it once again.

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This story originally appeared in Los Angeles Times.