As the incandescent star of Reggie Bush brightens to a global scale, the world’s most exciting athlete has become as elusive off the field as on.
Still, when I learned a few months ago that he would be effectively falling into my lap last weekend — to accept the Walter Camp Football Foundation’s annual Player of the Year award and be honored with the rest of the All-American team at Commons — I promised myself I would at least try for an interview.
Since the event had nothing to do with the NFL or money, I immediately ruled out Bush’s agent, Joel Segal, and turned to the college ranks.
On Feb. 2 I bore my soul in a long e-mail to USC Sports Information Director Tim Tessalone. In the final draft, I reminded him that we had spoken once last summer, outlined my article idea, mentioned that I had interviewed USC players before, provided a link to a recent story, and humbly acknowledged how unlikely an interview would be anyway. Ten minutes later — the joy of working with SIDs, who are perpetually tethered to their Blackberries, is their invariable promptness — Tessalone responded, in all lower-case letters, that he would not be making the trip, and that I ought to try the people at Walter Camp.
The people at Walter Camp are Al Carbone and Al Paolillo, two vestiges of a hiring policy that seems to require last names ending in vowels. I edited my Tessalone e-mail and sent it to Carbone, the foundation’s PR chairman. He, too, got back to me quickly, and even gave me a sliver of hope: “I’ll add you to our media list.”
Last Thursday, when he finally e-mailed me again, I learned that I could attend Friday’s media brunch at the Omni. When I arrived, however, there was no Reggie. He would be taking a red-eye flight from Los Angeles in time to attend Saturday’s banquet, giving Friday morning the awkward feel of a surprise party pre-surprise.
There were a few sights to savor, like the wrinkles on antediluvian kicker Morten Andersen’s face and the bling and strut of former UConn quarterback Dan Orlovsky, the foundation’s reigning two-time Connecticut Player of the Year who now, as a third-stringer with the Detroit Lions, is fawned over only in the Nutmeg State.
The only first-team All-Americans who made it to brunch were the kicker and the punter, for whom my fellow scribes, from the New Haven Register, Hartford Courant and the like, found similarly little use. The first question asked of Ryan Plackemeier, the punter from Wake Forest, was: “Being from San Diego, did you play against Reggie in high school?”
To John Sullivan, the Notre Dame center being honored as the 2005 Connecticut Player of the Year: “In the NFL Draft, if you were a general manager, would you take [Bush] or [USC quarterback Matt Leinart]?”
Indeed, it was a jarring disappointment — and perhaps one endemic to the college sportswriter — to expect one kind of Trojan and end up, as I did that afternoon reading the “Aeneid” in Latin class, with quite another.
When we finally met, I asked Carbone if my article idea — to take Bush on a brief tour of campus — might still work for Saturday.
“Not a chance,” he said, struggling to hold back his laughter. “But, to be honest, maybe one of the more low-profile guys would be interested in doing something.”
Swallowing my pride, after the brunch I approached Mason Crosby, Colorado’s junior placekicker. Crosby, in a long, convoluted way, had some Yale connection, and he and that person and everyone in between were planning on walking around campus the next day. He invited me along and promised to call in the morning.
But I was eventually stood up. Stood up by a kicker.
I considered sullying his likeness in my NCAA 2006 video game — a sort of voodoo vengeance — but eventually thought better of it. After all, today was the day I was going to meet Reggie Bush.
Alas, there were still more hoops to jump through. When I arrived at the Omni at 1:30, I asked Paolillo, who was entering an elevator, how to proceed.
“Reggie’s asleep,” he said. “Didn’t Al call you?”
We rescheduled for 3:30.
I arrived early, and was all but frisked by Atlanta Falcons owner Arthur Blank’s private security team. Bush came late, and flanked by two of Tony Soprano’s top ruffians.
As he approached, I, like hundreds of defensive backs before me, crumbled in fear. To my delight, however, Bush chose not to juke me out and instead went straight for the handshake.
In person, away from the hulking offensive linemen who generally plow his path, Bush is broader than expected. Perhaps a hair shorter than his listed height of six feet, Bush looks like he could be a power back, his muscles seeming to ripple through his tuxedo — even while still groggy from a nap. His body is a model of efficiency, with every part built for speed and performance as if it were designed by German auto engineers.
On the field, Bush’s ability to go 0-60, 60-0 and change directions faster than a Family Guy non-sequitur have been well documented. But the skills in the Bush vernacular operate in more than two dimensions. He leaps effortlessly, as UCLA cornerback Marcus Cassel can attest. To Bush, the goal line is not merely a line; it is a plane rising from the ground to however high he wishes to soar.
Bush, New Haven Register columnist Dave Solomon and I talked for 15 minutes about his career at USC, his prospects in the NFL and what he’s like off the field.
On Texas quarterback Vince Young’s fourth-down touchdown run that gave the Longhorns this season’s national title: “I don’t play defense, but it made me want to play defense.”
On his transcendent fame: “I’m just a normal guy in general. I know a lot of people see me as a celebrity, but I like to do normal things like hang out with my friends, go shopping, play video games.”
USC wide receiver Dwayne Jarrett, Bush’s fellow Walter Camp All-American, similarly shrugs off the acclaim.
“We’re regular kids; we just live in L.A.,” he said. “I signed up on [facebook.com]. One friend, she was begging me to do it. When I went on, I had 245 messages and 6,400 people requesting to be my friend. I can’t keep up with it, so I just decided to leave it alone.”
When asked about the Houston Texans, who hold the first pick in April’s NFL Draft and are widely expected to select Bush, after signing quarterback David Carr to a contract extension, Bush was coy.
“It tells me that they still like David Carr,” he said.
One of the most arresting qualities about the 2005 Heisman Trophy winner is his humility. He appreciates the comparisons to Gale Sayers and Barry Sanders, however tiresome they get, and speaks of his preternatural skills matter-of-factly. He even admitted that he is prepared for some rookie growing pains, should they beset him next fall.
“Even at SC, my freshman year I experienced failure,” he said. “My freshman year I had trouble catching kickoffs. Hopefully that won’t happen at the next level, but I think you have to experience failure in order to succeed.”
And just like that, Bush said his good-byes and was off in a whirlwind of glad-handing and posing, back to the world where he is the most sought-after interview, all but untouchable to would-be tacklers and journalists alike.
In the end, my pursuit of Bush went a lot better but than those of Pac-10 defenses. Call it a shoestring tackle.