Heisman winner produces

Published 3:48 pm Thursday, September 14, 2006

When members of the Archdiocese of New Orleans started referring to him as Saint Reginald, Reggie Bush suspected he was meant to play here — and play well.

So far, so good, and so much more to come, Bush says.

“I just felt I was close to breaking” a long run, Bush said Wednesday, recalling his workmanlike performance in the New Orleans Saints’ season-opening victory at Cleveland. “I was only one step away.”

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In his NFL debut, last year’s Heisman Trophy winner ran 14 times for 61 yards, caught eight passes for 58 yards, and returned three punts for 22 yards.

His longest run was 18 yards, yet his dependable, modest gains helped sustain enough scoring drives to help secure a road victory for a team that went 3-13 last season, hired a new coach and replaced more than half its roster by the time training camp ended.

“He played within himself. He didn’t try to do anything crazy,” quarterback Drew Brees said. “He played solid.”

Not the spinning, zigzagging, jaw-dropping touchdown runs that became Bush’s trademark in college, but there’s plenty of time for that.

“I’m going to make plays regardless. They may not all be big plays, flashy plays, home runs, but I’m going to make plays,” Bush promised. “When I touch the ball, I’m going to be exciting. That’s just me. That’s my personality. That’s just the way I play.”

Around here, fans expect nothing less.

The day he was drafted, some people who had lost everything during Hurricane Katrina attended the festivities at Saints headquarters and celebrated like they had hit the lottery. Ticket sales, already picking up steam with Brees’ arrival, sailed into uncharted territory.

The Saints have broken season-ticket sales records and need to sell fewer than 2,000 more to sell out all 68,354 seats in the refurbished Louisiana Superdome for the entire season.

New Orleans’ first home isn’t until Sept. 25, a Monday night matchup with the Atlanta Falcons. Already, Saints jerseys or T-shirts with Bush’s No. 25 are omnipresent in the metro area.

Yet what impresses Bush most is the reception he has received from the locals.

A particularly poignant moment for him came when he donated $50,000 to a Catholic school for special needs children. The Archdiocese presented him with a plaque depicting Saint Reginald of Orleans, who lived in France about eight centuries ago — prompting some to suggest he take the nickname Saint Reginald of New Orleans.

Meanwhile, schoolchildren went wild, as did administrators and parents, when Bush got up on stage.

The scene nearly moved Bush to tears.

“I wasn’t expecting it to be that big, that magnitude,” Bush recalled. “They had the whole school in there, parents were in there. It was really touching.”

Bush has since recalled how it became apparent when he toured some of the neighborhoods hardest hit by Katrina that his success on the field could lift the spirits of a recovering, football-mad region.

He organized the donation of several Hummers to a suburban police department, recently delivered several tons of food to needy families and has put up $86,000 to help fix storm damage at one of the main high school football stadiums in the city.

If his competitive side caused him any disappointment about being passed over as the No. 1 draft pick by Houston last spring, his perspective has changed.

“I feel like God has a plan for everybody and it was in his plan to have me here,” Bush said. “While I’m here I’m going to make the most of it.”

That kind of attitude could bring a lot of joy to New Orleans — and headaches for opposing defenses, which are already spending much of their preparation time for the Saints on coming up with ways to contain the dynamic rookie.

Bush heard about that from several Browns defenders after his first game.

“They told me they were focusing on bracketing me and they said they were pretty sure it was going to be like that the rest of my life,” Bush said.

Having shown a knack for being supremely confident without coming off as arrogant, Bush has little doubt he can handle it.

Neither do his teammates.

“Reggie’s a guy who’s very versatile. We can do a lot of things with him,” Brees said. “He is a very confident guy. He feels like he can do everything. … The guy’s got all the talent in the world, and I know with his work ethic it’s going to turn into a great achievement for him.”