THE PLAY starts with such promise for Charles Burnley. A gunner on Oregon State's punt coverage unit, he gets a great release off the line of scrimmage and beats his blocker. Booking down the field, he slices through the mist in Corvallis on this November 2004 night, his Beavers trailing Southern Cal by a point early in the fourth quarter. All week Burnley's coaches had hammered home the dangers presented by Trojans return man Reggie Bush, who at this moment is ranging far to his right to field a punt most players would let roll out-of-bounds.
Burnley is bearing down on Bush, has him pinned against the sideline and sized up for a zoo hit, a SportsCenter-caliber undressing. But it never happens. With the gunner four yards out and closing, Bush feints right--toward the sideline--but Burnley isn't buying. So Bush jukes toward the open field, and Burnley takes the bait. Then Bush spins back to the right, and the gunner whiffs, hurtling past the USC player, his arms outstretched like Superman.
Essentially, Bush has eluded a tackler in a phone booth, but he's still got trouble. Skirting the sideline, he is hemmed in by a half dozen Beavers. This time Bush reverses the order of his fakes--left, right, then an explosive move back to the outside, to daylight. This is the burst that wrong-foots his pursuers, buckling their knees, immersing them in some unseen Class III rapid that leaves them at war with their own momentum, reaching vainly upstream.
Bush makes those six moves in a space of five yards, in little more than two seconds. Seven seconds after that he is in the end zone, celebrating a 65-yard punt return. USC wins 28--20.
"Sometimes I go back and watch myself [on tape]," says Bush, a 6-foot, 200-pound junior. "To be honest, I'm not really conscious of what I'm doing while I'm doing it. Even after, I don't really remember what I did."
THE TROJANS' undefeated run to the national championship last year can be attributed in part to the Reggie Factor, which has corollaries that speak to the futility of trying to contain Bush--the first of which Burnley is now familiar with: Life isn't fair. You can do everything right, be in perfect position to stop him, and Bush will still hurt you.
"I think he's the best player in college football," says the best player in college football, USC quarterback and 2004 Heisman Trophy winner Matt Leinart, passing judgment on his teammate. "With his ability to change a game in one play, to make a defense look silly, to be a threat to score every time he touches the ball, there's no one else like him. He's the best."
"He's a tailback on one snap, a receiver on another," says Bob Gregory, defensive coordinator at Cal, the last team to beat USC, in September 2003. "They'll put him in the slot or motion him out of the backfield to try and get a mismatch."
"Bush can hurt you so many ways," says Arizona coach Mike Stoops. "You're more conscious of him than you are of Leinart."
Corollary II: Even when it looks like he's not in position to hurt you, he's probably going to hurt you. Says Trojans coach Pete Carroll, "He's such a dynamic force that you have to know where he is, whether he's getting the ball or not. You have to watch him and do something about him."
In USC's 55--19 rout of Oklahoma in the Orange Bowl last January, Leinart threw five touchdown passes while Bush had a good, but not great, night: six carries for 75 yards, two catches for 31, two kickoff returns for 36 yards and a seven-yard punt return. But look beyond the numbers. Look at how the first of three Leinart touchdown passes to wideout Steve Smith was set up by Bush's merely going in motion. It's almost comical now to watch the Sooners scrambling to Defcon 1, three of them peeling off in Bush's direction. They leave behind a vacuum that is quickly filled by Smith, who snags the five-yard scoring toss.
Opponents, by all means, must be aware of Bush. They should not, however, announce their intentions. In the second half of a game last November against Notre Dame, Bush heard Irish linebacker Brandon Hoyte calling his number, "I got 5!"
Major mistake. "Basically, he was telling me he had me in one-on-one coverage," says Bush. "He was telling us we were going to score a touchdown before we scored a touchdown." Bush's own shadow has trouble keeping up with him, so a 231-pound linebacker has no shot. Bush was five yards behind Hoyte when Leinart released the ball, and the play turned into a 69-yard touchdown.
That was one of seven touchdowns he scored on receptions last season, to go with six rushing and two on returns. He had 34 plays that went longer than 20 yards, including eight that exceeded 50. His yards per touch (or, as Carroll calls it, his "slugging percentage") was ridiculously high: 10.1. Yet Bush seems mildly chagrined by those numbers. For one thing his rushing attempts were relatively low (143), especially compared with Oklahoma running back Adrian Peterson's 339. "At the Heisman ceremony," Bush recalls, "I'm sitting up there with Matt and Adrian and [Sooners quarterback] Jason White. They've got all these great numbers, and I'm there based on," he says, pausing for a beat, "athletic ability."
Well, Bush was also there because, of the top 10 most breathtaking moments of last season, he must have had half of them. One week before the punt return for a touchdown at Oregon State, there was a slightly less mind-bending version at Washington State. Then there were the electrifying 65- and 81-yard runs in the first half against UCLA. And don't forget the zigzagging 33-yard punt return that fueled USC's late comeback win at Stanford. While Peterson may have outrushed Bush, 1,925 yards to 908, he didn't have to share the ball with nearly as many offensive stars. On every snap this year Leinart must again choose from among a handful of future pros: Bush, tailback LenDale White (thunder to Bush's lightning), wideouts Smith and Dwayne Jarrett and tight end Dominique Byrd. "In a lot of situations I'm a decoy, but I've adjusted to it," says Bush. "That's part of football, and it's going to make me better."
suiting up for the Grossmont Warriors during his Pop Warner days in his native San Diego, Bush got all the touches he wanted. "In his first game he had seven touchdowns and 287 yards," recalls his mother, Denise Griffin.
"In his third game he had eight touchdowns and 544 yards," says his stepfather, Lamar Griffin. "He still does his stuff, but back then there was more spinning and cutting."
"When he was small, he'd play keepaway with the neighborhood kids, and all these moves would just come out," adds Denise, smiling. "He'd get such a kick out of faking them out--he would just crack up. He still gets joy from that."
Denise grew up in a devout household in San Diego, but, she says, "I went a little wild when I got out on my own." She gave birth to Reggie when she was 19 and met Lamar when Reggie was two years old; they were married three years later. Reggie has had sporadic contact with his father (also named Reggie Bush), although, Lamar points out, "he's been calling me Dad since he was five." Denise is a deputy sheriff at the Vista (Calif.) Detention Facility, and Lamar is a high school security officer and also preaches at the Life Changing International Church Ministries in San Diego. They strive to pass on their strong faith to Reggie and their son Jovan. "[Reggie] doesn't spend as much time in the Word as he should," says Denise, "but he knows where his strength comes from."
At Helix High in La Mesa, where Bill Walton once roamed the hardwood, "it became apparent very early on," says principal Doug Smith, "that Reggie had a special feel for the game, a special sense of balance, an awareness of where he was on the field." But even then, says Smith, Bush was but one contributor among many to the football team's success. Another was the principal's son, Alex, the quarterback who went on to Utah and became the top pick in last spring's NFL draft (by the San Francisco 49ers). Two wideouts, Todd Watkins and Charles Smith (no relation to Alex), play at BYU and Washington, respectively.
"Reggie didn't bitch" about not getting as many touches as he could have, says Alex Smith. "There were times he might have been frustrated because he knew he could beat someone. But he wasn't the guy coming back to the huddle saying, 'I'm open! I'm open!'"
At 6 a.m. one August morning before Bush's senior season, Helix coach Donnie Van Hook was startled to hear an intruder pumping iron in the school's weight room. It was Bush. "I said, 'Reggie, what are you doing here?'" recalls Van Hook. "He said, 'Doesn't practice start today?'" Bush was two days early. "Here he is, a senior, getting recruited by everyone in the country, climbing in a window 10 feet off the ground in the dark so he can lift weights before practice," continues Van Hook. "What else do you need to know about the kid?"
That year Bush rushed for 1,691 yards on 140 carries (a 12.1-yard average) and 27 touchdowns--despite missing four games with a broken wrist--as Helix advanced to the CIF San Diego Section Division II finals. He was recruited by every Pac-10 school and by other big-time programs. Ty Willingham, the Notre Dame coach at the time, made a strong impression on Bush, but South Bend seemed too cold and too far from home. Originally opposed to USC--"He didn't like the area," says Lamar--Bush finally agreed to visit, persuaded in part by Carroll's extensive NFL background. When he watched the Trojans practice, Bush was impressed by how hard the players worked. And while coaches at other programs told him he would start right away, Bush says, the USC staff "kept it real. They didn't make all the promises in the world. They weren't blowing smoke."
In fact, Bush did not start as a freshman, but he announced his arrival by averaging 5.8 yards on 90 carries and leading the Pac-10 in kickoff returns, the first Trojan to do so since Anthony Davis in 1974. Equally impressive was fellow freshman White, whose 754 rushing yards led the team. While Bush was used as a multithreat weapon, White did most of his work between the tackles. That the two backs became more deeply set in those roles last season could be an issue for Bush down the road. "I've talked to NFL coaches and scouts who question whether he can run between the tackles," says Alex Smith. "Because of the system [the Trojans] have, he's getting labeled as a tweener."
"With the pounding [NFL runners] take, I don't know if he can be an every-down back," says one NFL coach. "How many 195-pound running backs are there in this league?"
Bush relishes the opportunity to prove the skeptics wrong. "I'm definitely waiting for the time I can be the premier back," he says, "when I can get 25, 30 carries a game." No one at USC will be surprised if he skips his last year of eligibility and enters the draft next spring.
the funny thing about Bush is the often spectacular divergence between where the play is designed to go and where he ends up taking it. Both of his punt returns for touchdowns last season were set up as "red return--or right return," says Dennis Slutak, USC's director of football operations, who worked with the special teams last year. "Both of them ended up being return right, Reggie left. And that's O.K."
But what's it like trying to block for Bush in that situation? "It may throw us off, setting up for a return right and Reggie going left, but you've got to figure it's going to throw off the other team more," says senior linebacker Dallas Sartz. "The thing with Reggie is, he's never going to give up on the play, so we can't either."
Excitable Sam Anno, USC's new special teams coach, says, "No matter where you have your guy, Reggie's able to make a play. If you block the guy this way, Reggie will take it this way"--Anno is pretending to be Bush, high-stepping past defenders--"and the guy who's blocked that way, he'll be influenced. Know what I mean?"
Not remotely, Sam, but thanks for reminding us of Corollary III: So sublime are Bush's moves that they often defy description, forcing middle-aged men to attempt to reenact them. If it wasn't Anno, turning the heads of baffled coeds with his impersonation of Bush in front of Heritage Hall, it was Slutak pirouetting woodenly as he expounded on Bush's "straight-out speed and elusiveness." Earlier that day sports information director Tim Tessalone had risen from behind his desk, tucked an imaginary ball under his right arm and tried to explain: "Reggie leads you to a spot, gets you close to him, and then he jukes."
All-World S.I.D. though Tessalone may be, his juke needs lots of work. Thus does the Reggie Factor exert its powerful influence, stripping opponents and admirers alike of their dignity.
Bush seems mildly chagrined by last season's stats, but of the top 10 most BREATHTAKING MOMENTS of 2004, he must have had half of them.