Reggie Bush says getting Heisman back is better than he ever imagined

Through his decade in exile, Reggie Bush never lost faith that this day would come. Even when no path forth appeared to exist and no one seemed to share in his same steadfast belief. Even as the world branded him a cheater and fans blamed him for USC’s steep fall from grace. Even as his university turned its back and the NCAA assured him it would fight to the bitter end, clinging to the crumbling facade of amateurism, Bush never doubted that someday, somehow he’d have his vindication. Because of that, he held tight to the notion all along that he’d done nothing wrong, telling as much to anyone who’d listen.

It would take 14 years, landscape-altering changes to the model of college athletics, shifting swells of public support and a high-priced team of attorneys, but finally this week, from a conference room in Jacksonville, Fla., surrounded by other Heisman winners, Bush felt that smooth, bronze vindication between his fingers once again.

The moment, he said, was “better than I ever imagined it would be.”

The Heisman Trophy was back with USC’s legendary running back, back in its rightful place after being stripped away in 2010, back thanks to what his attorneys called a “courageous” decision from the Heisman Trust, as the group broke rank from the NCAA to officially reinstate Bush as the 2005 winner.

By the next morning, Bush glided through the upper terrace of the Coliseum, just as smoothly as he’d glided on the field below two decades earlier, toting his 2005 trophy with him as if he’d won it for a second time.

“I know there have been millions of doubters out there,” Bush said. “And hopefully, now those people can see what we’ve been saying all along is true.”

But Thursday’s news conference, called to celebrate the trophy’s return, would prove to be more of an opening salvo than a final victory lap. The defamation lawsuit he’d filed against the NCAA eight months earlier would still march on as planned. Bush, his attorney, Ben Crump, assured, “was ready to have his day in court”.

“This is just the beginning of the journey to getting full justice,” Crump said.

For so long, the trophy had been tantamount to Bush’s cause, a weighty bronze symbol of all the damage that had been done to his reputation when the NCAA stripped away his records and statistics, along with USC’s 2004 national title, following an investigation that found he accepted improper benefits from two aspiring sports marketers. The trophy was at the center of every public outcry around Bush. The trophy, thanks to former USC donor Brian Kennedy, was on billboards all over town, demanding its return.

The hardware had always been the point, and here it was, sitting on a pedestal on top of the Coliseum, where Bush once starred, looking triumphant as ever against the backdrop of downtown Los Angeles. But now, with it safely near, the focus had shifted from the trophy to something less tangible than a massive hunk of bronze.

“It was more being labeled a cheater,” Bush said, when asked why he’d fought so hard for the Heisman’s return. “The trophy, I guess, was the icing on the cake – it being taken away from me. But being labeled a cheater was far worse. Because I never cheated. And there’s no proof of that, that I cheated.”

Of course, that’s not what the NCAA concluded during the course of its four-year investigation into USC, which alleged that Bush and his family received rent-free housing in the San Diego area, along with $300,000 in cash and other gifts, from Lloyd Lake, a family friend, and Michael Michaels, two aspiring sports marketers who planned to launch an agency, New Era Sports & Entertainment, around Bush’s prospective starpower.

Those findings have since been called into question, first through a lawsuit involving former USC assistant coach Todd McNair that settled out of court in 2021, and now, by Bush and his high-powered attorneys, each of whom took every opportunity Thursday to pick apart the NCAA’s case or decry its very existence, hoping to use the momentum of Bush’s victory to land a few more blows to amateurism.

“It’s old, old people with old, old thinking,” said Levi McEachern, Bush’s lead attorney. “We need some new thinking. He never took any money. The allegations are that some people helped his family [which was] absolutely at the time in tough ways, and they give them a little bit of help, a little bit of assistance, and all of a sudden, he’s a cheater? He’s a liar? He was treated so terribly, and it’s just embarrassing to see. The NCAA has to step up, and it would get USC back what they need, which is a national championship and the wins.”

That was where Bush’s attention turned after Thursday’s proceedings. The next step, as he saw it, was getting his vacated records reinstated. That, he said, includes USC’s 2004 title.

But as of Thursday, there was no sign that USC planned to take up that fight with the NCAA, even as USC leaders publicly applauded Bush on Wednesday for his efforts to see the Heisman return.

“I’m glad now that USC has gotten on board, it seems like, with their statements like this,” McEachern said. “But I can tell you, a lot of deaf ears when I was trying to say, ‘Can we march up this hill together?’ It was me and Reggie and Ben marching up that hill, and we didn’t have a lot of backup. So I would love to see these guys step up and put pressure on the NCAA.”

Pressure certainly worked in this case with the Heisman Trust, which McEachern said had long “hid behind” the NCAA. But when Bush’s attorneys approached the Trust with “a big stick”, he said, they found that the organization was more than willing to work with them.

“They had the courage to step up and do the right thing and go around the NCAA,” McEachern said.

Still, it would be a lengthy saga to get there, one that began, oddly enough, at Rob Gronkowski’s Super Bowl pool party. That’s when Bush first met McEachern and started discussing the possibility of getting his Heisman returned.

Years later, the focus has widened.

“It is a clarion call to the NCAA, to do the right thing,” Crump said. “Get on the right side of history.”

That fight against the NCAA doesn’t appear to be slowing anytime soon. But Thursday, with his three kids gathered around the trophy for the first time, was a step towards some sort of long-awaited healing for Bush.

“It means our prayers are answered,” his mother, Denise Griffin, said. “[The Heisman] is back where it belongs. He deserves it. He never cheated the game.”

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