Bush overwhelmed by city's warm welcome

Compared to the massive effort it will take to rebuild the city of New Orleans and the Gulf Coast, the remaking of the New Orleans Saints is a trivial pursuit. But the arrival of Heisman Trophy tailback Reggie Bush over the weekend provided those faced with the former formidable task to consider the latter efforts more than simply an afterthought.

Through the few good times and the mostly miserable seasons of the Saints' four-decade existence, one undeniable constant has been the manner in which the city has embraced its football team. On Saturday and Sunday, it wrapped its arms around Bush, who did nothing to elude the symbolic mantle bestowed upon him by virtually everyone he met in what will become his adopted hometown.

And just like that, the first chapter was authored in what could be the best feel-good story of the 2006 season, and perhaps beyond.

"To tell you the truth, it was a little overwhelming, and I really didn't expect it," Bush said of the rock-star welcome afforded him. "But after seeing some of the devastation here, so much worse than you can imagine even after watching it on TV, you gain some appreciation for what these people have been through and what they're still facing.

"Hey, I'm no savior, and I can't make everything better. But I want to do my part. I know now that I'm coming here to be more than just a football player. The people immediately made me a part of the community and I'm going to do my share. This really was an eye-opener for me. But it was very uplifting in a way."

It might be difficult to comprehend, given that the national evening news programs carry almost nightly images of a city still uprooted, with fresh video of neighborhoods still uninhabitable. But for Bush, who experienced the most hellish week of his young life, with off-field stories of alleged indiscretions by his family and the decision by Houston Texans officials to select defensive end Mario Williams instead of him with the first choice in the draft, New Orleans represented a slice of heaven.

Or at least, incongruous as it might seem, a safe haven of sorts.

As much as New Orleans needs Reggie Bush, well, he needed New Orleans, too, after the events of the past week. Or he needed the unrelenting love-fest it showered on him.

"I think," said Saints general manager Mickey Loomis, "it got him past the emotions of what had gone on. There's no doubt that, when we spoke to him on Friday night, he was pretty down. Who wouldn't be? I mean, he had prepared to be the first guy chosen, and all of a sudden, he wasn't. By the time he left here, though, I think he was feeling pretty good about himself and about his situation."

Indeed, as early as two weeks ago, members of the Bush camp privately had indicated to ESPN.com that the draft's highest-profile player would prefer not to play for the Saints if the Texans passed on him.

Never, though, did Bush or his representatives tell Saints officials to avoid choosing him. No matter, since Loomis and first-year coach Sean Payton wouldn't have heeded any such cautions. Only a king's ransom-type offer from another team, Loomis acknowledged as he relaxed after the draft, would have prompted the Saints to consider trading the rights to a prospect regarded as football royalty.

As it turned out, no team ever came close to tempting the Saints to trade the pick.

But even with the Saints listing Bush at the top of their draft board, and the team aware of his Pied Piper allure, Loomis and other club officials weren't prepared for the reaction of the city, first when Bush was chosen and then when he arrived.

Suddenly, a city struggling to get back on its feet has a superstar capable of bringing fans out of their seats on Sunday afternoons. Or on Monday evenings, since Bush's first home game at the refurbished Superdome will be a Sept. 25 prime-time matchup against rival Atlanta.

Fact is, Bush is still two weeks away from slipping into a Saints uniform at minicamp, and already he's had fans on their feet. The city knocked down by the wind already has experienced the whirlwind nature of Bush and his charismatic personality.

On Saturday night at the posh Emeril's, one of the several upscale restaurants that TV-star chef Emeril Lagasse owns in New Orleans, the patrons erupted when Bush arrived for dinner. This was a huge and symbolic weekend for New Orleans, which played host to the PGA Tour's Zurich Classic, arguably the most notable sports event in the city since the devastation wrought by Hurricane Katrina. There were golfers and corporate officials at the restaurant when Bush arrived with his representatives and Saints executives.

The response?

"In all my years of doing this," said agent Joel Segal, "I've never seen anything like it. A standing ovation. People trying to get close to him. People chanting, 'Reggie! Reggie!' It was like we were at Yankee Stadium maybe 25 years ago. Man, wait until he actually gets on the field."

The restaurant had to station an employee at Bush's table so that he could finish his meal without fans milling around him. Lagasse came out from the kitchen to take his order (a New York strip steak, as usual) and welcome him. Bush joked that he might tell Saints officials that, as part of his contract, Emeril had to agree to be his private chef.

"What people here did for me, it was special, and they made me feel special. I'm going to do my best to pay them back."
Reggie Bush

Said Loomis, who was also part of the dinner party: "One step into the restaurant, and it was like everyone knew he was there. I knew when we picked him that it was special, but even I didn't understand the magnitude of it until we walked into that restaurant. Reggie actually thought it was a set-up, that we had put people up to it. But, no, it was just a spontaneous thing. [It was] electrifying, really, there's no other word."

The response was similar on Sunday, when Bush went to the golf course for a short visit, and a national television interview. And at the same time, Bruce Springsteen, appearing at the New Orleans Jazz and Heritage Festival over the weekend, was phoning Saints officials, trying to get Bush to drop by and come on stage with him. Executives from NFL Properties were pressuring licensees to speed up production on Saints uniform jerseys with Bush's name emblazoned across the back.

Even owner Tom Benson, reviled only a few months ago when it was rumored that he might relocate the franchise, was high-fived as he navigated through the crowd that came out for a Saints draft day party.

Certainly, the weekend represented a revival that New Orleans needed as a small part of its recovery. And it was a weekend that helped rehabilitate Bush's spirits, too.

"All the stuff that's happened," he said, "this helped get it out of my mind. I was able to stop thinking about it. What people here did for me, it was special, and they made me feel special. I'm going to do my best to pay them back."

From a football standpoint, Payton already has begun divining formations that will have Bush and incumbent tailback Deuce McAllister, still recovering from a knee injury, on the field together. Even for an accomplished offensive schemer like Payton, the task is a challenging one, but one happily undertaken.

Things are a long way from being normal again in New Orleans, but the presence of Reggie Bush over the weekend provided another bit of optimism for the future of the city and its beloved football team.

"There are a lot of good things going on here, and I'm not just talking about with the Saints, and Reggie has enhanced it," Loomis said. "It's a great opportunity for him, for us and for the city."

Len Pasquarelli is a senior NFL writer for ESPN.com. To check out Len's chat archive, click hereInsider.