LOS ANGELES -- This was nearly a month ago, in the raucous moments after the Southern California football team had finished its perfect regular season with a 66-19 demolition of cross-town rival UCLA and Reggie Bush had put the finishing touches on his Heisman Trophy-winning campaign.
As the junior tailback stepped onto the top rung of a ladder to lead the school's band in a rousing rendition of the USC fight song, Lamar Griffin stood a few feet away, recalling the moment when this road to becoming the best college football player in the country began for his 22-year-old stepson.
It happened when Bush was 8 years old. Playing in his first game for the Grossmont Warriors in Spring Valley, Calif., outside San Diego, he ran for 282 yards and seven touchdowns.
"He was a little dude, but he had skill," Griffin said. "I didn't know. I said, `Wow,' "
That word has been used often in reaction to Bush's wondrous talents.
From his days playing in the same high school backfield with another future star, former Utah quarterback Alex Smith, to sharing the headlines with another Heisman Trophy winner, USC quarterback Matt Leinart, Bush is now being compared with some of the greatest tailbacks in college football history.
The names being mentioned most often these days are those of Gale Sayers and Barry Sanders. Some of the electrifying runs Bush made this season for the Trojans look much like ones the two legendary players produced.
"To me, he has his own style," Sanders said recently. "He doesn't remind me any more of myself than I did [other tailbacks]. I did things to remind people of Tony Dorsett, but it was a different style. He's a guy who can catch balls like Marshall Faulk or somebody like that."
Because he played at San Diego State, Faulk was one of the tailbacks Bush watched growing up. But he also watched others, including Eddie George and Napoleon Kaufman, and quickly began to dominate at every level he played. Not that Bush thinks he has perfected his craft.
"I'm still learning," Bush said after practice Friday on the USC campus as the top-ranked Trojans (12-0) prepared for Wednesday's Bowl Championship Series championship game against No. 2 Texas (12-0) at the Rose Bowl in Pasadena, Calif. "You can never know enough. Toward the end of last year, I started to feel really confident in my game."
In finishing first in Division I-A in all-purpose yards (217.6 per game) and fourth in rushing (1,658 yards) this season, Bush probably led all tailbacks -- college or pro -- in highlight-reel runs. None received more attention than a 50-yard touchdown against Fresno State.
Turning it around
The play developed with Bush taking a handoff and cutting toward the left sideline. As several defenders seemed to have him cornered, he literally stopped and started running toward his right. He ran more than halfway across the field yet finished the last 30 yards untouched.
"That's one of those runs that definitely caught me off guard," Sanders said. "That's one of those that brings you out of your seat. What I always understood about running is that a lot of it had to do with vision and reaction and responding to what you see. He is an uncommon threat."
That run didn't seem as spectacular to Bush as it did to others.
"I've been making these moves since I was 8 years old," he said. "To me, this is familiar ground."
Asked to describe his style, Bush said simply: "I compete at all costs. I do whatever it takes to make a 2-yard play, a 1-yard play or a touchdown. I don't know what I'm going to do until the split second I get to the defender. It comes from playing this game for a long time and being a playmaker."
By the time he reached Helix High School -- the same school that produced basketball great Bill Walton -- Bush had something of a reputation in San Diego football circles for making jaw-dropping plays.
"In high school, they were scared of him," recalled Griffin. "It was like, 'Oh, my God, Reggie Bush.' "
Griffin eventually put together a 7 1/2 -minute tape of his stepson's runs. That tape was made to help Bush get an invitation to an all-star game and eventually draw interest from USC. At the time, he was down the list of tailbacks the Trojans were recruiting.
"Kennedy [Pola, the team's former running backs coach] went berserk over it," Helix athletic director Damon Chase recently told a Naples, Fla., newspaper. "Reggie is truly a human highlight film."
Yet what USC coach Pete Carroll likes to talk about is Bush's competitiveness.
That trait first manifested itself when Bush was a freshman and, according to Carroll, tried to pick three fights with upperclassmen during practice one day. One of them, senior Jason Leach, didn't even fight back.
"He was teaching Reggie a beautiful lesson and the other young guys about what intensity is about, what competitiveness is about and how you vent," Carroll said.