Reggie Bush is coming back Sunday to a place where he once was a king but now is a ghost.
There are no pictures of him on campus or at the Coliseum. His Heisman Trophy is gone, as is his jersey. All of his records have been vacated, replaced in the football media guide by more than 100 asterisks.
Bush was at the center of an NCAA investigation that led to some of the most severe sanctions in college sports history. The NCAA found that Bush and his family accepted cash and other benefits from would-be agents while he was playing for the Trojans. As part of the penalties, USC's football team was banned from bowl games for two years and lost 30 scholarships. The university was ordered to permanently dissociate from Bush.
Now 31 and nearing the end of his NFL career, Bush never dreamed he would return to the Coliseum to play in another game. But he will be back Sunday, as a reserve on the Buffalo Bills, who will play the Rams.
After practice this week, Bush stood on a field with a Times reporter and opened up about the uncomfortable split with his alma mater. He didn't delve into details about what happened a decade ago, but said the situation lingers in the back of his mind.
"It's definitely hurtful," he said. "But it's not the university's fault. Obviously, it's just part of the process, part of what took place. It's definitely painful knowing what I did on the football field, what I did for the university and recruiting. But at the same time, it's the memories I have there that outweigh the pain by a tremendous amount. I choose to remember the great times there."
Tim McDonald, a Bills assistant coach and former USC safety, said he holds out hope that at some point, there will be a reconciliation between Bush and the university.
"You're talking about 19-, 20-year-old kids at that point in time," McDonald said. "There's got to be some leeway there, where you can figure out what the best way to handle this is. You've got the NCAA sitting there, and you've got to please them, and you can't make the university look bad. I understand there's a lot of things you have to do to make it right.
"[Bush is] probably more sorry than anybody out there, and he loves SC. So maybe, hopefully, sometime down the road, they'll find a way to resolve it."
USC, which twice unsuccessfully appealed the penalties, declined to comment on the situation for this story.
In many ways, life has moved on for Bush, who won a Super Bowl with New Orleans. He was drafted No. 2 overall by the Saints in 2006, and was with them through 2010. He then bounced from Miami to Detroit to San Francisco to Buffalo, never staying more than two seasons.
He lives in Pacific Palisades during the off-season with his wife and two young children, a daughter and a son. Although he grew up in San Diego, he said Los Angeles will always be his home and his connection with USC "will always be there."
"I still have a lot of love for the school," he said. "I always watch the games. I'm always supporting, and my heart will always be there. As of right now, I can only focus on what I'm doing right now, and that's being a part of the Buffalo Bills."
Last November, his season was cut short with the 49ers when, while running through the sideline area on a punt return, he slipped and fell on the concrete ring circling the field at the Edward Jones Dome in St. Louis. He suffered a lateral ligament injury. Bush has filed a slip-and-fall lawsuit in regard to his injury, naming as defendants the Rams, the Regional Convention and Sports Complex Authority, and the Convention and Visitor's Commission.
"When I had my injury last year, the first thing that went through my mind was, 'My career's over,' " Bush said. "I thought it was my [anterior cruciate ligament]. … When we got the MRI and found out it was my [lateral collateral ligament], I was relieved because I knew I could come back from that."
Bush has come back, and when he signed with the Bills in early August, the widespread assumption was he would back up starter LeSean McCoy, and return punts. On his first carry in training camp, Bush burst up the middle, veered right and tore off a huge gain.
"I just cut it back and was gone," he said. "It was the old me."
Since then, the Bills have treated him as if he's simply old. He played in the first game and had three carries for minus-four yards against Indianapolis. He was active in Week 2 but didn't play, then was inactive the past two weeks.
"He is still a player that has a lot of juice," Bills Coach Rex Ryan said. "To me I think, you don't go through this season unscathed. I am pleased that he is on our football team. He will have a role."
Bush said this season is the first time he can recall being scratched from a lineup despite being ready to go.
"It's definitely been tough, knowing that I'm healthy and knowing what I can do," he said. "Knowing that I can help out.
"It's out of my control whether I'm active on game days or not. The biggest thing for me is during practice, making sure I'm still getting the work in somehow, some way … so I'm not just twiddling my thumbs and then maybe get the call and my body's not physically ready."
Regardless of whether he sets foot on the field against the Rams, Bush has an overflowing collection of Coliseum highlights. Asked which ones come to mind, he recalled the iconic cut-back touchdown against Fresno State, a 76-yard scoring run in a 70-17 stomping of Arkansas, and a zigzagging touchdown run against UCLA that he punctuated with a flip across the goal line.
Bush said he does not have a relationship with former USC Coach Pete Carroll, other than saying hello on those rare occasions they cross paths. However, he speaks frequently with Trojans greats Marcus Allen and Ronnie Lott.
"When he was playing, there was not a more exciting player that ever played the game of college football than Reggie Bush," Lott said. "He was USC's Gale Sayers."
Bush's former teammates concur. They want the university to do whatever it has to do to reconstitute a relationship with him, to aggressively press the issue with the NCAA.
"The way he's been blackballed there, I hate it," said Sam Baker, a former USC tackle. "You didn't see that happen at Ohio State or other places where there were sanctions. I'd love to see Reggie welcomed back. It's ridiculous that he hasn't been."
Baker is part of a group text with several other players from the Carroll era — among them Shaun Cody, Frostee Rucker, Lofa Tatupu, Keith Rivers, and Steve Smith — and a common topic of conversation is bringing Bush back into the fold.
"The school needs to make things right with Reggie, get his photos back up, get him back in the record books," said Alex Holmes, a former Trojans tight end. "For us, almost unanimously, we've seen things that have transpired at other schools, and all those places got a slap on the wrist."
Despite his minimal role with Buffalo, Bush leaves many of his younger Bills teammates star-struck.
"I definitely grew up watching Reggie," quarterback Tyrod Taylor said. "I remember doing a lot of things trying to be like Reggie. … I remember when we signed him, I called my dad and we talked about watching Reggie back in his USC days and what he could bring to our team."
Walt Powell, a second-year receiver for the Bills, was just a kid when Bush was at USC. He would always play as the Trojans on an NCAA video game, purely because of the tailback.
"They didn't name the players [in the video game]," Powell said. "But you knew because of the rating, how fast he was, his agility and stuff. You knew."
It's a bit like that at USC now. Bush's name is gone from the record books. His pictures aren't on campus, nor is his jersey. But for so many, there's no erasing the memories.