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Reggie Bush touches the ball only once in return to the Coliseum

Reggie Bush touches the ball only once in return to the Coliseum
Bills running back Reggie Bush kneels at the Coliseum before Sunday's game against Rams. (Gary Klein / Los Angeles Times)

Reggie Bush emerged from the tunnel at the Coliseum on Sunday, dropped to a knee on the edge of the turf and gave thanks.

“I was just paying my respects to where it all started,” Bush said after the Bills defeated the Rams, 30-19. “Me and this football field have some history.”

He didn’t expect to play again in this place, not a decade after he captured the country’s imagination — and the Heisman Trophy — as a do-everything running back for USC.  Not after he became the focus of an NCAA investigation that resulted in crushing sanctions against the Trojans, having his more than 100 records replaced with asterisks and forfeiting the Heisman.

As part of USC's punishment, the university permanently disassociated itself from Bush. Memories are all that's left.

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His runs and returns often looked as if they belonged in video games: Bush once battered Fresno State for 513 all-purpose yards on this field, then added 260 rushing yards against UCLA two weeks later. The dazzling became routine.

On Sunday, however, Bush touched the ball once.

Injuries and time have changed the man who once dropped jaws on this field. He's 31 years old and clinging to a career in the NFL as a backup after signing with the Bills in August.

"People just kind of expect when you get injured that, 'Oh, he'll be fine. He'll bounce back,'" Bush said. "It's not that easy. It's really tough."

Playing for the 49ers last year, he suffered a season-ending knee injury against the Rams after slipping on the concrete ring around the field at the Edward Jones Dome in St. Louis following  a punt return.

The St. Louis Regional Convention and Sports Complex Authority, the St. Louis Convention and Visitor's Commision — and the Rams — are defendants in an ongoing lawsuit Bush is pursuing over the injury.

"You know, it's not easy to come back from injuries time after time," he said. "It's really tough. I don't know if people really understand just how tough it is, especially when you get later in your career like I am. Mentally there are so many questions that go through your head. You want to make that push to come back and when you do there's something about it that's just a little bit harder because of all the odds that are stacked against you."

While Bush warmed up, one sideline onlooker yelled: "Welcome back, Reggie. You're home."

Bush gained three yards in the third quarter on his lone carry of the game. The crowd didn't roar; there was barely a murmur of recognition among the more than 80,000 fans on hand. But those might've been the most entertaining three yards of the afternoon.

Bush took a direct snap out of  a wildcat formation, darted to the right and hurdled a defender before being brought down.

"I made sure while I was rehabbing … that if I felt any limitations, if I felt like I couldn't be me, if I felt like I couldn't be explosive and have my change of direction, I was going to shut it down," he said. "Along the way, I started to feel stronger and stronger. I started to feel back to myself. I haven't lost a step. … I'm still fast. I'm still explosive. I'm just waiting on my opportunity."

For an instant, this looked like old times.

"He had this big smile on his face," said Nickell Robey-Coleman, the Bills defensive back who played at USC long after Bush left. "It's old for him, but it feels so good to be out here."

That was the exclamation point in a quiet return. After the game, he walked back up the tunnel alone. He looked straight ahead. A few Bills fans chanted "Reggie!" He didn't seem to notice. The supporters quickly turned their attention to other players tossing their gloves and wristbands into the stands.

Not long afterward, Bush stood in a corner of the cramped visitors locker room. Scraps of training tape rested on the carpet next to half-empty Gatorade bottles, gear bags and used towels. He never had occasion to be in here while at USC. It felt a little strange to Bush, another part the past and present colliding Sunday.

The first thing Bush would see when he exited the locker room is a giant banner facing the door. It listed USC's football superlatives. The national championships. The first-round draft picks. The Heisman Trophy winners. Bush's trophy, of course, isn't included in the total, one more reminder of a history that's never far away.

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