How Reggie Bush compelled a former Clemson cornerback to confront

Oct 24, 2023, 07:00 AM ET

AYE, BRO, DO you remember the little thing from Men in Black? I say. What thing? he says. The thing where they like erase people’s memories? I say. Ahhh yeah, I remember, he says. Well, think of my memories like this, I say. Imagine the little silver thing, instead of erasing your memories, it stores them. And the flash doesn’t take away what you remember but gives you only a glimpse. And when you get that glimpse, that glimpse feels real and then it leaves and you are only left with a fragment or snapshot. That’s what I feel like, I say. Damn, he says. Yeah, bruh, I say. That’s what makes the last 10 years so hard, bruh bruh, I say. Too many hits, my boy, he says, laughing. We took too many hits, he says. Gahhhh damnnnnn, he says. Can’t none of us go unscathed, I say. We laugh together and we say: It is what it is. It is what it is.

Part 1: Friday night

FRIDAY NIGHT GOES something like this: I grab my black helmet from my red locker and sway my head to Pastor Troy for 10 minutes straight, the sound of Black Southern magic booming from the speaker in the center of the beige concrete room. I pull my red Calhoun County Saints jersey over my white pads, put my black-and-white Nike Vapors on the brown bench to the right of my white socks, put my white gloves to the left, then put everything on to the tempo of the music. Gloves last, always last.

I stole the show, I didn’t know I’d be judged.

It’s 7:02 p.m., 28 minutes to kickoff, Oct. 2, 2009. If I listen closely enough, I can hear the deep thumps of footsteps from the field outside. The sky above wears the blues and oranges and soft whites that can be only found in South Carolina at dusk. “When the sun is about to go down here,” my grandmama used to say, rubbing her hands together and wiping them on her dress. “There is nothing on God’s green earth like it.”

I close my eyes. I imagine running and running and running until they shout my name, like they did the Friday night before, and the Friday night before that. I imagine the clock hitting 00:00, the end.

I open my eyes and strap on my helmet.

I hear cleats crunching on concrete, from one end of the locker room to the other. No one says a word. We stare into each other’s eyes. Some of our eyes are red and wet. Some of our eyes widen as our heart rates rise. Some of our eyes move back and forth, watching our teammates go by, crunch, crunch, crunch, a wake of musk, mold and Axe body spray following behind.

Nobody can see my eyes. I’ve painted my face mask black. I wear it like that because Reggie Bush wore it like that at USC, shortly before making the cover of EA Sports NCAA Football 2007, his mouth scrunched, his 619 area code underneath his eyes, his body leaning sideways as he carries the ball in his right hand. Me and my brothers and cousins have spent an ungodly amount of hours in front of our TV screaming: “I’m Reggie this game …”

Haaaaa-spoooo. I spit two times in my right hand then my left. Clap five times. Shout to DJ, “Ain’t nothing to it but to do it, Lil’ Cat!” We both play the corner: He holds down the field; I hold down the boundary. We both play offense: I run, juke and follow the backsides of my linemen; he runs, plants and follows the backsides of other receivers. He is tall. I am short. He is lanky. I am stout. We both are Black, scared, determined and desperate.

What’s up, Big Mouth, Big talk, Big Game.

Tonight, like every night, I wear No. 5, just as Reggie did. Tonight, like every night, I hyperventilate as I feel my body heat beneath my shoulder pads. Tonight my socks are white. Tonight my cleats are black. Tonight I will walk on the field with the same assurance that every Black boy in the South walks on the field with: I will be a god like Reggie.

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I shake my head two times to the right, three times to the left, and bite down on my mouthpiece as I step into the still, humid October night. Hot, thick air forces my pores to open up. The sweat burns my eye. The smell of hot plastic grabs my nostrils. Then it’s teriyaki chicken, French fries, exhaust pipes. My heart pounds; I can feel it in my throat. I stare down to the stadium. We ready, we ready, we ready, Pastor Troy booms, all bravado. Dun, dun, dun; the piano notes ascend. I bob my head. I fix my gloves. I tap my helmet three times. I’m ready. We’re ready.

One by one, we line up and walk single file to the practice field that smells of wet grass and wet cleats. “Ayeeeee, baby,” one of the coaches screams, “we been waiting on this.” We shout back, then shout to one another, “You know how we do.” Gary walks in place like he got bricks in his pants. Bryce bends his ankles to his hips. Jakeem fixes his thigh pads. DJ grabs the sleeves on his forearms, twice. Shy tosses the ball to BT. BT smiles just before he says, “Let’s gooooo.” Coach Wilson puts his right hand to his lips, his broken pinkie going east while the rest of his fingers turn west, then barks like a Que Dog. Coach Wages jogs a bit, the run sheet separating his shorts and shirt, and yells to the offense, “We gon’ put up 50 on them boys.”

We throw. We pray. We jump. We curse. We stretch. We laugh.

We wait. We go.

The playing field is freshly painted. This is the big game, the Bamberg-Ehrhardt Red Raiders, our rivals to the south. We wore our jersey to school, me and Jakeem and DJ and Shy and BT. We talked about it all morning, before, after, during class: Whoever wins goes to regionals, probably goes to state, both teams that good. On the field now, 7:25, five minutes to kickoff, I look at my white socks, my black-and-white Vapors, and clap my hands four times as the cheerleaders stomp the concrete stands. Ain’t no night like Friday night in South Carolina. For me. For us.

Get up CC! CC get up! the crowd chants.

I grab the inside of my face mask. “You ready, big dawg?” we shout to one another. “I’m ready,” we shout back. “OK, then,” we shout again. “Lehhhh get it!” we shout in unison.

It’s 120 yards end to end. It’s 53.3 yards side to side.

A few hashes and lives to live. The time is now.

It’s all we got.

IN JANUARY OF this year, I was given a diagnosis by my therapist that changed how I saw the story of my life. Six months later, I was given an assignment by my editor that changed how I told the story of my life.

This is that story.

Aye, bro, do you remember are the first words.

And still I believe are the final words.

I’M NOT A football player anymore. I’m a husband, father, minister and writer living in Augusta, Georgia; my legs don’t move like they used to. But there are some days I need to remind myself. Like today. It’s July, and it’s too hot outside, and I’m sitting in my home office that smells of old coffee, sandalwood and my son’s leftover pizza. For some reason I know but don’t yet have words for, I replay a video that I’ve posted to Facebook: seven minutes of highlights from my final season at Calhoun County in 2009.

I hounded my coach many years ago to give me the tape. “I need it for me,” I told him. “I need it.” In the opening frames, our offense is in the spread against Allendale-Fairfax, our rivals to the southwest. The receiver motions to the right as Javo snaps the ball to Brandon and Brandon hands it off to me. Three seconds later, I am in the endzone, throwing my palms to the sky. The next play is from the opposite side of the field, same formation, same call, same outcome: Touchdown. “It feels good to watch this video over and over again,” a friend writes in the comments. “It feels real good.”

Nothing will undo the accident Illustration by ESPN

What the video doesn’t show: A month earlier, on the morning of July 19, 2009, a bright Sunday morning, my cousins and I are traveling from Swansea to Columbia. My cousin Josh is the driver; me and his two sisters, Darri and Nell, are the passengers. The rural road he takes, we’ve taken countless times, from our house to grandma’s house, or to school, or to “up the road” to shop. Just three minutes into the drive, as Josh turns up the gospel music on the radio, he loses control. I grab the door and close my eyes. This is all I remember next: Oh noooooo! Screams. Silence. Waking up and climbing out of the white car. Seeing more red than I’ve ever seen. Feeling no pulse in Darri’s neck. Staring at the white collar of Nell’s pink dress that is stained with dirt, tears and blood. And then: A blur.

Then I remember riding in the ambulance. My right shoulder is swollen. The knots in my head are like the ridges of a mountain. I place my right hand to the back of my scalp and feel an open wound where my hair should be. I have to pee so bad. “Am I going to be able to play football?” I ask the paramedic, sitting at my feet. “Am I going to be able to play football?” I ask again. She smiles. “That’s the least of your worries,” she says.

Then I remember lying in a hospital bed, the sunlight shooting through the the window and crawling up the beige walls as my friend David massages my head with his thick, brown hands. I feel it so clearly, the tenderness of his hands, the brokenness in his eyes. Next to him stands my mother, father, sisters, brothers, aunts, cousins, ministers, nurses, doctors.

“Is Darri alive?” I say.

“She is alive,” they say. “Each of you, by some miracle, is alive.”

Then I remember lying in the bed with the blue covers in my grandma’s house, until I am well enough to go to the field 100 yards from the side door, the field we used to run through when we were kids, carrying sticks, playing karate, imitating the latest Power Rangers episode. There, day after day, I work out by myself between the grass and the dirt and the weight bench my big brother made, near the shell of the broken white car. The first time I see the car, I turn away. The second time, I run my palm along the top of it. The third time, I look inside. The fourth time, I turn away.

Then I remember my first game back, and my desperation. It’s my senior year — the year I will earn a college scholarship. I don’t yet have any offers, but still I believe, because I have to believe. I come from the part of South Carolina they call the Corridor of Shame: largely rural, largely Black, so many of us feeling like we have been forgotten, left behind, unseen. And so out on that football field, against Allendale-Fairfax, against Bamberg-Ehrhardt, against them all, I grip the ball as if it is my only hope, moving my legs in ways they have never moved. It’s all I got.

This is what I remember, and now, 13 years later, sitting in my office, the summer sun setting through the window, I’m watching my highlights again, because I need to remind myself. The final clip begins. We’re playing Chesterfield in the playoffs; the winner goes to the state championship. Brandon hands me the ball. I stutter-step, dash to the left, juke, and 40 yards later celebrate in the end zone. What happens after that clip is another blur. I just know we lose, and it’s the last I wear the red and white.

“We ain’t got it like we used to have it,” Jakeem tells me after I post the video.

“Nah bruh,” I tell him. “We ain’t got it.”

Jakeem is not a person who says much. Neither is Brandon. Neither is Shy. Neither is Big Mack. Neither is Alshon. Neither is OB. Neither is Lil’ Cat. None of us really. But in the passage of time, the few things we do say to one another always find a way back to the zip code 29135.

“We ain’t got it like we used to have it.”

I’ve been thinking a lot about the past lately – the things I don’t have, the things I’ve lost, how naming those things is harder than remembering how they felt. I’ve been rewatching old shows like “Living Single” and “One on One.” I’ve been replaying classic games like USC vs. Texas from 2006. I’ve been revisiting former teammates. I’ve been re-reading Baldwin, Morrison, Laforgue. And sometimes, as my two kids play, I’ve been refreshing that seven-minute highlight video, conjuring the ways I could move my body.

“Daddy, that’s you?” my five-year-old son Asa asks one August day when he catches me watching it again. “Yep,” I say. “I was himmmmmmmmm.”

I laugh and take my left hand and massage his head in circles. He smiles, understanding the joy that wears itself on my cheeks as they squint inward and my teeth show. I replay the video, and Asa tells me I’m fast and that he wants to play football too. “I want to play footballllll,” is how he says it. I shake my head to the right and laugh and look away and say, “boyyyyyyy.”

A few nights later, I sit in the back of my 2007 Tacoma just as dusk settles. Asa sits with me; he loves to let time pass until we hear the cicadas begin to sing. I reach for my phone and play Stevie Wonder’s Songs in the Key of Life. That’s followed by Oh Happy Day by Edwin Hawkins Singers and Melodies From Heaven by Kirk Franklin and Trouble Don’t Last Always by Rev. Timothy Wright. I bop my head up and down as my heart rate slows. Then I look in my son’s eyes as he looks to the sky. He reminds me so much of myself: He’s young, energetic, ambitious and sensitive. My big brother told me that people like that must have their hearts protected. I turn my eyes to the sky too, and I stare at the millions of stars, the gentle, eternal stars.

I let my mind go; I let it search. A month ago, I started writing about Reggie Bush and the injustice of college football, what it does to Black kids who dream of possibilities and end up haunted by what’s taken from them. The NCAA took Bush’s Heisman, but it took so much more than that from him, from all of us who wore the uniform on Saturdays. I had to stop writing, because the more I thought about Bush, the more I remembered what football gave and took from me. It’s all too connected, and I wasn’t ready.

The sequence of my former football life, the facts, the dates, that’s not hard for me to place. It goes like this: Aug. 19, 2009:I play for the first time since the car accident, determined to earn a college scholarship. Oct. 2, 2009: Six games into the season, I catch a punt, get tackled and fold onto the field. High ankle sprain and knee sprain. My regular season is over. Feb. 3, 2010: Signing day comes and goes, and I get no offers. March 17, 2010: A letter arrives from Clemson: I’m invited to try out for the team as a preferred walk-on. Fall 2012: After two seasons of grinding out a role as a backup defensive back, I’m offered a one-year scholarship. Aug. 6, 2013: I tell my teammates I’m transferring to Western Carolina because my scholarship wasn’t renewed. Oct. 11, 2013: I tell my coach I’m transferring back to Clemson, to just be a student this time. I never play football again.

That’s the sequence, but I’m leaving out what matters; all these years later, I’ve never been able to find the words for what actually matters. And now, sitting in the back of my truck, my mind still searching, I know I need to try, somehow. I thought I’d write a story about Reggie Bush and sitting in the back of my truck, my mind slowing down, I know I’m ready to write my story too, even if it unleashes a flooding of memory.

Miles Davis’ “Flamenco Sketches” plays a few minutes later. The song begins slow, like most blues do, a voyage into what James Baldwin calls “the doom and glory of knowing who you are and what you are.” The upright bass drones a bit. The piano mimics a walk alongside, almost behind, the bass. The drummer hits the ride cymbal twice just before Miles’ trumpet comes in. I replay the beginning of the song, over and over, and then once more, as I watch the clouds move across the star-struck sky.

“What do you see?” I ask Asa. “I don’t know,” he says, his eyes scrunching and his teeth showing. “I don’t know,” he says again.

This August is on fire. The Georgia sun is hot, scorching, burning the worn metal on the bed of my truck. The anger is hotter. If you have survived these first eight months of 2023, I assume you too have found yourself at some point sitting outside, staring at the night sky, into nothing, wondering what has happened and what is happening. Searching. Maybe you too understand — feel — that playing music can be as much a spiritual practice as praying. As a minister, I have prayed a lot lately and listened a lot more. I have preached about gratitude and grace. I have preached about the radical joy of being Black and alive in this raging world.

I hear it everywhere, the sound of summer — the pain, sadness, lament, grief, joy, believing, feeling everything and nothing at all, in this, the 50th anniversary of the genre called hip-hop, born out of the soul and struggle of Black boys and girls, the doom and the glory. It is a sound I know well, as a Pentecostal kid growing up in the Black and religious rural South. Some preachers here told me that hip-hop was the devil’s music, that these “hoodlums” were young and dumb and angry. To be sure they were young, and yet: Wherever their sound moved a room or a stadium or a hole in the wall or a dance floor, people’s bodies were changed — transfigured, to use a Biblical word that means the sacredness of a hidden thing that is revealed for all to see. Hip-hop never promised to do what church often promised to do, to save souls. But hip-hop did do, both by accident and by purpose, the true work of the church: to help those in the world feel more connected.

The thing was, while our parents and pastors and teachers thought the problem was the boys and girls behind the songs, we knew the real problem was the world their songs were speaking of. There was an adage I often heard as a young Black athlete in one of the Blackest and poorest and most determined areas in South Carolina. It went something like this: You can’t do what they do and get away with it. This was a reminder that no matter how magically we could make our bodies move on Friday nights, we were still young and Black and unloved in a country that judged us differently. We were problems to be solved and mistakes to be punished rather than beautiful people waiting to reveal our beauty. Praised and unprotected; coveted for our talent and hated for our freedom. It didn’t matter who we were or where we came from: We played football first, we were Black last.

In that truth lay our exploitation.

In that truth lay my heartbreak.

I DON’T KNOW why I remember the echoes of crickets outside my window, how one cricket didn’t sound any louder than the others; laying my head on the pillow of the pull-out bed my dad had made up, a small mattress with a single sheet; listening to Bishop Bonner’s thundering voice, a terrifying epic, the static from the radio to the left of my head, the cheers of the saints drowning out the crickets; the stillness of the night; the mellow hum arising from the dark; or was it from the cracks of the cement pillars that held the house together; staying in bed on signing day, not wanting to get up again; the dawning of my belief that it was over, just before opening the front door to look at the sky, the expansive sky, the forever sky; if only I could conjure up wings and fly far, far away.

I don’t know why I ever wanted to fly. Why I ever wanted to run. Why I ever wanted to believe. You gonna be the one to make it out, they said. You gonna be one of the ones to make it, they said. I’m running, I say. I’m flying, I say. I’m forgetting, I say. I’m going, I say. I’m believing, I say.

Part 2: Saturday afternoon

THE GRASS IN Clemson, South Carolina, is green year-round, as if spray-painted. White oak, river birch and red maple trees hang over the sidewalks. Imprints of orange-and-white tiger paws lead from the streets to Tillman Hall, a brick building that towers over the center of campus and bears the name of a slaveholder. All of it registers as a blur when I arrive as a walk-on in the spring of 2010, 149 miles separating the house on cinder blocks I grew up in and the off-campus house I move into, wearing a white V-neck, khaki shorts that show my dark kneecaps, and brown loafers that smell of the hair grease I rub on my head and then on my heels.

The blur never truly resolves. I’d heard how Saturdays at Clemson tilt the Carolina hills, that when the Tigers play, the place becomes “God’s country.” Yet I’m still not prepared. No matter how early we arrive to Memorial Stadium on game day, we’re greeted by hundreds of fans, sometimes thousands, their beer-chilled hands reaching out to touch us, to get us to sign anything. At the end of every game, they storm the field like a choir entering a stage, and we sway side by side as we lift up our hands in salute of the Tiger paw. We sing the alma mater: “Here the sons of dear old Clemson, Reign supreme always. We will dream of great conquests. For our past is grand, And her sons have fought and conquered Every foreign land.”

Ask Clemson Tigers fans where they were when Chandler Catanzaro kicked this game-winning field goal in 2012 — they’ll tell you. AP Photo/Anderson Independent-Mail, Mark Crammer

At Clemson, I quickly learn, Black boys are beloved. We give fans stories to share with their families over dinner, in church, or when they walk the campus hills to Howard’s Rock, the monument inside Memorial Stadium that players touch before every game for good luck. We give them things to cry over. We give them meaning. And we give them something they don’t truly deserve: The confidence that the football field is the world, and that the world is right, and that what matters most, in this exchange between us, is our ability to run fast, jump high and give them more stories to share.

There’s another reality about Clemson that I’m not prepared for. The winters are dark. The wind blows steadily as the temperatures drop to a bitter shock. The stadium goes empty, and the talk of the town centers on the season before. After my freshman season, that talk is angry, as we lose 70-33 to West Virginia in the Orange Bowl, the culmination of a season in which I take the field just twice, at the end of blowouts, its own kind of blur.

Seven weeks later, on Feb. 26, 2012: Trayvon Martin, 17, is shot dead in Sanford, Florida. He was visiting his father at the time — “he was here to relax,” Tracy Martin said — and was walking back from a convenience store to the house of his father’s fiancée. He didn’t make it. A member of the community watch there, George Zimmerman, shot him after the two had an altercation. He’d told police that Trayvon was “a real suspicious guy.” He called him a “f—ing punk.” He said, “These a–holes” … “always get away.”

I nod to the moon Illustration by ESPN

Two months later, 12 of my teammates gather inside Memorial Stadium, sit their butts next to Howard’s Rock, and fold their arms in the shape of an X. It’s cold and overcast, and they wear the black hoodies that have come to represent Trayvon, shaken into protest by outrage and by a fear: That the way they’re protected on the field will never be the way they’ll be protected in the world. Someone pulls out a camera and takes their picture as they point in unison to the sky, as if to speak to him, as if to pull him down.

I feel the same outrage, the same fear. But I’m not there. I stay home and stay quiet. As a Black Southern boy, I’d learned how to exist in white worlds, to talk the right way, to act the right way, to never make too much noise about what was happening outside of the freshly cut grass. “You have to leave those things behind,” we would often hear from the coaches who were recruiting us. “There’s nothing here for you,” an uncle once told me. He meant well. He just wanted so bad for me to make it out.

And I had made it. I’d escaped as many Black boys have done, knowing that the only thing worse than never leaving was leaving and coming back having failed to make something of what you were given. So I use this as an excuse after Trayvon is shot. Yes, I am Black, but I am really a football player who just happens to be Black. More important than Trayvon’s Black body being killed and my teammates’ Black bodies taking a photo in protest is my Black body’s distance from both. To be good at football is more important than being Black, so stay quiet. To be good at football is to remember that a walk-on’s position is never secure, so stay quiet. To be good at football is to run when I am told, to cover when I am told, to tackle when I am told, so stay quiet, always stay quiet.

The next fall, my sophomore season, is a magical one. I’m playing on special teams, then starting at corner when one of my teammates gets injured. “Stew, it’s your time,” I’m told. We go 10-2 and make the Chick-fil-A Bowl, where, on the final drive, Tajh Boyd hits DeAndre Hopkins on a fourth-and-16 to keep our hopes alive. On the sideline, wearing white socks, white cleats, orange sleeves, my cheeks painted black, I can’t look as our kicker lines up for the game-winning field goal with two seconds left. None of us can. We lock arms as the ball is snapped. The ball soars. We jump and leap and run to the field. In the locker room afterward, I pose for a photo with the trophy in my hands, my head up, my Clemson cap facing backward. I smile and tell myself that I want to experience this again, because this is what I fought for, what I’ve always been fighting for.

Six months later, George Zimmerman is acquitted of second-degree murder and manslaughter.

THERE IS A billboard on White Oak and Ventura in Encino, California. The background is yellow. The bronze Heisman trophy is plastered on the right side. In red and black letters, it reads: “HEY NCAA … GIVE REGGIE BUSH BACK HIS HEISMAN!” There are 15 of these billboards across LA.

They tried to disappear Bush, and we all saw it happening when it was happening. I’m talking Reggie Bush, Wale rapped on “Varsity Blues,” the 16th track from his 2011 mixtape “The Eleven One Eleven Theory,” which explores, among other issues, the exploitation of the Black college athlete. At the time, Bush was six years removed from one of the most breathtaking seasons ever seen on God’s green earth — a season for USC that convinced me, a Black boy in the South, that I wanted to play running back and wear white socks and wear black Nikes with white strings. Jumping over defenders, running past them, running through them, stopping, starting, shifting and shaking, Bush forever cemented his name on the all-time list of great college running backs. In that 2005 season, Bush had 2,611 all-purpose yards, scored 18 times, and would win his Heisman.

Thank God for what I did with blocking against this shaky defense Illustration by ESPN

Then came the allegations. The Bush family was accused of receiving hundreds of thousands of dollars in gifts. There was an NCAA investigation, and the result of that investigation mandated that Bush disassociate from USC, and for the Trojans to vacate 14 victories, including the 2004 BCS national title. Bush voluntarily gave up his Heisman. And so it is that, according to the NCAA, there is no 2005 season and no Heisman. The 513-yard performance against Fresno State?…

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