Reggie Bush, Marques Colston: Opposite starts, identical endings in the Saints Hall of Fame
METAIRIE – They are as different as Hollywood and Hempstead, Long Island, the places they left to begin their careers as New Orleans Saints.
One was the team’s top draft choice, No. 2 overall, a Heisman Trophy winner, a college football champion, a celebrity as much as a running back with a personality to match.
The other was an after-thought, the team’s last draft pick, a seventh-rounder, a compensatory pick no less, No. 252 overall, from an FCS program known as Hofstra, the longest of longest shots to play in an NFL game, an anonymous player content to be out of the spotlight.
“They arrived here in a little different way,” Saints coach Sean Payton understated.
But Reggie Bush and Marques Colston are bound together by more substantial stuff than that which provided the initial contrast – the same draft class, two bright lights that arrived amid the post-Hurricane Katrina darkness, Super Bowl champions, all-time Saints greats.
And as of Saturday evening, 2019 classmates as well as former teammates entering the New Orleans Saints Hall of Fame.
Their Saints careers started with the 2006 NFL Draft, but to fully understand their legacies you have to understand the months preceding their contrasting arrivals.
It was August 29, 2005 when Hurricane Katrina hit the Gulf Coast and the levees broke and New Orleans nearly drowned.
The Saints evacuated to San Antonio and many of their fans evacuated to countless other places. Many of the citizens gradually came home and started rebuilding their lives.
The football team returned in January of 2006 and started rebuilding too. First came Payton as a rookie head coach, then he started trying to lure assistant coaches and free agent players.
It was a difficult sell when recruiting visits took place amid the devastation, the darkness, the merely sporadic signs of life after dark in a city known foremost for its liveliness after dark.
“We were celebrating each little small victory,” Payton said. “We would get a coach to come, and we’d ring a bell.’”
Remember the bell.
The challenge got a little easier when a linebacker named Scott Fujita signed, then a bit easier when an injured quarterback with nowhere else to go named Drew Brees followed suit.
A few more trickled in and Payton assembled staff.
Then came the draft.
The day before the draft, Payton and other officials briefed owner Tom Benson on the players they were considering drafting. They never mentioned Bush because they were certain he would be picked by the Houston Texans with the No. 1 pick.
Payton was out to dinner when word leaked that the Texans were going to draft N.C. State defensive end Mario Williams. Imagine being the Memphis Grizzlies and learning the Pelicans were going to pass on Zion Williamson.
Just like that, the Saints rookie head coach who had been struggling to convince marginal free agents to join him, saw the most coveted college player in recent memory fall into his lap.
Payton grabbed a pen and a napkin and started diagramming ways he could utilize Bush. Work quickly filtered to quarterbacks coach Pete Carmichael.
“Your head just started racing with the possibilities,” Carmichael said.
When Payton and his colleagues reassembled in the war room the morning of the draft, a few guys started speculating about exactly what kind of king’s ransom the Saints could get by trading the pick.
Payton and general manager Mickey Loomis ended that conversation in tandem, saying simply, “man, we are not trading this pick.”
When New Orleans officially selected “Reggie Bush, running back, USC,” the franchise was changed.
“I’d say on a 10 Richter scale, the selection of Reggie Bush was a 9.9 for this organization,” Payton said. “This was like Elvis Presley or Michael Jackson, the Beatles. Seriously, that is how big it was.”
Remember the bell they would ring with each little victory? Drafting Bush was different.
“We said, ‘ring the bell three times,’” Payton said. “It was a big, a big deal for our city to have that opportunity to select Reggie Bush.”
Tens of thousands of people who were scrambling each day to rebuild their homes and their lives, figured out a way to scrape together enough money to buy season tickets to go see their football team that had come precariously close to becoming San Antonio’s team just a few months earlier.
The 2006 season was sold out on season tickets as has every season since.
Remember now, Payton was a 42-year-old rookie head coach trying to figure out how to do head-coach stuff. He remembered his primary mentor, Bill Parcells, advising him, “that first pick of the draft, make sure you fly them in commercial with the rest of the draft class. That first pick of the draft, don’t have a separate dinner, or hotel suite, or limousine waiting for him.”
Bush arrived by private jet and Payton picked him up in a limousine, put him up “at the Loews penthouse suite” and brought him to a private dinner at Emeril’s.
“I thought I’d broken like every rule in the book regarding this first pick,” Payton said. “And I have only been here two months. I mean, Bill’s not going to talk to me.”
Payton and Bush led an entourage of a dozen people to the back room of the restaurant as the patrons started chanting, “Reggie, Reggie, Reggie.”
Meanwhile Colston waited and waited. After the Saints picked Bush, 249 more players were drafted into the NFL over two days. Finally, the Saints picked Colston.
“When you get drafted in the seventh round, one you’re not really super excited to still be on the board,” Colston said. “You’re really not super excited to go to a 3-13 team. You know, for me, I was (four) three picks away from being able to find what I thought would be the best destination to go and try to make a roster as a free agent.”
In the long run, New Orleans was the best place for him.
Once Bush and Colston arrived after the draft, the differences started to matter less and similarities started to emerge.
Colston had never been to New Orleans before. When he arrived to start his first job he was greeted by “the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina.”
“You instantly felt like this is bigger than football,” Colston said.
Upon his arrival, Bush was given a tour, which included the Ninth ward, ground zero for Katrina.
“Right away, I felt this sense of responsibility to give it 110 percent every day, every time I stepped on the field,” Bush said, “and to at least do my very best to try to bring this city and this organization a Super Bowl.”
The Super Bowl would come soon enough, but first, for Colston anyway, it was about making the team.
Payton, wide receivers coach Curtis Johnson, assistant Johnny Morton and some scouts saw just enough intangibles from Colston in his college film, even though it was “somewhat grainy,” as Payton recalled, to take a flyer on him.
But Colston’s performance at the rookie mini-camp just days after the draft validated teams passing on him for 251 picks.
“I don’t know if it was the heat here or his back, a combination of a few things,” Payton said. “I know there was this point with Marques where he was thinking, ‘man, is this it, am I in the NFL – and do I belong?’”
Colston said he was “in survival mode day in and day out” for training camp.
“You’re hoping that you did enough that day to keep your job,” he said.
But he showed dramatic improvement 11 weeks removed from the rookie camp.
“All of a sudden we got back for training camp and the light was turned on,” Carmichael said.
“Each day, boom,” Payton said, “This Colston just keeps making pars and birdies just keeps putting practices together.”
About a month into camp, Payton realized, “hey, we’ve got our starting split end.”
So he traded away veteran Donte Stallworth.
Quickly, Colston became Brees’ favorite target, “a symbiotic relationship,” as Payton called it, born during countless hours of extra work at training camp at Millsaps College.
“Drew and Marques had such a great relationship,” said Carmichael, who became offensive coordinator after three seasons. “Drew trusted Marques. He knew exactly what he was going to do. He knew where Marques was going to be. Marques had such a great feel and the amount of catches that Marques made in traffic was just amazing.”
Carmichael said the Saints used to say that with Colston, “one on one was like one on none because you could throw it up to him and he was going to make sure that nothing bad happened and come down with the football.”
Colston came down with the football 70 times for 1,038 yards and eight touchdowns as a rookie. He was only the second-leading receiver because Bush caught 88 passes for 742 yards, in addition to 565 rushing yards, and he scored eight touchdowns.
Carmichael said the Saints usage of Bush was simple: “Just get the ball in his hands and let him do his magic.”
“He had the ability to make a home run out of the shortest pass,” Carmichael said.
That 2006 team brought New Orleans to the NFC Championship for the first time, where it lost to Chicago.
The Saints would miss the playoffs in 2007 and 2008 before putting everything together in 2009.
They went 13-3, claimed the No. 1 seed in the NFC playoffs and hosted Arizona, ironically the opponent against whom the Saints will play Sunday when Bush and Colston are honored at halftime.
When the Saints offense was introduced before the playoff game, Bush sprinted to midfield carrying a baseball bat.
Payton had left a baseball bat in each player’s locker as a reminder of his admonition to “bring the wood,” meaning be the most physical team.
“I’m talking to the guys in the locker room and I’m like, ‘I think I want to bring the bat out,’” Bush recalled. “And they’re all like, ‘yeah, you should do that. You should bring it out.’ But now when I look back on it, nobody else wanted to also bring the bat out. It was just me.
“And so they were kind of egging me on and do it. And then, you know, I remember running out on the field with the bat and then immediately look to the sideline and coach is like, come here. Now the pressure was on me at that point. I had no choice but to go out and ball.”
He did just that, scoring on a 46-yard run and an 84-yard punt return and accumulating 217 all-purpose yards in a 45-14 win.
“I was ecstatic for how he played,” Payton said. “And yet, I remember him carrying out the baseball bat that was like our secret and thinking, ‘holy cow, there’s going to be questions about that.
“But an amazingly, amazingly dynamic player and amazing teammate.”
Colston left his bat in his locker and added a characteristically more mundane six catches for 83 yards and a touchdown.
Both players had more modest stats a week later, but Bush did catch a 5-yard touchdown from Brees as the Saints beat Minnesota in the NFC Championship 31-28.
Two weeks later in the 31-17 victory over Indianapolis in the Super Bowl, neither player found the end zone, but Bush had 65 all-purpose yards and Colston caught seven passes for 83 yards.
In the end Bush played five seasons in New Orleans, scoring 33 touchdowns, rushing for 2,090 yards and catching 294 passes for 2,142 yards.
Colston played 10 seasons and became the franchise’s all-time leading receiver in every category – 711 receptions for 9,759 yards and 72 touchdowns. In 10 playoff games with five different Saints teams he caught 58 passes for 788 yards and four touchdowns.
Payton has often said that he doesn’t care how a player arrives in New Orleans. He will be evaluated strictly on who he is and how he performs once he arrives. There is no better example of that than Colston.
“He was very humble in how he played, very respected as a teammate,” Payton said. “The consistency and the professionalism and knowing exactly what you were going to get week in and week out and mind you, what you were going to get was the all-time leading receiver in the history of this organization.”
But for all the differences between Colston and Bush, there are also plenty of similarities.
“They’re both smart. They both love football. They were both competitive. They both had great work ethics,” Carmichael said. “When it all came down to it, they were great teammates, they were great in the locker room, all of those things that you were looking for outside of football.
“These guys had so many similarities in their preparation. When they got on the field they were competitive, you wanted the ball in both of their hands, you trusted both of them.”
Aside from all the catches and yards and touchdowns – and even the Super Bowl title – perhaps the most significant thing that the two newest Hall of Famers share is the joy, excitement and hope that they brought to a city in desperate need of each.
“I truly believe everybody that came to this team during that time period was brought here for a purpose,” Bush said, “to help restore hope to the city, to the people, by going out and doing what we do best, which is playing football, winning football games.
“I think one of the best parts of our job was to be able to go out into the city and to be able to physically help people rebuild their homes. This is about helping people who are in need and people who are right here in our backyard. That’s what sports is about – being able to go the extra mile and not just say, ‘I’m just going to show up and, and collect the check.’ But, to be able to actually impact and affect people’s lives outside of the arena.”
Bush had just turned 21 years old when he was drafted. Colston turned 23 shortly thereafter.
“The opportunity to be here and not only New Orleans, but understand that you’re representing the entire Gulf region,” Colston said. “Just to be able to play a small role in that resurgence and just have the opportunity to interact with people and understand the impact that you’ve made on their lives over the years. (There is) no feeling in the world like that.”
When Bush and Colston are formally inducted Saturday night, Colston’s highlight film might be a little longer than Bush’s, and Bush’s speech almost certainly will be longer than Colston’s.
But the portraits of the two players that will immortalize them in the Hall of Fame will rightfully be of identical size.
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Les East is a nationally renowned freelance journalist. His blog on SportsNOLA.com was named “Best Sports Blog” in 2016 by the Press Club of New Orleans. For 2013 he was named top sports columnist in the United States by the Society of Professional Journalists and Louisiana Sportswriter of the Year by the National Sportscasters and Sportswriters Association. You can follow…