DETROIT -- The Lions, with more wins than they had all last season, look like a playoff team coming off their bye week.
So what happened?
Would you believe, Reggie Bush?
Megatron is Megatron, of course, which is to say, a singular talent. Then again, he's been that his entire career. But to watch Calvin Johnson's first long catch in that eventual come-from-behind win over Dallas -- "I think it's the beginning of something," Bush said of the 31-30 victory, the same kind the Lions would've found a way to lose a year ago -- is to consider Bush as the transformative figure in this mix. The catch was enabled by a play-fake, something the Cowboys had to respect with No. 21 in the backfield.
As running backs go, Bush is an anomaly, enjoying a career year in his eighth NFL season -- around the time when most guys playing the position hit the expiration date. He ranks third in the NFL in yards from scrimmage per game at 121.9. Against Dallas, Bush accounted for 122 yards, coming back from a stinger late in the game ("I caught the ball," he remembered, "... and as I put my head down, the corner hit me. My head went back a little bit and my whole arm just went completely numb. Felt like a blowtorch. Like someone was holding a blowtorch to my arm. That's basically what a stinger is") to score a touchdown. Perhaps this game changes the season, or even the idea of the Detroit Lions. Just understand that it doesn't happen without Reggie Bush.
If the acquisition of Bush seemed like a no-brainer for the Lions (Nate Burleson came on "NFL AM" practically lobbying for him), it was less obvious to the rest of us (I wasted little time, as I recall, telling Nate it was a preposterous idea).
For years now, Bush epitomized the "Hollywood" athlete, as much a celeb as a ballplayer.
People ask why Los Angeles doesn't have an NFL franchise. The answer, of course, is USC. And no football scene was more rife with stars, no sideline generated more celebrity heat, than those Pete Carroll teams featuring Reggie Bush at tailback. Then again, Bush was famous, in a way, before ever arriving at Southern Cal. Back in Pop Warner, he was known as "The Cutback King," averaging 19.3 yards a carry -- as a 9-year-old. Then there was a widely circulated Reggie Bush mixtape when he was still at Helix High School in San Diego. That's happened to basketball phenoms. But in football?
|Reggie Bush had to forfeit his Heisman Trophy in the wake of NCAA violations. (Julie Jacobson/Associated Press)|
Bush had an aptitude for creating thrills on the field, and later, controversy off of it. Fame is a drug; for athletes, it can be a kind of poison, too. Ask Matt Leinart, who, coincidentally, was there with Bush when he met Kim Kardashian at the ESPYs (of course). Leinart was dating Paris Hilton (of course).
By his mid-20s, Bush had been featured, by various turns, on the cover of a video game, a hotly debated cover of Essence Magazine and his former girlfriend's reality TV show. He was the seventh Trojan to win a Heisman, and the first to give one back. (He is barred from contact with the university with whom he apparently turned a mutual profit.)
He's won a national championship and a Super Bowl. He had a 1,000-yard season for the Miami Dolphins, and his endorsement income remains astounding. But he's never approached the expectations commensurate with his selection as the second overall pick in the 2006 NFL Draft.
He knows this. As Bush told the Detroit Free Press, "I haven't accomplished I think half of what I set out to."
That might be changing, though. Bush survived a childhood spent in perilously close proximity to an area of San Diego known as the "Four Corners of Death." He survived celebrity and controversy in the Age of Reality TV. And now, at 28, he says he's finally learned the game.
For years, it seemed as though Reggie Bush had a gift that couldn't be taught. That's only partially correct. He might've looked like a savant on that mixtape. By his own admission, however, he still had a lot to learn.
Looking back, he told me, "I thought that I'd be winning Super Bowls every year. NFL MVP, maybe. Going to Pro Bowls every year. And it hasn't been that way. It's been a very humbling experience for me. ... I feel like I have so much more to give this game before I hang it up."
It's taken him this long to acquire an authentic understanding of the pro game, to adjust his vision, to comprehend schemes and linebackers and the gaps they play. But now, with 104 NFL games under his belt, it's all coming together.
Still, in Detroit?
Of all places.
Los Angeles. New Orleans. Miami. They are each, in their own way, party cities with plenty of sunshine. Detroit is rusty with frozen winters. It's not merely busted out; it's the first major American metropolis to declare bankruptcy. Though it has the nation's highest rate of violent crime, residents typically don't call 911. Locals figure you have a better chance of dying than getting an ambulance in Detroit. Tens of thousands of buildings have been abandoned. According to a recent study, 40 percent of the streetlights don't work. Forty percent of the populace lives below the poverty line.
Is this Reggie Bush's destination? Or his destiny? "I feel like I've finally found my home," he says. "... I feel like where I'm at right now, this is the best for me since I've been in the NFL. We got something good going here."
For an erstwhile Hollywood celeb, the irony is abundant; the meaning, less clear.
Has Bush surveyed the streets of Detroit? Yes, he says, and it didn't seem unlike the Four Corners: "Took me back a little to when I was growing up. ... I was surrounded by a lot of violence and drugs. It did resonate with me."
The Lions have incorporated a slogan for their relationship with the broke municipality they represent: "One team, one Detroit, one pride."
Can athletes save cities? No. Never. I lived through 9/11 in New York, and the notion itself is enough to offend.
|It hasn't taken long for Reggie Bush to endear himself to Lions fans. (Paul Sancya/Associated Press)|
But, can they inspire? I'd certainly like to think so. Reggie Bush, too: "We can inspire and uplift the spirits of this city."
C'mon, Reggie -- the streetlights don't work. How can ballplayers undo in a couple of Sundays what it took politicians generations to screw up?
"It's an interesting question," he concedes. "I'm not sure. But I know we have the ability to affect a whole city. I'm not sure if it's fair or not, but I know we have that power, and if we have that ability, then we should use it to our advantage."
The collective "our," he means.
Besides, it beats the hell out of losing.
For decades, people have been finding ways to flee the Motor City. Then there's Reggie Bush, who emigrated from South Beach, a new father enjoying a career year.
Does the city need him? No.
But more than likely, Reggie Bush needs Detroit.
Follow Mark Kriegel on Twitter @MarkKriegel.