Reggie Bush has 2005 Heisman Trophy reinstated, but wants his good name back

The former college football and NFL star says it's about "accountability."

May 30, 2024, 4:27 PM

-- In the violent game of football, Reggie Bush played with grace and grit. And he wasn't just good – Bush is widely considered to be one of the greatest college football players of all time.

"It was always a dream of mine to play at the college football level," Bush told ABC News "Nightline's" Byron Pitts from his home in Southern California. "And when I was in high school, I said I was gonna win the Heisman Trophy."

The University of Southern California Trojans were on an epic run in the early 2000s, led by Bush, the two-time All-American running back. The team captured back-to-back national championships in 2003 and 2004.

In 2005, Bush's prowess was acknowledged by his winning the most prestigious honor in college football: the Heisman Trophy.

Reggie Bush of the USC Trojans runs the ball during a Pac-10 NCAA football game against the Stanford Cardinal played on Sept. 25, 2004, in Palo Alto, Calif.
David Madison/Getty Images

But shortly after the ceremony and USC's matchup against the University of Texas in the 2006 Rose Bowl, a game generally regarded as one of the greatest college football games ever played, the Trojans faced allegations that Bush received financial perks as a student athlete, violating National Collegiate Athletic Association (NCAA) rules.

"So fundamentally, the allegation was that you cheated," Pitts pressed Bush. "True? False?"

"False," replied Bush. "For me, being labeled a cheater, with no proof of that, was one of the toughest things I ever had to deal with, because my entire upbringing I've been raised to stand on the truth."

Yet the NCAA's investigation found otherwise, concluding that Bush and his family had improperly received cash and benefits.

Amid mounting pressure from the NCAA, Bush forfeited his Heisman in 2010, the first and only player ever to do so.

"How hurt were you about that when it happened?" Pitts asked.

ABC News' Byron Pitts sits down with the legendary running back and Heisman Trophy winner Reggie Bush.
ABC News

"Oh, I was messed up," Bush responded, adding in response to a follow-up question that doing so cost him "Millions of dollars, easy," in post-collegiate earnings.

The NCAA ultimately levied harsh sanctions against USC, including a two-year post-season ban and the slashing of 30 scholarships. It also vacated 14 wins, including the Trojans' 2004 championship, in which Bush played while "ineligible," and required USC to disassociate from Bush for ten years.

Despite the controversy, Bush went on to enjoy a distinguished 11-year career in the NFL, playing for five teams – including the Super Bowl 44-winning New Orleans Saints – before retiring from pro football in 2017. Two years later, he was inducted into the New Orleans Saints Hall of Fame; last year, he was inducted into the College Football Hall of Fame.

Then, nearly 20 years after he surrendered his Heisman, came a reversal of fortune and a shot at redemption.

In April, the Heisman Trust, an entity separate from the NCAA, reinstated Bush's trophy, in part due to a 2021 Supreme Court ruling allowing college athletes to be compensated for their "name, image, and likeness."

Reggie Bush, University of Southern California tailback holds the Heisman Trophy during the 2005 Heisman Trophy presentation, in New York City, Dec. 10, 2005.
Michael Cohen/WireImage via Getty Image

"I knew this moment was gonna come. I manifested this moment," Bush told "Nightline," saying that the first person with whom he shared the news was "My wife. And it was something I'll never forget. I knew at some point the truth and the facts of my story would eventually force them to give me the Heisman Trophy back."

But for Bush, taking the trophy home again is only the first step in his quest for vindication.

Last year, Bush filed a defamation lawsuit against the NCAA, citing a statement made by a spokesperson in 2021 that Bush says suggested that he engaged in "pay-for-play type arrangements," an allegation not included in the NCAA's 2010 report.

"You got a phone number for where I can go get my reputation back? Is there a hotline?" Bush asked rhetorically. "I got my trophy. I'm in the Hall of Fame. But I'm still technically not reinstated by the NCAA, and so that's also a portion of what this is about as well."

In a motion to dismiss the suit, the NCAA said it found "Bush and his family accepted cash, housing, appliances, and more from third parties" while he was a student at USC, and that "these impermissible benefits were, and are, commonly understood to be 'pay for play' under NCAA rules."

Reggie Bush shows off his Heisman Trophy to ABC News' Byron Pitts.
ABC News

The NCAA declined an ABC News request for comment.

As for why Bush is still pursuing the matter, given his career and family success, all these years later?

"Accountability," Bush declared. "I'm still accountable to my teammates, to go and get these records reinstated because they took it from us for no reason, and nobody else is out here fighting for it other than me. And I'm blessed – you know, to have a beautiful healthy family, to have opportunities in front of us. Blessed to be able to continue to fight for what's right, fight for the truth, tell the truth, educate the world on the truth, get my trophy back."

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