JACKSON, Miss. -- He couldn't avoid the hit and even now, a little more than six months later, Reggie Bush can't dodge the graphic reminder of the human train wreck in which the Saints' star tailback was an unwitting participant.
Whether it's walking through an airport, sitting in the dining hall here at Millsaps College or even lounging in his dorm room, there it is.
Plastered across the cover of the current edition of Sports Illustrated, above a headline that screams "BIG HITS," is Bush being laid out by Philadelphia cornerback Sheldon Brown in the first quarter of a divisional-round playoff game in January. In what the former Heisman Trophy winner has acknowledged was the most bone-rattling collision of his career at any level, Bush is shown with both his feet off the ground, nearly parallel to the Louisiana Superdome turf and rendered limp, compliments of Brown's right shoulder.
Mere mention of the picture elicits a cringe from Bush, then a smile.
He is quick to remind us that, after having all the air expelled from his lungs, he returned to the game and took his normal snaps in the time-sharing arrangement with fellow tailback Deuce McAllister, helping the Saints dispatch the Eagles with 95 all-purpose yards and a 4-yard touchdown run. He might have been de-cleated, Bush noted, but he wasn't defeated.
"Great hit, but, hey, I'm a man, and you've got to get up from that stuff," he said after a Friday training camp practice. "I'm a lot tougher man than people think."
Bush, 6 feet and 205 pounds, is perhaps even tougher than a year ago, thanks to an intense offseason training regimen that included a course in something called free flow do. With his veneer well enough armored, he figures to take on a little bit more punishment his second time around the league.
And with the Saints viewed as a potential powerhouse and the feel-good, post-Katrina resurrection of 2006 a Cinderella tale that's over, Bush also knows New Orleans isn't apt to receive the same warm and fuzzy welcome in opposition stadiums. Nor is he. Bush seems girded for a little good-natured hatin'.
"I want us to be so good," Bush said, "that when we're on the road, the fans [from the other team] come and stand outside our hotel, surround the place, you know, and chant [stuff] at us. I want people to think, 'Oh crap, here come the Saints.' And then, after that, I want the defense from the other team to be thinking, 'Oh crap, here comes Reggie.'"
Bush might get his wish.
Early in his second training camp, coach Sean Payton already is taking steps to remind his team that it shouldn't view last season's turnaround, when the Saints fell one win shy of their first Super Bowl, as anything more than a solid foundation for sustaining success. New Orleans appears deep and talented and, assuming quarterback Drew Brees remains healthy, capable of contending for a title.
As for Bush, Act II could be better than a debut season in which he rang up 1,523 all-purpose yards, established a rookie record for receptions by a running back (88) and created some of the season's most electrifying individual moments.
Payton has said the Saints must be more aware of the need to call more inside running plays for Bush and more outside runs for McAllister to keep defenses off guard. With the Saints' playbook tweaked in the offseason, such an occasional role reversal will be part of New Orleans' offense in '07. As will an initiative to get Bush, who had 155 rushes for 565 yards and six rushing TDs in 2006, more carries.
"Sometimes we have to remind ourselves that, first and foremost, Reggie is a running back," Payton said. "There are a lot of ways for us to get him the football. But the simplest way is still for us to just hand it to him."
New Orleans did a marvelous job in '06 of mixing and matching its tailback tandem, and the performances of McAllister -- one of the game's best but underappreciated backs -- and Bush helped New Orleans to the No. 1 statistical ranking on offense. Although McAllister had 89 more rushes than Bush during the season, from scrimmage he actually had just 31 more touches, fewer than two per game. Throw in punt returns, and Bush had 271 touches, three fewer than McAllister.
Said Brees, the team's most irreplaceable component: "I thought [the offense] did a really good job accentuating the strengths of both guys. The distribution was good. But I also think we just scratched the surface."
Bush wants the ball more, especially between the tackles. Viewed as a quarterhorse, he would prefer to be a workhorse. If he ran the ball 20-25 times per game, Bush said with no hint of braggadocio, he "would score two or three touchdowns every time out there." However, he knows that with running mate McAllister around, that isn't feasible. And probably isn't prudent, either.
Still, in speaking of how his debut season taught him that the best runners in the NFL tend to be the most patient runners -- guys who allow the play to develop instead of trying to force the action -- Bush referenced the second quarter in the Saints' Christmas Eve win over the Giants.
Trailing 7-6 with 10:30 remaining in the first half, and starting from their own 11-yard line after Bush returned a Jeff Feagles punt for no yards, the Saints went 89 yards in 18 plays. Bush carried on nine of those plays, gaining 69 yards. He didn't catch a pass in the series, but had runs of 17, 7, 7, 2, 10, 5, 10, 1 and 10 yards. The plays went to every possible hole on the field, up the middle, off-tackle, around the end.
"On that series," guard Jamar Nesbit said, "he showed he was an NFL runner."
Reminded that it was a pass play that earned him the dubious spot on the Sports Illustrated cover, a flare pass designed to get him matched up on a linebacker, Bush laughed.
"Oh yeah, I know," he said. "And I still want to catch the ball, too, because that's part of what makes me who I am. But give me the ball inside or outside, it doesn't matter, and people will see what I'm really made of."
Len Pasquarelli is a senior writer with ESPN.com.