Rafael Bush nearly failed the sixth grade, so his mother punished him in the harshest way she could think up: No football for a year.
The punishment didn’t just teach Bush that it was important to mind his schoolwork — it taught him he had to do everything he could to avoid being kept away from the football field.
“This is a privilege,” Bush said. “It’s not a given.”
Bush, a safety, is now entering his second year with the New Orleans Saints, whom he joined after spending one season on the Atlanta Falcons’ practice squad as an undrafted rookie and another playing sparingly for the Denver Broncos.
Bush, 26, has emerged as a leader on special teams, has made plays on defense and is expected to land on the Saints’ roster behind Malcolm Jenkins, Roman Harper and Kenny Vaccaro. So, barring a disaster, Bush won’t have the same problem this year that he had for slacking off as a schoolboy.
“It’s good to see his hard work ... rewarded,” Saints cornerback Jabari Greer said about Bush. “He hasn’t had as much stability as he has now.”
In three seasons as a running back at Williston-Elko High School in Williston, S.C., Bush rushed for more than 3,500 yards and had 28 touchdowns as a junior alone, good enough for all-state and all-region honors.
Bush then dislocated his elbow as a senior and played in only five games that year. He didn’t attract much recruiting, in part because his health was a concern.
Bush eventually walked on at South Carolina State University and became a defensive MVP there. After a quiet two years in Atlanta and Denver, New Orleans signed him just before the 2012 regular-season opener and let him wear No. 25.
The 5-foot-11, 200-pound Bush earned plenty of playing time, taking the field in all 16 games and leading the Saints’ special teams with 15 tackles and a fumble recovery.
Meanwhile, his role on defense grew after Jenkins suffered a hamstring injury and ended up on injured reserve. Bush had an interception, which he returned 40 yards; forced a fumble; and recovered another fumble.
Suddenly, Saints fans started wearing their No. 25 “R. Bush” jerseys to game-viewing parties and the Mercedes-Benz Superdome again.
“Being undrafted, ... we just have to prove ourselves,” Bush said. “We have to prove that we’re not a liability but an asset, and I think that’s what I was able to prove last year.”
This preseason, Bush has been a mainstay with the second string and routinely plays with the first team in passing situations that call for more defensive backs than in the base defense.
Furthermore, he got in on four tackles on defense and made a stop on special teams in preseason wins against the Kansas City Chiefs and Oakland Raiders. He also recovered a fumble from running back Mark Ingram in the Saints’ intrasquad scrimmage.
“Rafael is one of the most athletic guys in our secondary; he can probably jump higher than everybody combined,” Greer said. “He’s explosive, he will hit you ... and he just brings a lot to the table.”
A few weeks before reporting to training camp, Bush attended a ceremony in which his high school retired the No. 9 jersey he wore at Williston-Elko for becoming the first athlete from his alma mater to go pro. Recalling that ceremony was the only moment that prompted Bush to smile while talking about the approaching regular season and what he could do to replicate or improve his performance from last year.
Bush said athletes at his alma mater are hardly recruited because the school is small and is situated in a town of about 3,000 people. It had not produced a professional athlete — until Bush passed the sixth grade, convinced his mom to let him play football again and lived to fight his way from the Falcons practice squad to the Broncos to the Saints.
“I’m just trying to open a door for other athletes (in Williston) coming through now,” Bush said. “Just give them the confidence and just give them the hope it’s possible.”