NEW YORK — Reggie Bush took slow, deliberate steps to the podium and began his Heisman Trophy acceptance speech with a huge sigh of relief and a hand over his heart.
He may have been the only one in the packed room with any doubt about the outcome.
Once again, the sensational Southern California tailback left the competition far, far behind.
Bush was voted the nation’s best college football player in a landslide last night over Texas quarterback Vince Young and USC quarterback Matt Leinart, last year’s winner.
Flashing uncanny acceleration and ability to change direction, the junior has conjured up memories of Gale Sayers, drawn comparisons to Marshall Faulk, Barry Sanders and Tony Dorsett, and is the favorite to be the No.1 pick in April’s NFL Draft.
“Oh man, this is amazing,” Bush said, a row of former winners lining the stage behind him. “It’s truly an honor to be elected to this fraternity. I’ve been in college for three years and it’s the first time I’ve been invited into a fraternity.”
Bush received 2,541 points to finish 933 points ahead of Young, with Leinart a distant third. Notre Dame quarterback Brady Quinn was fourth.
The 784 first-place votes received by Bush was the second-most in Heisman history, topped only by another famous USC runner — O.J. Simpson, who had 855 in 1968. Bush was first in all six regions and appeared on 99 percent of the ballots, also a Heisman record.
“I was in shock because Vince Young and Matt are such great players,” Bush said.
Bush and Leinart will be the first Heisman winners to play in a college game together when USC goes for a third straight national title against Texas in the Rose Bowl on Jan.4.
“It’s a special opportunity,” Bush said. “It’d be even more special if we win this game.”
Bush and Leinart are the third teammates to win the award in consecutive seasons and the first since Army’s Doc Blanchard and Glenn Davis did it in 1945-46.
When Bush’s name was called, he bent over in his chair and clasped his hands. After hugging his mother, stepfather and brother, he slowly approached the podium — a gear most people probably didn’t know he had.
Dressed in a three-piece pinstriped suit, Bush choked back tears while thanking his family “for their unconditional love and support throughout my life.”
This year’s Heisman race appeared tight for much of the season, with Bush making a big statement in mid-October against Notre Dame. He ran for 160 yards and three touchdowns in South Bend, and provided the final push Leinart needed to score the winning touchdown in the closing seconds of a classic 34-31 victory.
But Bush was relatively low-key after the Notre Dame game and Young seemed to have pulled ahead, with talk that two candidates from USC would cancel each other out.
That was until Nov.19, when Bush left Fresno State repeatedly grasping at air and onlookers grasping for superlatives to describe a performance that had to be seen to be truly appreciated.
He ran for 295 yards, racked up 513 all-purpose yards — the second-highest total in NCAA history — and USC escaped with a 50-42 victory.
If there was still any doubt Bush was best, he dispelled it against UCLA, running for 260 yards and two touchdowns in a 66-19 victory. Only the lopsided score kept Bush from doing even more damage.
Asked for a Heisman moment from the season, Bush said, “I don’t think I can pick one.”
Of course not. He already has ripped off 36 plays of at least 20 yards this season.
As the Trojans completed another perfect regular season, it seemed a foregone conclusion Bush would become the fifth USC tailback to win the Heisman, following Mike Garrett, Simpson, Charles White and Marcus Allen.
The 200-pounder from Spring Valley, Calif., just outside of San Diego, ran for 1,658 yards this season, a dizzying 8.9 yards a carry, while leading the nation in all-purpose yards with 217.9 a game.
USC now has produced seven Heisman winners, matching the record held by Notre Dame, and an unprecedented three in four years, starting with quarterback Carson Palmer in 2002.
Now Bush will have to make the kind of decision Leinart did last season: Stay in school or go.
Leinart surprised many by returning to USC for his senior year when he could have entered the draft and become an instant millionaire.
“Matt, what more can I say?” Bush said. “Your decision to come back has changed my life.”
By staying, Leinart made a run at joining Ohio State’s Archie Griffin as the only other two-time Heisman winner, and helped USC extend its winning streak to 34 straight games, heading into the Rose Bowl.
Leinart said he voted for Bush first, Young second and left his third-place vote blank.
“I knew I was going to get third,” Leinart said. “I wanted to go on stage as a past winner because I knew I wasn’t going to win. The right guy won.”
Bush said he’ll decide about the NFL after the BCS title game.
Young, also a junior, appears to have a bright NFL future, though he isn’t quite the can’t-miss prospect Bush and Leinart have been labeled.
Young said he intends to stay at Texas for another year — and perhaps another shot at the Heisman.
“Right now, I feel like I let my guys down,” Young said. “Right now, I feel like I let my family down.”
Bush’s career has been in a steady ascent since he arrived at USC. He rushed for 537 yards as a freshman and 908 as a sophomore, when he finished fifth in the Heisman voting.
Heading into the 2005 season, Bush was determined to show he was more than just a scatback with fancy moves. He worked out with San Diego Chargers star LaDainian Tomlinson, harder than he ever has worked before.
He returned to school bigger and stronger and, on a team filled with All-Americans, became the No.1 attraction in the nation.