WILLISTON — When high school football players from Elko, Williston and Windsor don the blue and white jerseys, one jersey number will now be off-limits to anyone outside of the Bush family.
The number 9.
On Saturday, Williston-Elko High School formally retired the number 9, never to be used again by anyone who does not have any biological relationship with Rafael Bush, the wearer of that number from 2001-2004.
“I think my purpose in life is to open a door for others,” said Mr. Bush during the ceremony.
As Mr. Bush addressed the crowd gathered at the Williston Town Park on Saturday, he covered an array of topics.
Mr. Bush, a member of the NFL’s New Orleans Saints, talked about his faith, his family and his history in the community. The topic that perhaps resonated the most with those honoring him, though, was his current role.
The secondary player is believed to be the first athlete from Williston-Elko High School — and the first from the Williston, Elko and Windsor areas — to sign with a National Football League team.
While prepping for the upcoming high school football season, current head coach Dwayne Garrick said that status serves as a beacon to those still playing at the small school.
“To me, it’s probably more; it’s a lot bigger than just retiring his jersey,” said Coach Garrick. “I think a person like Rafael represents, kind of hope for this community. He represents where these younger guys can go. All the things you talk about in a football player and a person – commitment, perseverance, dedication – he had to put a lot of work in to get where he’s at.”
Hard work was a major theme of Mr. Bush’s talk. He said that from the time he was a boy trying to play football with his older Kelly Edwards Elementary and Williston-Elko Middle friends to his college days at South Carolina State, he had to earn his place in the game.
“Everything revolves around work,” Mr. Bush said. “What you put in is what you get out.”
One of the toughest lessons Mr. Bush learned was in the final year of the old millennium, when academic issues caused him to be in danger of repeating the sixth grade and landed him in summer school.
Due to that possible grim prospect, his mother prohibited him from playing on the Williston-Elko Middle School football team, despite protests from her neighbors and school officials.
Mr. Bush said that was his wake-up call.
“That’s probably one of the biggest things that could ever happen to me,” he said. “Before that, I always thought it was about football, football, football. But that was an eye-opener. … When she told me I couldn’t play football, it was like a blow to my heart, but it also taught me that school comes first.”
Mr. Bush recovered from that setback and became a stand out for the Blue Devils in high school. Former Williston-Elko head coach Paris Mason, who was Bush’s position coach and then head coach during his senior year, said that it was the athlete’s “work ethic” that set him apart from all the rest.
“He refused to be second,” said Coach Mason, a current assistant coach at archrival Blackville-Hilda High School. “You’re talking about a kid his junior year, played almost a whole season with a high pulled hamstring and rushed for about 1,400 yards and about 18 touchdowns.”
Injuries continued to be an issue his senior year in 2004, as he dislocated his elbow and played in only five of the eleven games of the season. Coach Mason said that Mr. Bush never stopped working and helping at practice, but Mr. Bush described the experience as a humbling one.
He said that while he was never overtly arrogant, he always felt he was the absolute best on the field.
“It was one of the worst situations in my life at the time, but it was a lesson learned,” he said. “That situation brought me back to earth.”
Mr. Bush ended up at North Greenville College in Tigerville for a year, but he left, telling his mother that he didn’t feel that program offered him the opportunity to pursue an NFL career. So he left the security of a partial scholarship and went back to the Central Savannah River Area to walk on at South Carolina State in Orangeburg.
Bulldog assistant head coach David Blanchard was in attendance on Saturday and said that he remembered seeing Mr. Bush on film, but his shortened senior year in 2004 kept guys from Orangeburg from offering him a chance out of W-E. When Mr. Bush walked on at SC State, Coach Blanchard said Mr. Bush “took everybody by storm.”
Mr. Bush is listed as 5-foot-11 and 200 pounds on the Saints’, the NFL and ESPN websites, but Coach Blanchard said his “fierce” play despite that frame makes him a major asset at the highest level.
“From that small stature, he will knock your head off,” said Coach Blanchard. “His heart doesn’t pump Kool-Aid; he is a strong man.”
Mr. Bush drove home the importance of finding a way to make yourself outstanding in your field, athletically or otherwise. He said that particularly coming from a town like Williston, with a population of around 3,160, young people hoping to achieve their dreams have to go above and beyond to get there.
“Especially coming from this community, you can’t just be average,” said Mr. Bush. “You’ve got to stand out.”
For the Saints, Mr. Bush has found his niche making plays largely in special teams, although he does have one interception. He recorded 14 tackles last year and forced one fumble while scooping up two.
Former Blue Devil Kendric Salley is trying to follow Mr. Bush’s road to the big leagues. The running back/halfback is a redshirt freshman for USC, and he’s looking to make a dent in his first year on the field for the Gamecocks. He said knowing that everything he’s trying to do has been done before by a native of the Williston, Elko and Windsor areas makes the task ahead seem a lot less daunting.
“It’s a whole big deal,” said Mr. Salley, who was one of the main contributors to the Blue Devils’ 2009 Class A Division II State Title. “Now you realize somebody’s ahead of you that actually fulfilled the same dreams you’re looking forward to fulfilling. It makes you realize you can actually accomplish your goals and dreams.”
Mr. Bush said that realizing he’s a role model, especially for people in his hometown, is a huge part of his life as an NFL player.
“It means a lot,” he said. “A lot of kids have dreams, and a lot of kids don’t get to see people that’s done it beforehand. so to be able to be that voice and that person that they see everyday, just to know that he’s the same person that he was when he left and to come back and still be the same person. It just motivates those kids, if they have dreams to be an athlete or whatever the case may be, it just motivates them. If I just reached one of those kids today, man, I’ve done my purpose.”
Well, done, Mr. Bush. Nice to see the community come out like they did, although I wasn’t there due to other things I had to do.
Hopefully, Mr. Salley can go right there with you to the NFL, if not New Orleans.
As an alum of Williston-Elko High, I know both of you and both of you are the icons and flagships of our communities in eastern Aiken County and western Barnwell County.
[WRDW News 12]