WHITE SULPHUR SPRINGS, W.Va. — When he was claimed off waivers by the Saints just before the start of the 2012 season, safety Rafael Bush could scarcely have imagined that just three years later he would be the senior member of the team’s secondary.
After all, there were still members of the Super Bowl team like Roman Harper, Jabari Greer and Malcolm Jenkins around, plus 2010 first-round pick Patrick Robinson, 2011 third-rounder Johnny Patrick and 2012 fifth-rounder Corey White.
As for Bush, he had just been cut for the second straight year — this time by Denver, where he’d appeared in six games in 2011 after Atlanta had let him go.
But Bush, who was undrafted out of South Carolina State and spent the 2010 season on the Falcons’ practice squad, was determined to make the most of what might have been his last shot.
“I came into this league with a chip on my shoulder,” he said after a recent preseason practice session at The Greenbrier. “Getting cut made it even bigger. I’ll forever have one.”
And so, while Harper, Greer, Jenkins, Robinson, Patrick and White have all moved on, when the Saints return home, Bush will have the same locker he’s occupied for the previous three seasons. There’s been 100 percent turnover in the surrounding ones.
And he’ll still be No. 25 — the same number Reggie Bush wore. Rafael jokes that most of the No. 25 jerseys he sees people wearing are holdovers from the Reggie Bush days.
“I was telling my wife before I came up here I feel like the last of the Mohicans,” Bush said. “But it’s really an honor to feel like one of the veteran guys now.
“It means that the team trusts me and that I have the confidence and trust of my teammates. I’ll never take anything for granted.”
At least Bush can now feel wanted. When the Falcons extended him a two-year, $4.5 million offer sheet last year, the Saints matched it.
That’s not Jarius Byrd money (five years, $56 million), but it is a measure of financial security for wife Tonya and 2-year-old daughter Makaya, that is very important to him.
“I told my daughter before we came up here, ‘Daddy’s got to go to work,’ and she made this sad face,” Bush said. “But to her, work means that Daddy’s playing football.
“She doesn’t understand all that that means. But for me, coming up here for training camp is just part of the business. I still talk to them on FaceTime every night, though, so it’s not too bad.”
Bush earned his roster spot in 2012 by excelling on special teams.
But since then, he’s made 13 starts, seven of them last season at free safety after Jarius Byrd went out went down with a knee injury before Bush himself suffered a season-ending leg injury.
“Being at home, injured with my leg in a cast, watching my teammates but not being part of it, was about as hard as it gets,” Bush said. “I never want to go through that again. None of us do. If you liked the results of last year, you don’t need to be here with this team now.”
His leg injury healed, Bush is back on the practice field every day.
And with Byrd being sidelined through the first two weeks of training camp, Bush is back as the starting free safety.
“He’s very versatile, very smart,” Saints coach Sean Payton said of Bush. “He’s also very competitive. We view him as a starter.”
As well as a leader.
While Byrd and newcomer Brandon Browner may have everyone’s ear in the secondary meeting room because of their accomplishments; Keenan Lewis may have the same because, well, he’s Keenan; and Kenny Vaccaro (nicknamed “Maniac” by his fellow defensive backs) may be heard because, well, he’s “Maniac”; Bush’s is a voice increasingly heard in team and position meetings.
“I tell the young guys that I was exactly in their shoes once, and even if they get cut, this might just not have been the right opportunity for them,” Bush said. “But if they have talent, keep pushing forward and never switch their motors off, things will work out them.
“I tell everybody that was here last year that we lost our focus somehow and that we can’t let that happen again. We haven’t lost that focus yet up here, but this is just preseason.”
On the field, Bush is known for making the most of his opportunities.
In his first game replacing Byrd last year, Bush had 13 tackles with a pass defensed in the overtime victory against Tampa Bay.
“Whatever the situation, Rafael comes in with the demeanor of a professional,” secondary coach Wesley McGriff said. “He has an unbelievable work ethic, not just on the field but in the classroom.
“He’s a problem solver. Give him something to do, and he’ll make the adjustments it takes to solve it.”
Bush appreciates the compliments.
“I’m happy to hear the coaches feel that way about me,” he said. “No matter what’s going on, I’m always into the game. That’s the way I go about my business, and it’s the way I go about my life. Every day you’re in this league, you’ve got to consider it a blessing.”