Reggie Bush holds special place for Jets' Tony Sparano
Tony Sparano's eyes began to mist behind his thin-rimmed glasses.
It was a stark contrast to the defiant stance he had taken 15 minutes earlier with reporters who were curious to know what went wrong offensively against the Steelers.
In front of the cameras, the Jets coordinator stood firm in his refusal to discuss last week's opponent, saying: "My mind is in a different place."
But a short time later, Sparano' steely facade faded as his focus shifted to Reggie Bush. And this time, the Jets offensive coordinator had no problem revisiting the past.
Sparano exhaled softy as he leaned back in his chair inside the team's cafeteria. He stared up at the ceiling and the corners of his lips creased in a smile, as if he were replaying that December phone call from Bush in his mind.
It had been a while since he thought back to Bush's voice greeting him on the other line, simply to say thank you. Having been fired as the Dolphins' head coach just days earlier, it was something Sparano needed. And something he won't forget.
"That meant a lot to me," the Jets coordinator told Newsday. "It really did."
Sparano's return to Sun Life Stadium Sunday will be a harsh reminder of his failed head coaching career in Miami. But it also will be his chance to again see the running back who -- from the very beginning -- is more than just another player.
That December phone call lasted no more than three or four minutes, Sparano estimated, but it was long enough to crack his tough-guy shell. At the lowest point of his professional career, it was Bush who reminded him of much he already had given to the game.
"If it wasn't for him believing in me, I wouldn't be here," the Dolphins running back told local reporters last December. "I don't know where I'd be."
Despite Bush's Super Bowl win with the Saints in 2009, few believed in him. Except Sparano.
All the proof the coach needed was right there in the film. And in July 2011, Sparano helped convince the Dolphins to make the trade.
"This was just a guy I had to have," he said of Bush, who, for the first time in his seven-year career, reached -- and surpassed -- the 1,000-yard rushing mark last season with the Dolphins, who began the season 0-7. "And I felt like he could do it every down . . . and I told him that."
While the media waited, the running back would stay after practice for 45 minutes "hitting bags by himself, doing things by himself to improve his blocking skills," Sparano said.
"As a head coach, you see how driven that kid is and it makes you understand this guy's going to have a hard time failing," he said, adding that he "talked a bit" with Rex Ryan and defensive coordinator Mike Pettine about the "explosive and dynamic" Bush.
Just before training camp, the running back texted Sparano to wish him good luck again -- this time in his new job under Ryan. But it's their conversation from this past winter that will forever resonate with Sparano.
"It's one I couldn't handle much more of," he said of their chat. "I'm guarded because I'm part of a different family now.
"You meet great kids along the way, but this kid here -- Reggie Bush -- he's a good one. You just felt like you made a difference to somebody. And when you're not feeling really good, sometimes that makes you feel pretty good."
Having seen Bush's competitive fire up close, Sparano knows the Jets defense will have a tough time Sunday. "I know what the kid wants and what he's trying to do," he said of his former player. "My hat's off to him.
Then, he added with a laugh: "I just don't want it to happen this week."