NEW YORK — Reggie Bush is giving back the trophy. To many, though, he'll always be a Heisman winner.
"Everyone still knows Reggie Bush was the best player that year," said Johnny Rodgers, the 1972 Heisman winner from Nebraska. "Look at the runs. He was clearly the best player.
"O.J. Simpson got accused of a murder and they didn't take his back. That was a far greater allegation, and they didn't find O.J. guilty on that," Rodgers said.
Bush took the unprecedented step of forfeiting his 2005 Heisman Trophy on Tuesday, saying the scandal over improper benefits while he was a star running back at Southern California should not stain "the dignity of this award."
Returning the trophy has no practical effect on Bush since he's already in the NFL and a member of a Super Bowl championship team. However, it's the first time in the award's 75-year history that a player has forfeited it.
"It's a sad day — that's the way I feel about it," said former Nebraska quarterback Eric Crouch, who won the 2001 Heisman and voted for Bush in 2005. "Having to actually be the first time in the history of the award that someone has given it back ... I don't know if he actually had to. Maybe this is on his terms."
Even Tennessee Titans quarterback Vince Young, who finished a distant second to Bush in the Heisman voting, said Bush will always be the winner to him.
"Reg will continue to be the 2005 Award recipient and I will continue to be honored to have been in the 2005 Heisman campaign with such a talented athlete," Young posted on Twitter.
USC was hit with heavy sanctions by the NCAA this summer after it determined Bush and his family had received hundreds of thousands of dollars in gifts from two fledgling California-based marketing agents. The NCAA ruled that Bush was ineligible for the 2005 season, which opened the possibility that the Heisman Trophy Trust would take back the award.
One of the few guidelines given to Heisman Trophy voters is that a player must be in compliance with NCAA rules to be eligible for the award.
"The persistent media speculation regarding allegations dating back to my years at USC has been both painful and distracting," Bush said in a statement released through the Saints. "In no way should the storm around these allegations reflect in any way on the dignity of this award, nor on any other institutions or individuals.
"For the rest of my days, I will continue to strive to demonstrate through my actions and words that I was deserving of the confidence placed in me by the Heisman Trophy Trust."
Shortly after USC was sanctioned, the eight-member trust, based in New York, said it was considering what to do about Bush, who won in a landslide vote over Young.
The trust held its regularly scheduled monthly meeting Tuesday; it had no comment. Whether the 2005 Heisman will be vacated or given to Young remains to be seen.
"They may try to offer it to the guy who came in second, but who knows? Me, personally, it doesn't matter," said Billy Sims, the 1978 Heisman winner from Oklahoma. "People across the country voted for him (Bush). What are they going to do, re-vote now?"
Allegations of improper benefits to Bush and his family were first reported by Yahoo! Sports in September 2006, months after Bush was drafted No. 2 overall by the Saints.
The NCAA and Pac-10 began investigating him and the USC football program soon after the reports, and Bush immediately denied any wrongdoing.
One of the marketing agents, Lloyd Lake, sued Bush to recoup nearly $300,000 in cash and gifts. Eventually, the case was settled and Bush never publicly told his side of the story.
In handing out its penalties, the NCAA cited USC for a lack of institutional control. Its report cited numerous improper benefits for Bush and former basketball player O.J. Mayo.
The penalties included the loss of 30 football scholarships over three years and vacating 14 victories in which Bush played from December 2004 through the 2005 season. USC, under coach Pete Carroll, beat Oklahoma in the BCS title game on Jan. 4, 2005, and won 12 games during Bush's Heisman-winning season, which ended with a loss to Texas in the 2006 BCS title game.
After the 2009 season, Carroll left USC to take over as coach of the NFL's Seattle Seahawks.
"It is my hope that this situation serves as a teachable moment to all involved, especially for the young athletes and university and high school administrators of tomorrow," Carroll said in a statement issued late Tuesday by the Seahawks.
In July, USC replaced athletic director Mike Garrett with Pat Haden, and one of the first moves Haden made was returning USC's copy of Bush's Heisman Trophy.
"It was a very noble thing for Reggie to do," Haden said. "He made the right decision."
Bush's decision ends four years of questions, debate and turmoil surrounding allegations that tainted one of the great performances in college football history.
"It's like one of our members had to turn in his resignation," said former Michigan receiver Desmond Howard, who won the Heisman in 1991. "Reggie was one of the most exciting, electric and dynamic members we had, at least in recent years, in our fraternity. He's been demonized over there and it seems like there was no alternative."
USC won 34 straight games and two national titles during Bush's three-year career.
In 2005, he was simply spectacular, running for 1,740 yards, scoring 18 touchdowns and helping the Trojans reach the national championship game against Texas.
In winning the Heisman, Bush received 784 first-place votes, the third-most in the history of the award, and finished 933 points ahead of Young.
But it was Young who came away with the biggest prize.
He scored the winning touchdown with 19 seconds left in Texas' 41-38 victory at the Rose Bowl. Bush's most memorable play from the title game was an ill-advised lateral that resulted in a USC turnover.
Bush jumped to the NFL as a junior after that bowl game and was drafted by the Saints.
As a pro, he's had some brilliant moments and has been a productive player. So far, though, he has fallen short of becoming the star he was projected to be.
"Now that this is behind me I look forward to the future and winning more awards and championships here in New Orleans! Who Dat!" Bush tweeted.
AP Sports Writers Larry Lage in Detroit, Eric Olson in Omaha, Neb., Murray Evans in Oklahoma City and Teresa Walker in Nashville, Tenn., contributed to this story.