WILLISTON — As Rafael Bush addressed the crowd gathered at Williston Town Park on Saturday, he covered a wide variety of topics.

Bush, a member of the NFL’s New Orleans Saints, had his Williston-Elko No. 9 jersey retired by the school on Saturday at Williston Town Park, and he 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.

“I think my purpose in life is to open a door for others,” he said.

The defensive back is reportedly the first athlete from Williston to sign with a professional team, and current Blue devil 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,” Garrick said. “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 theme of Bush’s talk, as well. He said that from the time he was a small child trying to play football with his older friends to his college days, he had to earn his place in the game.

“Everything revolves around work,” Bush said. “What you put in is what you get out.”

Bush was also honored by the school board, Ebenezer Baptist Church and the local NAACP chapter, and he and others who spoke highlighted the importance of a commitment to academics in pursuing athletic goals.

Bush learned that lesson the hard way in the seventh grade.

After a lackluster sixth-grade academic year left him in summer school and in danger of repeating the grade, his mother took action. She banned him from playing football during his seventh-grade year. Despite pleas from coaches and other players, she stood firm on her decision, and Bush said that changed his focus and perhaps his future.

“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.”

Bush recovered from that setback and became a stand out for the Blue Devils in high school. 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.

“He refused to be second,” Mason said. “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, as he dislocated his elbow and only played five games of the season. Mason said that Bush never stopped working and helping at practice, but Bush described the experience as a humbling one.

He said that while he was never overtly arrogant, he always felt he was the 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.”

Bush ended up at North Greenville 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 to walk on at South Carolina State.

Bulldog assistant head coach David Blanchard was in attendance on Saturday and said that he remembered seeing Bush on film, but his shortened senior year kept the Bulldogs from offering him a chance out of high school. When Bush walked on at S.C. State, Blanchard said Bush “took everybody by storm.”

Bush is listed as 5-foot-11 and 200 pounds on the Saints’ website, but Blanchard said his “fierce” play despite that frame makes him an asset at the next level.

“From that small stature, he will knock your head off,” Blanchard said. “His heart doesn’t pump Kool-Aid; he is a strong man.”

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 3,000, 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,” Bush said. “You’ve got to stand out.”

For the Saints, 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 recovering two.

Former Blue devil Kendric Salley is trying to follow the road to the NFL. The running back is a redshirt freshman for South Carolina, 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 Williston native makes the task ahead seem less daunting.

“It’s a whole big deal,” Salley said. “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.”

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.”

Jeremy Timmerman has a journalism degree from Mercer University and has been at the Aiken Standard since June 2010.