The tallpedestrian swooped in suddenly, hustling through the bumper-to-bumper trafficon Collins Avenue in Miami Beach a few days before Super Bowl XLI. "Dude,you might want to roll up your window," Brian Panique told his childhoodfriend and now roommate, Arizona Cardinals quarterback Matt Leinart, who wasfiddling with his BlackBerry in the backseat of a Cadillac Escalade. Leinart,already annoyed by the gridlock, hit the power-window button and rolled hiseyes at the thought of having to deal with another amped-up autographseeker.
The man, who hadspotted Leinart from the sidewalk, lingered beside the SUV for a couple ofseconds before it dawned on Panique that he might have given his buddy some badadvice. "Uh, Matt," he said, gesturing toward the pedestrian. "Ithink that's your coach."
Down went thewindow, and out went Leinart's hand and an awkward but enthusiastic "greatto meet you!" That was how newly hired Cardinals coach Ken Whisenhunt waswelcomed into Leinart's world, the closest thing to a real-life version ofEntourage the NFL has to offer. Like the HBO series' main character, actorVincent Chase, Leinart, 24, is a generous, genial star who copes with celebrityby surrounding himself with trusted friends and deftly blurring the linebetween business and pleasure.
Unlike Chase's,however, Leinart's career arc is as robust as one of his sublime seam passes.On July 27, when the Cardinals report to training camp in Flagstaff, Ariz.,Leinart begins the transition from promising rookie to, potentially, the saviorof pro football's longest-foundering franchise. Last season, even as Arizonawheezed to a 5-11 record, Leinart showed flashes of excellence in 12 games,completing 56.8% of his passes for 2,547 yards, including an NFL-rookie record405 in a Nov.¬†26 loss to the Minnesota Vikings. He won only four of 11starts after taking over for Kurt Warner, but of greater importance he capturedthe locker room. "Matt has a one-on-one relationship with everyone on theteam," running back Edgerrin James says. "He has a chance to be specialbecause guys will go the extra mile for him."
With the poise ofa tested veteran, the courage to take chances downfield and an uncanny abilityto exploit gaps in coverage--in Whisenhunt's words, "anticipating windowswith the touch and depth perception to put the ball in the perfectspot"--the 6' 5" lefty has already made an impression on opposingdefenders. "He did a great job last year, and I'm sure he'll get evenbetter," says Brian Urlacher, the Chicago Bears' All-Pro middle linebacker."We all know he's calm back there, and if they can find a way to protecthim, look out."
Winners of oneplayoff game since 1947, the Cards have remained a laughingstock in the age ofparity. Yet Leinart regards raising Arizona as a plausible story line. "I'mso excited about this season," he says. "I know I've got to get betterat a lot of things, but I'm so much more comfortable. I think the guys haveresponded to me, and we have high expectations. We know we can win."
Here's somethingelse Leinart knows, and he learned it the hard way: When you're in thelimelight, the glare doesn't fade when the game ends. Starting in the fall of2005, as the reigning Heisman winner and national champion quarterback whochose to return for his senior year at USC--not to mention playing in L.A. forwhat amounted to the city's de facto pro football team--Leinart experienced alevel of scrutiny to which few college athletes can relate. And thetabloid-style treatment has only intensified, from suggestive cellphone photosat a New York City club, to rumors of a romance with Paris Hilton, to thebreaking news tag on a cable-channel ticker announcing that his formergirlfriend, Trojans basketball player Brynn Cameron, was pregnant with hischild.
Earlier thismonth, at a dormitory complex across from the UC Santa Barbara campus inGoleta, Calif., Leinart was besieged once again. This time he was fieldingquestions from an audience of more than 200 kids, who were attending the firstMatt Leinart Football Camp, though some of those who raised their hands seemedbetter suited for the first Ted Koppel Interview Camp.
What NFL player doyou hate the most?
"Uh, wow,that's a tough one....Anyone who went to UCLA."
How did it feellosing to Texas in the Rose Bowl?
"It feltpretty bad." (The rest of his answer was drowned out by boos from othercampers.)
What went wrong inthe Bears game?
"We didn'tknow how to finish them."
That was Leinart'sG-rated way of describing one of the biggest choke jobs in recent NFL history.The Cardinals, 1-4 going into a Monday Night Football home game againstundefeated and eventual NFC champion Chicago, blew a 23-3 late third-quarterlead as the Bears scored touchdowns on a pair of fumble recoveries by thedefense and a punt return. With Arizona trailing 24-23 in the final minute,Leinart, in his second start, drove his team into field-goal range, only towatch normally reliable Neil Rackers miss a 40-yard attempt. When the gameended, Leinart angrily hurled his helmet across the field. In the locker roomcoach Dennis Green glared at his passer while lecturing the Cardinals abouttheir poor attitude.
The helmet tosswasn't surprising to those who know Leinart best. "When Matt was a kid, hismother and grandmother stopped playing board games with him because he was sucha bad loser," Leinart's father, Bob, recalls. "He'd cheat and whine andthrow cards or Monopoly pieces when he'd lose." Panique says thequarterback once threw a Ping-Pong paddle at him after dropping a contentiousgame. Adds Bron Heussenstamm, a professional surfer who befriended Leinartafter returning to USC to finish school, "Everyone says, 'Matt's alaid-back California guy,' but he's the most competitive person ever. One daywe were over at [actor] Wilmer Valderrama's house, and Wilmer's got aPop-a-Shot game. We found out that one of our friends had the record of, like,90 points, so Matt goes, 'F--- this. I'm going to break it.' He spends an hourtrying out about six different [shooting] techniques--two hands, high shots,underhand, bank shots--and figures out what works best. He keeps going until hegets 91."
"It was93," Leinart interrupts.
Fortunately forthose around him, Leinart usually wins. Last year he suffered as many losses asa starter--seven--as he had at Mater Dei High (in Santa Ana, Calif.) and USCcombined. "Growing up, every one of Matt's teams won," Bob Leinartsays. "Early on, his success as an athlete was what saved him when kidswere really cruel."
Leinart was borncross-eyed, had corrective surgery at 18 months and wore glasses until hisearly teens. He was also overweight. Kids called him names such as Four Eyesand Shamu. Says Panique, "He was not very fashionable. He was the 180-poundUrkel." By eighth grade Leinart had shed most of his flab while sproutingto 6' 2 1‚ÅÑ2"--at which point his older brother, Ryan, nicknamed himGheorghe Muresan, after the former NBA center, "because he was so big andhairy."
After being teasedso much, it's no wonder Leinart relates well to kids, though his father says itcomes naturally. "His mother [Linda] worked as a secretary for theprincipal of a school for special-ed kids," Bob says. "Even when he waseight or nine, Matt would go and talk to them--and these were kids who weren'teasy to talk to." Having a child of his own came earlier than expected forLeinart, whose son, Cole, was born last October and lives with his mother inthe L.A. area. "Matt and I have chosen to live different lifestyles, andall I can do is raise Cole to be a strong, grounded little boy," Camerontold the Los Angeles Times in a written statement earlier this month."Being a parent is a full-time job, and Matt's schedule doesn't allow himto be around much."
Leinart insistshe's committed to being an involved father. "It's forced me to be much moreresponsible about my decisions," he says, "because I want him to lookup to me as a great role model. That's harder than playing sometimes."
Among thedecisions of which Leinart is proudest was his recent launching of a charitablefoundation to benefit various children's causes. (Last Thursday's kickoff eventin L.A. was a bowling tournament and silent auction that drew stars such asMaria Sharapova and Nick Lachey and raised more than $100,000.) Yet for allthis newfound maturity Leinart is the first to admit that he's "still akid," beaming over his purchase of a high-tech video golf game (similar tothe one on Entourage, naturally) and struggling with basic tasks such asbalancing a checkbook.
"I'm 24, and Ican't even turn on my air conditioning," Leinart says. "Sometimes Istill call my mom to ask her how to do things." Linda Leinart, says husbandBob, "pays all Matt's bills. He doesn't even have a clue." This mayhelp explain Leinart's willingness to pick up tabs, a habit that concerns ChuckPrice, a former high school football coach who is one of the quarterback'sagents (along with Tom Condon). Earlier this month, Price says, "Matt and Ihad our first fight. There's a guy he's been hanging around with who I thinkmight be taking advantage of the situation. Matt doesn't want to hear that, butit's my job to be protective. Most of the guys he hangs out with are peoplehe's known since before he was famous. He knows they have his back."
Ah, the entourage.Leinart laughs with his friends about the parallels with his favorite TV show,but he's sensitive about the perception that he's an affected socialite. He wasmiffed when, at the 2006 scouting combine, New Orleans Saints coach Sean Paytonasked during an interview, "So what's the deal with your entourage?"Two months later, after Leinart, who was projected as a top-three pick, fell toNo.¬†10, some NFL executives blamed his Hollywood image, implying thatteams were concerned he wasn't focused enough on football.
Given thatLeinart, had he turned pro following his Heisman-winning junior season, wouldalmost certainly have been picked No.¬†1 by the San Francisco¬†49ers,does he regret the decision to return to USC? "Nooooooooo--no way," hesays. "I wasn't mature enough to play in the pros [then]. And if I'd beenthrown out there that season, I'd have gotten my ass kicked."
Sitting at adowntown Santa Barbara steak house on a recent Sunday night, Leinart quietlypicked up a four-figure tab for a large party that included Heussenstamm,childhood friend Loc Dao (his housemate in the Bel Air pad Leinart rents forovernight visits with Cole) and big brother Ryan, who runs Leinart'sfoundation.
Leinart may beliving large, but he seems able to keep his ego in check. "Some top pickscome in and act like people owe them something, but Matt was the opposite,"says Anquan Boldin, the Cardinals' Pro Bowl wideout. Even Warner, who lost hisjob to Leinart but remains in Arizona as his backup, is an unabashed fan:"He's been very humble. He was very open to being taught, and everybodygravitates to him."
As he led the crewout of the restaurant and up State Street, Leinart returned the love."Draft day was the most stressful experience of my life," he said,"but it turns out that Arizona is the greatest place I could be. Throw inmy son being born, and me being close enough to see him on off days, and everyday I say my prayers and go, 'Thank God I'm in Arizona.' "
A few secondslater Leinart walked through the entrance of Tonic, a bustling club, and gave asoul shake to the doorman. "Just you?" the doorman asked. Leinartshrugged as his entourage came up behind him; the doorman smiled and waved themthrough.¬±
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Leinart laughs about the parallels with his favorite TVshow, but he's sensitive about the perception that he's an AFFECTEDSOCIALITE.
"Matt has a one-on-one relationship witheveryone," says James. "He has a chance to be special because guys willGO THE EXTRA MILE for him."
Photograph by Gregory R. Banner/WireImage.com
Though he dropped in the 2006 draft, Leinart believes he is in the perfectsituation with Arizona.
YOUNG AT HEART
Whether working with kids at his camp or getting slimed on Nickelodeon, Leinartwas in his element
JANET VAN HAM/NICKELODEON
JOHN W. MCDONOUGH
A gang of celebrity friends, including Sharapova (bottom), bowled over Leinart,who took cuts with Boldin and Whisenhunt before a Diamondbacks game.
RICK SCUTERI-US PRESSWIRE
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Leinart, who has earned raves for his pinpoint passing, brings hope to thefans--and to a team that has won only one playoff game since 1947.
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JOHN W. MCDONOUGH
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