Leinart's star shines brightly in L.A. scene

9/23/2005 - USC Trojans

LOS ANGELES -- For the record, and contrary to Internet myth (imagine such a thing), Matt Leinart says he does not have a bodyguard.

True, campus security has been utilized at times to provide Leinart and teammate Reggie Bush safe passage through the autograph hounds, jock gawkers and thrill seekers who clog the way off the practice field at the University of Sporting Celebrities.

And security was in place to repel an adoration assault upon Leinart and Bush at the Trojans' annual preseason fan barbecue. But, no: When No. 11 is out among the people, you're not likely to find a sadistic no-neck behemoth scanning the crowd for threats to Leinart's personal space.

He's just your average Jimmy Kimmel guest, really. Another college student leading a simple existence between ESPY appearances, Rolling Stone interviews and guest spots with Jim Rome. Nothing more than a Joe Bag o' Donuts dude with a Heisman Trophy and his own video PR campaign, shared with Bush. (MattReggieTV.com, as described on the USC athletic Web site: "It's raw, it's edgy, it's fun it's Trojan football, reality TV style.")

Leinart has birthdays with cake and candles, just like everybody else (served at Mood, one of L.A.'s freshest clubs). And his friends sing "happy birthday" to him just like everyone else (the singers being Nick Lachey, Jessica Simpson, Lindsay Lohan, etc.). He puts his pants on one leg at a time (and they're nice pants, worn in the recent Esquire and GQ photo shoots).

"Matt Leinart," USC teammate LenDale White says, "is probably the biggest celebrity in L.A."

That's all.

A pregame trip around the L.A. Coliseum, before the Trojans atomized Arkansas 70-17, lends weight to White's words. Four glamorous, attractive, thirty-something blondes were walking in a pack outside the stadium, and all were wearing Leinart jerseys.

This is the borderline fictional life Leinart has landed in -- he and all the Trojans, thanks to their historic run of excellence. Chicks who normally shop Prada walk around in your jersey, en masse.

No wonder a guy who seems, in his gut, to be first-team All-Affable can be aggrandized to the point of needing security simply to survive an autograph session.

"If I'm going to be at an event signing autographs for two hours, people have to understand," Leinart explained Saturday night, after the latest and possibly greatest offensive masterpiece to date. "I'm not a mean person if I say no."

He's not a mean person, no. He's not even an aloof person under normal circumstances -- but the Trojans passed normal at least one national title ago. So Leinart has had to learn a lesson in protective selfishness during this dizzying metamorphosis from dumpy kid to college stud to rock star.

"[The demands] are a lot," he acknowledged, with eyes that betray a hint of media weariness. "But that's what I've come to understand."

Here's what we all need to understand: USC football, once a faded entity in a fully stocked pro market, has been elevated to NFL-level status in L.A. -- and, truthfully, beyond. To Hollywood A-list status.

You've got a college team that put 90,000 in the Coliseum to watch a game everyone knew would be a blowout. Home games in the monstrous old venue already are sold out for UCLA and Fresno State, and all the rest will draw well. Hard to believe it was only five years ago that the Trojans drew an average of 57,339.

Events have conspired to make the Men of Troy, led by their quarterback, the trendiest athletes in the trendiest town on Earth. The quest for a threepeat national title, the return of a charismatic defending Heisman Trophy winner and his nitroglycerine sidekick, the deconstruction of Kobe Bryant, the absence of the NFL, the relative facelessness of the local baseball franchises stir it all together, and you have a college team that's become a phenomenon.

"We've got tons of stars," veteran USC sports information director Tim Tessalone said. "With Reggie above that 'star' plateau and Leinart at the 'celebrity' level. In my 27 years here, he's the first 'celebrity' we've had. We've had lots of stars who went on to become celebs -- Marcus [Allen], Keyshawn [Johnson], [Ronnie] Lott, [Jason] Sehorn, etc. -- but none who were at this level in college. And Reggie is approaching that, too. Being in L.A., and the dearth of sports stars on the other teams in town our guys seem to be taking center stage."

The only comparable college team I've seen, in terms of stage presence, star power and squeal appeal, was Duke's 1992 repeat national basketball champions. Leinart is Christian Laettner, the charismatic, untouchable leading man -- only a lot more likeable. Bush is Grant Hill, the guy most likely to drop your jaw at any given moment. Pete Carroll is Coach K, with fewer controlling urges.

The buzz surrounding that Duke team, as it rolled through the epic regional final game against Kentucky in Philadelphia and then the Final Four in Minneapolis, was palpable. The Blue Devils' public workouts in the Spectrum and the Metrodome were spectacles.

But those were the closing acts of a repeat. USC is in the opening acts of a threepeat. And the scene is L.A. Can you imagine what it will be like if the Trojans keep marching along unbeaten into the Rose Bowl to play for the national championship?

"It's pretty crazy," wide receiver Steve Smith said. "I haven't seen it this intense in forever. You can't let it get to you.

"It's getting tough with all the people coming around, but as long as we have great leaders on this team, we'll be all right."

You know where the leadership starts on this team. Same place as the star power.

When the potential No. 1 NFL draft pick comes back to take a ballroom dancing class and sling it around one more time, he's got the admiration of his peers. Right now, the idea of becoming the most decorated college player ever sounds a whole lot better than being bludgeoned (or, worse, carrying a clipboard) in San Francisco.

"I don't regret anything," Leinart said firmly.

He is the perfect embodiment of Carroll's this-is-supposed-to-be-a-blast ethos. He used the F-word several times in the locker room after the Arkansas romp:

"College football's just fun."

"It's fun, yeah. The fans are great. They've helped us in our home games."

"We have so much fun out there."

And that's why he's still playing college ball, instead of pulling down millions in the No Fun League. This game can be a joy -- especially when you play it the way Leinart does.

"Matt just is rolling," Carroll said admiringly. "He's in such command right now."

Not only that, but Matt Leinart isn't tiptoeing around out there, trying to save himself from injury from now until draft day. He's competing like a sandlot hero, lumbering 17 rather glacial yards for a touchdown at one point against the Razorbacks. He took a shot near the goal line and came up jubilant.

No bodyguards present on that play. None needed, either.

Pat Forde is a senior writer at ESPN.com. He can be reached at ESPN4D@aol.com.