Look who's in charge
EDITOR'S NOTE: This article appears in the June 18 issue of ESPN The Magazine.
Most everyone at ESPN has fantasized once or twice (or 10,000 times) about scoring six at Happy Valley, going yard at Wrigley or taking the checkered flag at Daytona. Turns out, athletes have fantasies too. When we asked a bunch of pro and college jocks if they wanted to run The Magazine for an issue, they couldn't wait to get started. First in line? Matt Leinart, the Cardinals QB who's spent a lot of time wondering why he dropped in last year's NFL draft. Well, it's your story, Matt
DON'T GO TO NEW YORK
When players asked me for draft advice this year, that was it. Stay home. Be with friends and family. Enjoy draft day. But if you're not guaranteed the top overall pick, do not go to New York.
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April 29, 2006, was one of the longest days of my life. There was so much anxiety, so much buildup. I felt like I sat in that room forever. The Texans the Saints the Titans the Jets When my name was finally called -- "With the 10th pick, the Arizona Cardinals select Matt Leinart" -- I was just happy my draft was over.
I've thought about the draft process a lot over the past year. It's something that's still deep in my heart. I was surprised I fell so far, surprised teams I was sure had me first on their list chose someone else. I'd spent the four months leading up to draft day working out, putting on a suit and tie, flying to meet with coaches and GMs -- and I was drafted by a team that never interviewed me. I was coming off a national championship game, my second straight, but my stock kept falling. It was difficult. I had so many questions about why, but I didn't think I'd ever have answers. Even if, one day, I saw Jets GM Mike Tannenbaum at a game or ran into Titans head coach Jeff Fisher at a restaurant, I figured I'd never have the courage to ask them what happened that day.
Then, this past March, The Mag called. "The athletes are taking over the magazine," an editor told me. "We're offering you a job as a reporter." Always thinking about life after football, I accepted. And I didn't need much time to come up with an idea. The owners meetings were happening that month in Phoenix, my backyard. As a QB, I wouldn't dare ask why I got shafted. But as a reporter? Those guys aren't ashamed to ask anything. I'd have the chance to do what so many players dream of doing: Look the decisionmakers in the eyes, get them squirming and ask, "Coach, what the hell happened?"
I approached this assignment like a good quarterback: I prepared. The weekend before the meetings, I put together a mix of icebreakers and serious questions. I thought about what each guy might say and how I'd respond. I had to be sharp. I'd get to the Arizona Biltmore Resort & Spa at noon on March 26 and would have to leave by 2 for a business meeting across town. (Hey, this isn't my only side gig.)
My hit list was topped by Fisher, Jets coach Eric Mangini and Tannenbaum. Those guys had the third and fourth picks, respectively, in the 2006 draft. They needed QBs. They needed me. Now I wanted answers.
Before I tackled my A-list, I needed to sharpen my interviewing skills. You know, start off light, have some fun. I needed to find someone I was familiar with, someone closer to my age.
ML: Yo! Kiff! Kiff! Can I get a minute?
LANE KIFFIN: Is that a reporter's credential?
ML: Sure is. I'm working for ESPN The Magazine. I had to take such a pay cut after dropping in the draft that I needed a second job. And I've got a question for you. I thought I was going to be a top-five pick. But I went 10th. I want to ask these talent guys why. Think I could warm up on you?
LK: I guess so.
ML: Great. I'm Matt Leinart here at the annual owners meetings in Phoenix, Ariz., with Lane Kiffin, new head coach of the Oakland Raiders.
LK: Who are you talking to?
ML: Kiff, at 31, you're the youngest head coach in NFL history. How do you gain the respect of guys like Warren Sapp?
LK: One day at a time.
ML: Like you this year, I was a rookie last year. I was hazed a lot. Anyone tape you to a goalpost and make you sing Paris Hilton songs?
LK: No, Matt, haven't been taped anywhere. Yet.
ML: Okay. I'm warmed up. Coach, if you had been in Oakland last year, would you have drafted me?
LK: For sure, Matt.
ML: Thanks, Coach. That's all.
ML: Yeah, Coach?
LK: Stick with quarterbacking.
I knew the Texans were taking Mario Williams. That deal was done before the draft started. And Reggie seemed like an obvious choice for the Saints. But still
ML: Hey! Coach Payton!
SEAN PAYTON: Hey, Matt.
ML: How are things in New Orleans?
SP: Doing well.
ML: Coach, how good is Reggie Bush?
SP: He's explosive. He's competitive. But I saw him play hoops in Vegas. His game needs work. Sticking to football is gonna work out better for him.
ML: Let's say Reggie had gone No. 1. Who do you take second?
SP: Well, we seriously considered Matt Leinart. But we had already signed Drew Brees. So we looked at A.J. Hawk and Mario. Those were the two players we were going to debate. But come on, we had ya in for a visit. Gave ya a Saints helmet.
ML: It was a minihelmet. And a gift bag, a nice T-shirt and hat, though.
SP: It was hard to pass on that talent.
ML: I guess I'm no Saint.
Don't get me wrong. I've got a great deal. In the long run, I may be better off in Arizona. My kid lives a short flight away in LA. The Cardinals have a ton of talent on offense. But I clicked in my interview with the Jets, loved New York and would've filled a hole there.
ML: Hey, Mike! How you doing?
MIKE TANNENBAUM: Looking for a good QB.
ML: Well, I'm looking for five minutes with you and Coach Mangini. Got time for an interview?
ML: Yeah. Hey, Coach!
ERIC MANGINI: Hey, Matt. Interview, huh? What for?
ML: I'm working for ESPN The Magazine, trying to find out why I fell so far in the draft last year.
EM: I see. So when did your preseason camp start?
ML: Two weeks ago.
EM: You plan on working out today?
ML: Already did. Worked out this morning. Hard.
EM: Your coach know you're playing reporter?
ML: Yessir. About to interview him. So you think I could get five minutes?
EM: Well, we've got a meeting that's about to start.
ML: After the meeting? I mean, New York is one of the two teams that's haunted me. I had a great visit. Thought we really got along. Loved New York.
MT: So, how's being a dad? How old is Cole now? Five, 6 months?
ML: Six. It's great. He's gonna be a lefty, like me. A pitcher or a quarterback, like me. Well, not exactly like me. He'll go No. 1.
MT: I'm sure he will.
ML: So, five minutes?
EM: Sounds great, Matt. See ya after the meeting.
ML: I have to leave at 2.
EM: Meeting's over at 2:30. Another time.
Here's an example of how fickle the process is. I had five interviews at the combine. One of them was with the Panthers, who had the 27th pick.
ML: Hey, Coach Fox. When you interviewed me, I remember thinking, Why is Carolina interviewing me? Did you know something I didn't?
JOHN FOX: You just never know if you can move up. Sometimes that happens and you have to cover your bases. You're a guy we liked but didn't get.
ML: I almost fell that far. I sat in that draft room for about three-and-a-half hours. It was miserable.
JF: You're a good guy, Matt, and we did consider drafting you.
ML: Does your wife here have any pull?
JF: Well, you know where her vote was.
ROBIN FOX: There was a lot of talk at home. I was pulling for you.
JF: Oh, all women love quarterbacks.
RF: Good-looking quarterbacks.
JF: Especially nice-looking ones.
RF: You had my vote.
So if I come out as a junior -- after winning the Heisman and the national title -- I'm a surefire No. 1 overall pick. I go to the Niners instead of Alex Smith. The upside is, now I've got a head coach in Ken Whisenhunt who turned Ben Roethlisberger into the youngest Super Bowl-winning QB ever. That's got to be worth the $10M in guaranteed money I lost, right?
ML: Hey, Coach Whisenhunt! Can I get a minute? Doing some investigative reporting for ESPN The Magazine.
KEN WHISENHUNT: You working out today?
ML: Already did. This morning. Hard. Now can I get a minute?
KW: Who else was in the weight room?
ML: Lots of guys.
KW: You telling the truth? You getting into shape?
ML: Yes, Coach. But seriously, you were with the Steelers two years ago. Forget about that whole Super Bowl. If I had come out my junior year, would you have traded up?
KW: Thinking back, in my report on the quarterbacks, the biggest knock on you was that you're a lefty. It was going to be too hard to teach you to throw it righthanded. So we were a little down on you.
ML: What about the mobility factor?
KW: You mean the lack thereof?
ML: What about my arm strength? That came up quite a bit when I was dropping.
KW: Not a problem. You get rid of the ball quick. You have good anticipation.
ML: Oooh, anticipation. Good word. Who wins a race -- Ben Roethlisberger or me?
KW: Hopefully, you won't be running.
ML: You didn't answer the question. I am deceptively fast. I want that on record. I don't get out of the blocks quick. But once I get going, I've got big legs.
KW: Hopefully, you won't be running.
I know some teams thought I was too Hollywood. But the Titans knew better. Jeff Fisher is an SC guy. Before my senior season, he even hired my offensive coordinator, Norm Chow. That should have made me a lock to go third overall. And they used the pick to take Vince Young. That still hurts.
ML: Coach Fisher! I'm doing some investigative reporting on why I fell in the draft last year.
JEFF FISHER: Sounds interesting.
ML: Last April, I was in New York. My bags were packed, I'm thinking, I'm going to the Titans, No. 3. My mom was excited, told all her friends. My family was excited to reunite with a couple of Trojans. I thought us USC guys stuck together. How much was Norm lobbying for me?
JF: Norm was not permitted in the draft room because we wanted an objective approach.
ML: Fair enough.
JF: You enjoyed Nashville in your brief time there, didn't you?
ML: I loved it. It's right up my alley. I loved the country. We had a great talk in your office about hunting. I enjoyed getting a chance to meet you guys. I was looking forward to being a Titan.
JF: Are you happy now?
ML: I'm excited.
JF: And how many years did you sign for?
JF: Six? Sheesh, I'm on the verge of tampering.
ML: If I would have gone for half of what you paid Vince, would you have taken me?
JF: Money wasn't the issue. We had people who told us, "If you want Matt, just trade in the second round. You'll get him there."
ML: Wow, I felt like that might happen. Coach, seriously. Can you tell me what happened? Please.
JF: Matt, do you mind if I go back?
ML: Go back?
JF: You see, I had a grandfather who passed away 15 years ago. He lived to be about 90. And right before he died, he gave away a bunch of rare coins. I got a $20 gold piece that I use every year for the draft. It's brought us a lot of luck over the past few years. Well, last year, we couldn't make a decision. So I threw this coin in the air. You were heads, Vince was tails -- and it came down tails.
ML: So my career was decided on a coin toss?
JF: Matt, I don't know what else to say.
ML: There's nothing left to say, Coach.