Special to Page 2
EDITOR'S NOTE: Erica Lucero, a sophomore at Southern Cal, will provide Page 2 with periodic updates from campus this season as the Trojans attempt to win their third consecutive national championship.
LOS ANGELES -- As freshmen, we would always reserve Matt Leinart as a topic for the dinner table. Our common conversation starters were "I saw Matt Leinart today in Jamba Juice," or "I saw Matt Leinart today in front of the library." At our sunny campus, being a football fan has its finite rules, some of which apply to The Big Man on Campus.
The first rule: No student ever just says "Matt" or "Leinart" or even "Matt L." when referring to our talented quarterback. Abbreviating his name would be like implying that he is a demigod, when everyone knows he really is a god.
Rule No. 2: No incident, however insignificant it might seem, should go unreported.
"I saw Matt Leinart go into the bathroom today and I almost fainted," one freshman girl told me.
"Matt Leinart looked at me today," a freshman boy told me. "I think he winked. Do you think he's gay?"
This syndrome does not strike only the young and impressionable among us here on campus. A senior girl told me, "Matt Leinhart dropped a pen today. And then he picked it up."
Rule No. 3: None of these incidents, in civil society, is ever greeted with laughter.
In January, Leinart announced that he was, in effect, giving up $24 million in guaranteed money to continue as a college football player. Standing in front of Heritage Hall and announcing his loyalty to both his school and the NCAA, the guy had hundreds of cameras and many more eyes trained on his face.
As the announcement sank in over the next few days, many USC students had a confused look about them. Yes, we were excited and relieved, but we ladies couldn't help calculating the number of Rodeo Drive stores he could've been hitting up with that type of paycheck. As one fraternity member told me, "He's, like, crazy. He could've rented out the Playboy Mansion, for like, years."
My roommate last year designated a wall of her closet for taped-up memorabilia that had special meaning for her -- pictures of family and friends, tickets from memorable events, some of her original artwork. At the center: a brown cafeteria napkin with Matt Leinart's signature scrawled in the bottom-left corner.
It is in this adoring display that we find the true answer to the question about why Matt Leinart gave up going to the NFL for another year: The guy is royalty at the most fanatical football school in the world.
USC fans are hard core. By some teams' standards, you're a faithful fan if you attend a few games a year. That just doesn't cut it here in South Central. We love our football, and missing a game is sacrilegious.
I was a naïve and impressionable freshman sitting in the student section at one of my first games last year, when -- out of the blue -- some grad students got into it. A young woman from Harvard was visiting her friend from USC and attempted to defend Harvard's sorry football legacy. She was nearly thrown to her death from the Coliseum stands by some formidable-looking dental students.
The bottom line: Matt Leinart has a built-in and faithful (not to mention violent) audience at all times.
So what exactly do the students think of all of this? There seems to be a division, and the dividing line is the sex of the student.
Women take a very common-sense approach. They worry about his education (as a fifth-year senior, he needs only a few more credits to graduate). They point out that he has a lot of school spirit -- he wants to stick by his teammates as long as possible. They know that his reputation is at stake. And they think that by finishing his degree and maybe (fingers crossed) winning that second Heisman, he will reach ultimate role model status.
Plus, he looks pretty darn good without a shirt on.
The gentlemen, on the other hand, are obsessed with the cold, hard sports considerations. They tend to bombard their listeners with news about the plays he still needs to perfect, and where he would have ended up had he gone pro.
A local college read, "Saturday Night Magazine," asked our coach, Pete Carroll, just how he manages the star power of a player like Leinart. His answer: Leinart is merely another player on a great team.
Jeff Tola, a varsity linebacker and an old buddy of mine from high school, is similarly matter-of-fact. His opinion on Leinart's decision to remain a Trojan: "Well, he's a good player on the team, so of course we're happy to have him back."
In the end, it comes down to this: Who would want to give up his superstar status? Leinart would have gone to the 49ers, a mediocre -- at best -- team that is not in immediate need of a quarterback.
Here, he has girls throwing themselves at him almost constantly, not to mention the envy and respect of the vast majority of the school's male population. So why would the Big Man on Campus want to go to the big, bad NFL and return to freshman status? Instantaneously, he'd be transported to the days of getting his head stuck in the toilet by a bunch of bullies out to prove that the Golden Boy from USC is more bronze than gold.
Plus, as one freshman triumphantly informed me, "I saw Matt Leinart scratch his back in Alumni Park today. He's, like, the best scratcher ever."
Erica Lucero is a 19-year-old USC student from Upland, Calif., working toward an English major and an American Studies minor. Her activities on campus include writing for the college newspaper, serving as an officer of her sorority, representing the Trojan Alumni Association as a Pepster and acting as a peer mediator.