- Tom Friend, ESPN.com Senior writer
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Matt Leinart Skeptic: "Your boy's stupid, man."
Buddy of Matt Leinart: "Why's he stupid?"
Skeptic: "All that money he passed up, bro."
Buddy: "He wasn't gonna spend it on you, so why are you so upset?"
Skeptic: " 'Cause he's stupid, bro."
Buddy: "Stupid? You don't know him. You just don't know him."
KEVIN KNUTSON knows him, and Kevin wants to tell you it was never about the money. Yes, Matt Leinart won the Heisman Trophy last year. Yes, he torched Oklahoma for 5 TDs in the Orange Bowl. Yes, he was probably going first overall to the 49ers. Yes, that's worth a cool 22 mil guaranteed. But no, Matt never went shopping for an accountant.
Kevin wants to tell you how Matt lived last season at USC. In a word, disgustingly. His place was on Adams Boulevard, a few blocks from campus on the outskirts of South Central. It was a one-bedroom, first-floor apartment. Anyone could've waltzed in. Matt Grootegoed, a linebacker, slept in the living room and Leinart slept in the bedroom. The bathroom needed a plunger. They lived off sandwiches from Quiznos. If they were thirsty, there was a crate of Gatorade on the coffee table. Kevin, their buddy from high school, called it a "flophouse."
On the night USC edged UCLA, Kevin left the place to buy beer— and got mugged by three gangbangers. When he staggered inside, blood on his face, Leinart went chasing after the thugs. There was Matt, the future bonus baby, sprinting down Adams, shouting, "What'd they look like?"
"I was praying he didn't find them," Kevin says. "They could've ended his career. So that's what I'm saying. You think this guy thinks about the money?"
After the Orange Bowl, Matt and Kevin moved into another place, just blocks away. The two-story building had cockroaches and smelled of gas. They each paid $400 a month and slept in the same room. Kevin nicknamed the place The Bean. They borrowed five bucks from each other. They squirted ketchup at each other. Their neighbors had keg parties three nights a week. A couch got tossed off a balcony, and bicycles were sunk in the swimming pool. The pool water was pea green. Matt's mom refused to step through the door. "Whatever, I don't care," Matt says. "I'm easy to please. I just need a bed and video games, and I'm set."
So this is where Matt Leinart woke up on Jan. 14, the day he would decide whether to turn pro or not, the day that had USC and several NFL teams saying their rosaries. If he turned pro, he'd get a penthouse, and if he stayed, he'd get The Bean. He chose The Bean. "I know," Matt says. "Nine out of 10 guys would've left."
He simply got up that morning and told Kevin, "Dude, I'm staying." Kevin said, "Sweet," and then they played Halo. In their boxers.
Eventually, Matt decided to dress for the press conference. First he put on his Chuck Taylor lowtops, the ones he wears every day. Then he dug through his hamper and found a two-day-old shirt. It needed ironing, but he didn't own an iron. A buddy brought one over, but Matt didn't have an ironing board, either. So the buddy ironed the shirt against the couch. Just the front, though. The TV cameras would only need to see the front.
A little later, Kevin flipped on the TV. There was Matt in a crowded room. On a podium. About to go public with his decision. The shirt looked sharp. Wasn't wrinkled at all.
BOB, LINDA and Ryan Leinart know him, and they want to tell you about the family argument.
This was five days before The Decision, at a restaurant in Orange County. A Claim Jumper, they think. They took a vote that night and Matt's older brother, Ryan, voted NFL. He mentioned the Heisman and the two national titles, and said, "Bro, there's nothing left to prove."
Then Matt's mom, Linda, chimed in, hard. She voted NFL too, but only because of The Bean and the lack of safety around campus. She talked about Kevin's mugging and how Matt could be a target himself this year. Linda's a worrier to begin with, can barely watch Matt's games, and she stood her ground on this. She wanted Matt out of The Bean, out of South Central and into the NFL, where even the players' bodyguards have bodyguards.
Bob Leinart, Matt's jovial dad, was neutral. Bob's a USC fan, walks around in a Trojans cap. If his son stayed, super. He felt Matt would still go No. 1 next year, that his son was "Tom Brady, only better." But the money issue had him conflicted. The family has lived in the same quaint, middle-class Santa Ana home for 22 years. It's only 1,500 square feet, and they've never seen a reason to upgrade. Bob has a business selling giftware and Linda works in a high school principal's office, and money was never a priority.
But Bob looked out the restaurant window that night and saw Matt's 1999 white Ford Ranger pickup. Matt's first car. A clunker. Has a stick shift because it was cheaper to buy that way. The front grill is dented, the bumper guard is frayed. It reminded Bob of a bet he and Matt had made the previous August. He'd told Matt that if he won the Heisman, he could have any car on earth. But when he won, Linda— who keeps Matt grounded— told him they couldn't afford it.
"I could've been the kid who's, BS, we had a bet," Matt says. "But I knew we didn't have the money."
Matt loved the Ranger, anyway. Wanted to keep it for his kids someday. His buds had dubbed it the Danger Ranger, and at least it had AC. The Bean didn't, and sometimes Matt would seek refuge in the Danger Ranger's front seat. Just sit and cool off.
So that night at the restaurant, the quarterback set everyone straight. He told them he wasn't done being a kid. Reminded them that he still brought laundry home to Mom. That he still wore his lucky boxers on game days. That he still wore his lucky Tommy Lasorda-autographed Dodgers cap. That he still surfed. He looked at his brother and said, "Do you know how bad my throwing elbow is? I've got tendinitis, scar tissue. I'm not 100%. I want to be 100% if I go to the combine, not 95%.
"I need surgery on it," he added. "And if I go pro I can't have surgery, because someone would have to draft me without ever seeing me throw. And I don't want to dodge anyone."
Then he talked about the hernia, the hernia few knew about. He played the final six games last season with a tear in his abdominal area and couldn't even do a sit-up. "I had to get out of bed carrying my leg," he says. "At the UCLA game, I couldn't move."
Five days before The Decision, that hernia still ached. It needed months of rehab and rest and wouldn't heal by the combine. "I'll say it again. I just want to be 100%," Matt told the family. Ryan was sold.
Then Matt made a promise to his mom. He told her he'd move. He told her that before next season he'd leave The Bean.
STEVE KNOWS him, and Steve wants to tell you Matt wasn't always a golden boy.
In junior high, Matt was actually fat and crosseyed. He didn't play quarterback until eighth grade, and that was flag football. He didn't play tackle football until ninth. He blew out his left throwing shoulder playing baseball and sat all of 10th. Only then did Steve Clarkson start molding him into what he is today. Steve, who runs the esteemed Air 7 Football Academy in Pasadena, is Matt's private coach, and he'll tell you Matt was a determined kid. That while his shoulder was injured, he learned to throw righthanded. That it humbled Matt to sit on the bench two years at Mater Dei High School and two years at USC.
He'll tell you that all along, he felt Matt would succeed. That Matt saw the field like a junior Joe Montana. That he had a photographic memory. He'll tell you Matt became shockingly athletic. That he has a 38-inch vertical leap now and can throw down 360° dunks. He'll tell you to remember Matt's been a starter for only four years of his life.
And that's another reason Matt stayed in school. He likes finally being Big Man on Campus-much more than being Big Target in 49ers Backfield.
JOSH KNOWS him, and Josh wants to tell you about LA.
He'll tell you LA has its pseudo pro football team: USC. And that LA likes to fawn over its one pro quarterback: you-know-who.
So Josh Richman-actor, producer, Hollywood event director and son of former USC SID Don Richman-invited Matt Leinart into his world. Took him to the hot club Mood. Introduced him to his friends Vince Vaughn and Adam Sandler. Threw him a birthday party. Soon Matt was hanging with Chris Rock and the Timberlake posse. One night, Alyssa Milano spasmed at the mere sight of him.
Josh loved that Matt would drive around Hollywood in the Danger Ranger. Josh even changed the truck's pronunciation to a Frenchsounding Dahn-jay Rahn-jay. It was a sweet life. Kevin went clubbing with Matt one night and bumped into Nick Lachey. Kevin, who's not shy, said, "What's up, dude?" Nick answered, "Did you hear Matt Leinart's here?" Kevin said, "That's my boy!" He introduced the two and now Matt plays golf and goes to Angels games with Nick. He got invited to party with Nick and Jessica on Halloween and dressed as an Alpine yodeler. Wore lederhosen.
But the life had a downside. Matt began to get mobbed. He'd have to wear a hood or his Lasorda cap low over his eyes. "He'd Johnny Depp it," Josh says. But because Matt is 6'5", he'd still get paparazzied. An LA cop even asked for his autograph. Most quarterbacks get that only when they're in the NFL, but Matt gets it in college. It's one less reason to go pro.
"Yeah, I can live the life of an NFL player right here in LA," he says.
What, you prefer Cleveland?
BRYNN KNOWS him, and Brynn wants to tell you she's the reason he came back.
Actually, she only hopes she's the reason. She's his girlfriend.
Matt first laid eyes on her in the USC training room last fall. Brynn Cameron was a freshman basketball player who would lead her team in scoring; he was a stud QB who would win the Heisman. And neither had heard of the other. He liked that she wasn't another starstruck female and says, "I confess, I actually went to eight girls basketball games this year."
He'd previously dated a surfer/model, Veronica Kay, and he's also been out with Jessica Simpson's personal assistant, CaCee Cobb. But this was for real. He'd pick up Brynn's younger brothers from high school in the Danger Ranger or he'd sing her songs from Aladdin, off-key.
It was kismet. She drove a white Ford Ranger too, and they both wore No. 11 at USC. Spooky. At the exact moment he won the Heisman, she was shooting a free throw at home against South Dakota State. The PA announcer bellowed, "Matt Leinart got the Heisman!" She missed.
Through it all, he was hesitant to get serious, in case he went pro and had to bail out of town. In fact, she bet him $500 early in their friendship that he'd enter the draft. But then came mid-January, and she saw him on TV. On the podium. In— oh my god!— a pressed shirt. Announcing he was staying. She tried not to cry.
Since then, the relationship has escalated, and although the tabloids will say he's been seen with Milano or Cobb, Brynn's the girl he loves.
"Oh, and you owe me $500," he told her.
PETE KNOWS him, and Pete wants to tell you about the promise. The Peyton Manning promise.
Pete Carroll has assured Matt that he'll call some of his own plays this coming season. At the line of scrimmage. Pointing and gesturing the way Manning does.
Matt's jazzed about it because, frankly, he wondered if he had anything left to learn at the college
level. And Pete wants only to be fair to the kid. Before Matt's decision day, Pete called the 49ers, Dolphins and Browns, who owned the first three picks, and asked if they wanted Matt.
"The 49ers told Pete they didn't know yet, because their staff was all new," Bob Leinart says. "And Nick Saban said the Dolphins weren't taking a quarterback. And the Browns were more messed up than the 49ers. Romeo Crennel hadn't even played his Super Bowl yet. If any of them had told Pete, 'We're taking Matt No. 1,' Pete would've told Matt to go."
So Pete devised a plan. With offensive coordinator Norm Chow gone to the Titans, Pete hired Steve Sarkisian away from the Raiders and put him in charge of Matt. One day during spring practice, while Matt was recovering from minor elbow surgery, Sarkisian had Matt walk to the line behind backup QB John David Booty. Carroll called a defensive set, and Matt's job was to audible into the right offense. Eight times they tried it, and eight times Matt called the correct play. They'll do it for real in the fall.
Carroll has since asked Matt to study NFL defenses, and Matt, who's throwing full-bore again, has already dissected the Chargers, Jets and Patriots. He'll be able to study even more film in the fall, because he says he needs only one class to graduate: ballroom dancing. It's just two nights a week, and he's taking it with Brynn. Gives him all day to learn college and pro schemes.
"Wow," says Bob Leinart. "When he interviews with pro teams next year,
they're going to say, 'This kid knows my defense more than I do.'"
LLOYD'S OF London knows him and, if they could, they'd tell you about his insurance policy.
In a nutshell, Matt Leinart is well-protected. The Leinarts would prefer to keep it quiet, but the gist of their policy is this: if, for instance, Matt falls from first to 15th overall in next year's draft, the insurance company will pay him the difference. In cash. It's called loss of value insurance, and only an athlete of Leinart's pedigree and potential is allowed to buy it.
"Odds are the insurance company will still make money," Bob Leinart says. "I mean, what could happen to him to make him drop to 15? With today's medicine, unless Matt gets his left arm cut off, there's practically no chance."
Says Matt: "Look at Willis McGahee. Perfect example. Totally shredded knee. Comes back and gets picked in the first round. It's pretty hard to have a career-ender, unless I have a neck thing. But either way, I know I'm insured."
In other words, the heat's off. Now Matt Leinart can play his senior season in peace. Now he can stroll out of his new gated apartment complex behind Staples Center and worry about nothing. Now he can start thinking about retiring the Dahn-jay Rahn-jay. Now you know why he stayed.
Who's stupid now? ?
Think USC's QB is nuts to pass on NFL riches for another year? Then you just don't know Matt Leinart