USC's sixth Heisman a 'heavy' achievement
NEW YORK -- With 19 former Heisman Trophy winners lined up across the stage behind him, and another winner two seats to his left, Matt Leinart heard his name called and dropped his head.
"My legs were weak. My heart was beating 20 beats a second," the USC quarterback said of winning the 70th Heisman Memorial Trophy. "It was probably one of the greatest feelings I've had in my entire life."
Teammate Reggie Bush, sitting to Leinart's right, threw his left arm across his quarterback's shoulders and hugged him. Leinart stood and hugged Oklahoma quarterback Jason White, the 2003 winner, and shook the hand of White's tailback, Adrian Peterson.
Behind them, 1978 Heisman winner Billy Sims of Oklahoma, bellowed, "I guess I can't say 'Boomer!' "
There is an informal bonhomie about the Heisman that not even the demands of a televised ceremony can quash. That's a good thing, because Leinart is an informal sort of guy. He doesn't let the stress show, except as he lugged the 25-pound trophy into the press conference, then held it for photographers.
"Heavy," he described, his face sweaty and his smile glued on. Leinart won by a large enough margin that he took the suspense out of what had been touted as a close race.
He finished with 267 first-place votes out of the 876 ballots, and his 1,325 points (awarded on a 3-2-1 basis) easily surpassed the 997 points of Peterson, the runner-up.
That's the highest finish ever for a freshman.
White, Utah quarterback Alex Smith, and Bush rounded out the top five.
Leinart is the sixth USC player to win the Heisman. His trophy will join those won by Carson Palmer (2002), Marcus Allen (1981), Charles White (1979), O.J. Simpson (1968) and Mike Garrett (1965) in display cases in the lobby of Heritage Hall, the USC athletic building.
The lobby is getting a little crowded, no?
"We can always get room for six," said Garrett, the current USC athletic director who wrapped Leinart in a congratulatory bear hug on the stage in the Trianon Ballroom of the New York Hilton before his quarterback spoke.
The three sets of teammates among the finalists defused the tension as well. At the dinner before the ceremony, Bush and his San Diego Helix High teammate, Utah quarterback Alex Smith, posed for a picture with their moms, Denise Griffin and Pam Smith.
There is no fraternity like it in sports. The former winners gather every year for the banquet, which is held on the Monday night after the announcement, and they welcome the newest member with smiles and backslaps.
"I got to meet Gino Torretta (1992) last night, which was pretty cool," Leinart said, "and Desmond Howard (1991) and Archie Griffin (1974-75). I couldn't remember some of the guys. I wasn't born."
Leinart looked over at his athletic director.
"Mike Garrett," Leinart said to some laughter. "Eric Crouch (2001) and Rashaan Salaam (1994). You just never picture yourself up there. Those guys you watch when you're a little kid and they're your heroes. To be part of that group is a special feeling."
A year ago, the newest member was White. During the opening of the television show, the five finalists stood inside the door of the ballroom, watching a monitor and awaiting their cue to walk to the stage.
White watched stonefaced as a picture of him with the trophy last year flashed on the screen. He wore a light gray suit in that shot. On Saturday night, he wore a dark pinstriped number. White didn't smile until the video appeared of him and Peterson walking outside the hotel, the "red carpet" shot.
White is guarded by nature, but he's an honest, hard-working man.
Former winners get a ballot. White refused to vote for himself, because, as he put it during the show, "I don't think I'm the greatest player out there."
One of them, he said later, is the guy who won.
"I know who my top two were," he said. He voted Peterson first and Leinart second, but he had figured out enough to ask Leinart on Saturday if he had written a speech yet.
"I told him his life was fixin' to change," said White, the pride of Tuttle, Okla.
Leinart's life has been nothing but change. He grew up overweight and cross-eyed, wearing Coke-bottle glasses and the psychic bruises that come from being teased. Perhaps that's why Leinart seems unimpressed with his celebrity. He knows how the other half lives.
"Kids are very cruel," said Matt's mother, Linda Leinart. "I told him, 'Some day, you won't wear glasses. Some day, you will be tall and handsome. You just have to be patient.' " The transformation began in middle school. It may have completed Saturday night. Every mother thinks greatness is destined for her son.
"Never," Linda Leinart said, "in a million years, could you ever "
She didn't have to finish the sentence. Leinart will carry the title of Heisman Trophy winner around with him like a birthmark for the rest of his life. He says he is going to come back to USC next year.
If he spurns the NFL, he will get the chance to do what White could not, and join Griffin as a two-time Heisman winner.
That decision will be made in the cold light of January. Maybe by then, the smile will have faded from Matt Leinart's face.
Ivan Maisel is a senior writer for ESPN.com. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. He will hit The Show on Monday at 1 p.m. ET -- send him your questions and comments now.
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