Matt Leinart's L.A. duplex looks more like a Chuck E. Cheese safe house than a millionaire jock's crash pad. There's the requisite leather couch and flat-screen television, but the rest of the ground floor is bare except for a pile of Nick Jr. DVDs, a high chair, and a SpongeBob SquarePants director's chair. The kiddie props belong to Cole Cameron Leinart, Matt's eight-month-old son, who's not around today. That's unfortunate, 'cause daddy's gonna need a hug.
In the living room, a herd of middle-aged knobby knees are busy doing damage control.
"You read the story?" asks Bob Leinart, Matt's dad, answering the door on a bum leg. "Unbelievable."
"Not yet, not yet, not yet," says Sandy Friedman, Matt's fast-talking L.A. press agent. "Let me see, let me see."
This was supposed to be Leinart's last lazy Sunday before trading Hollywood for Flagstaff and Arizona Cardinals training camp. Then the story hit. In the Ventura County Star, Cole's mom body slams her ex's parenting skills: "It's kind of hard for me as the mom – I'm with Cole probably 99.9 percent of the time – to open a magazine or read a newspaper article with Matt saying, ‘Oh, I love being a dad. I love changing diapers. I love doing this,' " says Brynn Cameron, a University of Southern California (USC) basketball player who dated Leinart during his senior year. "I'm like, 'Wait, what?' . . . [He] comes and goes whenever he wants."
Ouch. It sounds like Cameron had this thunderbolt saved up for a while, maybe since Leinart was photographed leaving Paris Hilton's house when Cameron was pregnant. "I don't understand. I'm with him almost every day," he says to a friend on the phone. "I don't know what she's talking about."
His brown eyes glassy, Leinart grabs and releases a shock of his dark wavy hair. For a second-year quarterback being hyped as the 21st century's Joe Willie Namath, the thick locks are just as crucial as hitting secondary receivers. But right now his handsome visage is clouded by a mask of "Holy crap, I'm an adult" angst. "It's the hardest thing I've ever had to go through," says Leinart, who has been in and out of family court, setting up visitation time with Cole. "My son's going to have a great relationship with me. I know that."
There's no doubt Matt Leinart loves his son very much. The problem is that he's not just a 24-year-old dad. He's not even just a quarterback. Matt Leinart is a start-up conglomerate, and today's events are part of a disconcerting trend. On New Year's Day 2005, Leinart was a Heisman Trophy winner, a two-time national champion, and the consensus top pick in the upcoming NFL draft. But he stayed in school, and since then his life has been a metaphorical broken play.
The trouble started with the 2006 Rose Bowl, where Leinart and his 12–0 USC Trojans were outdueled by the Texas Longhorns and Vince Young in one of the great quarterback battles in memory. After the game, Leinart ungraciously remarked that "we were the better team," but by draft day, Young was the hot commodity. There were whispers that Leinart had a weak arm and spent way too much time hanging with Wilmer Valderrama. So he sat in the NFL's green room until the Cardinals – the Italian Army of the league – picked him 10th. Although he put on a brave face, his father says he felt otherwise. "Matt was devastated."
It wasn't exactly a halcyon rookie year. Leinart staged a holdout, then broke up with Cameron before Cole was born last October. On the field, he offset record-setting performances with a petulant helmet toss after a Monday night defeat. Leinart's offensive coordinator got fired midseason, the team's record sank to 5–11, and New Year's Day 2007 was a little different from the previous two. Rather than playing for a national title, Leinart awaited confirmation that his head coach was getting canned. Now comes his pivotal second year, and it's kill-or-be-killed time. That's why he planned a low-key off-season, one befitting the league's 23rd-rated quarterback. He was going to lie low, whip himself into shape, and get ready for next year.
At least that was the idea. Next thing you knew, Leinart was guest-editing an issue of 'ESPN the Magazine,' hobnobbing on South Beach, filming TV commercials as Archie Manning's adopted son, and hosting a red-carpet fundraiser attended by homey Nick Lachey, Maria Sharapova, and a few hundred of his closest friends. Add the nonstop battling with Cameron, and Leinart found himself struggling to get into a regular training routine.
"It's been hard for me to say, Okay, these four days I'm working out in the morning." Leinart shrugs as he devours a giant salad brought to him by a buddy. "But now I gotta go to work and support my family." He gives a stern nod, as if trying to convince himself. "This is a big year for me. I'm just getting used to it, learning to take a more business approach to it. I realize this is my job, and I'm gonna work hard at it."
When I get up to leave, Leinart thrusts out his hand. "So tomorrow, I'm going to see you, right?" he asks. "That should be fun."
What's tomorrow? Leinart will escape from his baby-mama drama to film a cameo in an Adam Sandler movie at the Playboy mansion. Training camp opens in six days.
None of this would matter if Leinart were only marginally talented, like, say, his buddies Lachey and Valderrama. No one would care if he subsided into a goo of celebrity skanks and shirtless appearances in 'People' magazine. But Leinart has skills that shouldn't be squandered – not to mention the all-American good looks and charisma that could make him the new face of the NFL. In a league that has precisely three bankable, marquee stars (Peyton Manning, Tom Brady, and soon-to-be-retired Brett Favre) and could field an expansion team from prison, Leinart offers the possibility of redemption.
He combines Madison Avenue appeal, Hollywood glitz, and, oh yes, once-a-generation talent. All he has to do now is live up to the talent part. He left USC with a 37–2 record, ranked fourth in career passing. Sure he had help from future NFLers Reggie Bush, Duane Jarrett, and Lendale White, but there was something more substantial at play. At six-foot-five, 232 pounds, Leinart is a classic drop-back QB à la Troy Aikman, only taller. He doesn't dance around in the pocket – and that's good. For all the chatter about the genius mobility of the Vicks, McNabbs, and Favres, they have exactly one Super Bowl ring among them, while Aikman and Tom Brady, pure pocket passers like Leinart, have six.
Though his personal life may be chaotic, Leinart's play has a certain stability. He plays best in games with the highest stakes. In the 2005 national championship game, Leinart threw three touchdown passes on three consecutive possessions. Some carped that Leinart had never known adversity, but then, in 2005, he had his defining moment, against Notre Dame in South Bend. Trailing by three late in the fourth quarter, USC faced fourth-and-nine deep in its own end. Walking back on the field, Leinart told Jarrett, "Be ready." When Leinart stepped up for the snap, he noticed the cornerback on Jarrett cheating to the inside. He made eye contact with Jarrett, called an audible, and then hit him with a touch pass that Joe Montana would have killed his mother to have thrown. A few plays later, Leinart snuck in for the winning score.
Already he's proven a quick study in the complex calculus of the modern NFL. After missing most of training camp, Leinart stepped into his first preseason game against the Patriots on four days of practice.
"Just enjoy yourself," Tom Brady counseled before the game. That Leinart did, directing a hurry-up scoring drive on his first possession, against the Patriots' first-string defense.
"He has a 'Follow me, guys' presence that made his teammates want to play harder," says Dennis Green, Leinart's coach with the Cardinals last year. All of it adds up to potentially Canton-quality skills – if Leinart doesn't manage to blow it on wine, women, and VIP bottle service.
"How's Matty and Brynn doing?" our USC-bred waitress asks Bob Leinart, after taking his lunch order. She apparently hasn't been reading the papers.
"Um, they're not together; they hate each other," says Bob, with a whattaya-gonna-do shrug. "It's ugly. It's not good. She doesn't like him being a celebrity." The waitress drifts away with a sorry-I-asked smile. Papa Leinart just had his knee replaced, but the rest of the avuncular Heisman dad is in working order, specifically his mandible. He will tell you straight out that his second son was a tad overweight as a kid. "He wasn't chunky," says Leinart with a laugh. "He was fat. And cross-eyed."
Unlike the LeBrons and A-Rods of the world, anointed as special from pre-K, Matt Leinart exudes an approachability rarely seen in superstars. It's why kids on the autograph line chat him up like a buddy with whom they could stay up late playing Xbox.
The sticky wicket is that the ex-fat kid is now in the candy store of the good life, and everything he sees, he wants. He'd had posters of Britney and Kournikova on his bedroom walls; now he hangs with them at parties. "I went to the ESPYs a couple of years ago and met LeBron, and I was just in awe," Leinart tells me. "Now when I see him, he's just one of my boys."
A decade ago it would've seemed impossible. Corrective eye surgery (at age three) saddled him with boxy glasses for most of grade school. By 13 he was six feet tall, and his Orange County classmates nicknamed him Shamu. Leinart's only defense was a fastball that scared the wiseasses into silence.
"He couldn't play football, because it was all done by weight, and he would have been competing against kids four years older," explains Bob, who sells trinkets to amusement parks for a living. He coached his son at baseball and never missed one of his games. "I don't know what he would have done without sports."
Matt eventually picked up football as well, and Papa steered his youngest boy toward Orange County football factory Mater Dei. As a freshman, Matt's drop-back quarterback skills wowed coaches who had seen a half-dozen NFL players hit the Mater Dei practice field.
But then Matt blew out his shoulder at the end of the year, and after surgery he was forced to give up baseball, his first love, and sat out nearly two football seasons. When he returned, he led Mater Dei to a division championship. He was actually leaning toward Oklahoma or Michigan before his mom begged him to stay closer to home. One day incoming USC coach Pete Carroll called Bob Leinart, swore him to secrecy, and confided he was going to hire Norm Chow as his offensive coordinator. Chow ran the most NFL-like offense in college ball. Matt quickly committed to USC.
He rode the bench his first year, behind eventual number-one NFL pick Carson Palmer, then took over his sophomore year. After Leinart's first start against Auburn, an ebullient Chow cornered Bob Leinart. "He was saying, 'We have our quarterback for the next three years,' " remembers Bob. "Chow's up in the booth and talking to Matt, and Matt's getting it all. With Carson, Carson didn't get it. He's a great athlete, but not the smartest tool, and Matt just got it."
Over the next three years, Leinart piloted USC to a 37–2 record and two national championships. In NFL-free L.A., Trojan football is the next best thing, and at home games, the sidelines were peppered with everyone from Snoop Dogg to the Fonz. Leinart would toss touchdowns on Saturday afternoons and then show great escapability from the paparazzi on Sunset Boulevard a few hours later.
He won the Heisman his junior year. On January 4, he threw five touchdowns in the Orange Bowl as the Trojans won a second national championship. It was widely assumed he would go pro, with many NFL observers predicting he'd be picked first. Instead Leinart became the first athlete to catch shit for staying in school. Cynics suggested that perhaps he didn't have the testicular fortitude to play on Sundays. "I wasn't ready to go," Leinart says. "I wanted to be with my guys. My whole heart was saying, Just stay."
That became the Leinart myth, which not-so-silent Bob punctures slightly. "After the Orange Bowl we had 14 days to make the decision. We knew it was gonna be tough, but Matt came to me and said, 'Dad, I can't go throw at a combine with my elbow hurting like it does.' It made the decision for him."
As Leinart settled in for the senior year of any 22-year-old's dreams, his parents feared for his safety. "We had to put Matt in a high-security building," says the elder Leinart. "L.A. is a hellhole; the year before, people were just going to his house and asking for autographs, and this isn't just SC people – it's homeless people and shit."
Matt was hardly a recluse, but perhaps he should have been. He was clearly man-dating below his station with one-note Johnnies like Valderrama and Lachey. Still, what college senior wouldn't choose dinner with Anna Kournikova or nightclubbing with pre-prison Paris over beer pong at Sigma Chi?
"I made a few mistakes, I've hung out with the wrong people," he admits. But in the next breath, Leinart declares that Valderrama and Lachey are still among his closest confidants. "Nick Lachey is a really good friend of mine, a genuine friend," he says. "Wilmer Valderrama is a genuine friend. Those two are in the same world as me – we have to deal with the same kind of stuff where you have dinner with a friend and all of a sudden you're 'dating' her, but all three of us are really normal."
Though he insists his life has slowed down since Cole's birth, evidence suggests otherwise. In only the week I followed him, Leinart filmed the Sandler movie, made the gossip pages over the Brynn Cameron situation, and announced he was co-hosting a Super Bowl party with John Travolta. (Which left Cardinals fans asking, "Uh, what if we're in the Super Bowl?")
There are small signs of progress. For example, in the wake of Cameron's attacks, Leinart's handlers decided that allowing me to tag along to the Playboy mansion would send the wrong message. Still, if he's going to take the smallest step toward concentrating on football, someone may have to stage a parental intervention. As his son packed for Arizona and said all the right things about football coming first, Bob Leinart had visions of Michael Jordan dancing in his head.
"We've got a lot of opportunities on hold right now," says Bob, his eyes growing as round as saucers. "If he wins, it's all over. These companies like Microsoft, they want him bad, but they want him to win first, and he wants to win first. But if he takes the Cardinals to the playoffs, the world as we know it is over." He's bobbing up and down in his seat with excitement. "He'd do well if he never won a game, but if he wins . . . " He stretches his hands wide and just grins.
"Feet, feet!" It's the first day of practice in Flagstaff, and there isn't a Playboy bunny in sight. Cardinals quarterback coach Jeff Rutledge is screaming at Leinart to plant himself before throwing. "Watch your feet!"
Perhaps watching his feet too much, Leinart promptly gets picked off in a passing drill. "I get in the bad habit of 'stepping in the bucket,' " Leinart tells me after practice. "Instead of my back foot being straight back, I put it to the side, and you lose accuracy on the throws."
After the interception Leinart found his rhythm, hitting receiver after receiver in stride. A few thousand fans, unheard of in the pre-Leinart era, oohed and aahed with each pass. When he momentarily slipped on the slick grass, someone let out an "Oh, shit, there goes the franchise."
When the Cardinals drafted him, Leinart blended in quickly; he didn't blanch, even when vets made him sing Paris Hilton songs in the cafeteria. He caught a break as a backup to former NFL MVP Kurt Warner, whose eroding skills would, by the fifth game, hand the starting job to Leinart, but whose devout Christianity staved off the backbiting that plagues most quarterback controversies.
"From the first day Matt came in, he said, 'Hey, I need you. I need to learn from you,' " says Warner. "We text each other, we talk about things beyond football, and he feeds off the experiences I've had. We love each other. I even went to a club for his birthday, which is really not my scene."
There were glimpses of brilliance, including a 405-yard effort against the Vikings that set an NFL rookie record. "People didn't think he could move around, but that was just because at USC he didn't have to do it," says Dennis Green. "There were a lot of dropped passes, but he kept making the throws, and it became like a Steve Nash thing: His teammates wanted to catch better and block better, because they saw Matt getting into a rhythm and making them better."
That was the good news. Then, for what seemed like the 87th season in a row, the Cardinals went into full meltdown, with coordinators being replaced and Green stonily eating lunch alone in the team cafeteria. After the Cardinals blew a 20-point lead against the Bears on a Monday night, Green offered a legendarily demented press conference that assured Leinart would be working with a new coach come 2007.
By December, Leinart's shoulder was aching and his brain was fried, as the Cardinals lost more games in 2006 than Leinart had in six years. "I was tired by the end," says Leinart. "The grind of the season itself is what kills guys. Twenty games is a ridiculous amount of games, and the game itself is so physical. It was tough."
A baseball cap pulled backward on his head, Leinart has just finished scarfing hamburgers with running back Edgerrin James. When I mention he seems significantly more relaxed than last week, he lets out a sad smile.
"You have no idea," Leinart says. "I got worn out this summer. Football is kind of like your happy place, your safe haven, where you can get away from anything happening in your life. When things aren't going right in your life, it's the one constant."
But things are looking up. On the field, Leinart has a new head coach in Ken Whisenhunt, who helped mold Ben Roethlisberger into a star with the Steelers. He has USC-caliber weapons in Edgerrin James and wide receivers Anquan Bolden and Larry Fitzgerald. And in the court of public opinion, Leinart is making a comeback. Cameron's request for $30,000 a month in child support came off as a bit excessive. (She settled for half that.) Still, there would be another trip to family court before the season. For now, though, Leinart no longer has to worry about evading paparazzi and angry exes – only 300-pound men who want to clobber him. "This is my job; this is what I love to do," he says. "I'm excited to get back to the routine of living every day for football. It's definitely less stressful."
He has an afternoon practice to come, so he shakes my hand again and reprises his line from the crazy day in L.A. "I'm just a normal dude," he says. Then, perhaps realizing that's a deal even Matt Leinart couldn't close, he audibles a bit. "Well, I'm not normal, but I feel normal."