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.