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.