"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."