On the morning of Jan. 14, USC quarterback Matt Leinart decided that there's no place he'd rather be than back on campus for another year. Right then we knew there could be no other choice for SIOC's version of Sportsman of the Year
By Arash Markazi
Peter Read Miller
Palming a football in one hand and carrying a suit jacket in the other, Matt Leinart stands in front of a group of onlookers vying for his attention. While a woman gently pats makeup on his face and fixes the Windsor knot in his tie, Leinart grins as he looks at the assorted photographers, stylists and assistants who have set up inside the Varsity Lounge of USC's Heritage Hall.
Three months earlier Leinart stood in the same room in front of a group 10 times larger to announce that he would return to USC for his senior season, bypassing an opportunity to become an instant millionaire and possibly the first pick of the NFL draft. The decision may have shocked most in the room back then, but it makes perfect sense now.
No question about it, Leinart and college are a perfect fit. Jumping up and down in his suit, his tie now loosened, he acts like any other laid-back student without a care in the world. He hams it up for the camera, smiling, pointing and posing to the photographer's delight. "Yeah, just like that," the shooter says as the winner of SIOC's U. Award, our version of Sportsman of the Year, twirls a football in the air. The smile affixed to Leinart's face stays there long after the camera has stopped clicking and the makeup artists have left the room. With no contract holding him down and no agent rushing him along to the next promotional event -- not to mention an easy class schedule, college football games and campus parties to look forward to -- life doesn't get much better than this.
He just laid there. What else could he do? For an hour on the morning of Jan. 14, Leinart just stared at the ceiling in the quaint off-campus apartment he shares with a high school friend. He was contemplating the question people had been asking him for the past month. Are you coming back? Their guess was as good as his.
Ultimately Leinart arrived at the decision he says he'd wanted to make all along, one not solely based on football. Although he wouldn't mind winning a third consecutive national championship or a second straight Heisman -- he threw for 3,322 yards and 33 touchdowns last fall -- simply spending another year at USC was enough for him. "The things I value at this school are more important to me than money," says Leinart, a sociology major who will take part in graduation ceremonies next week before finishing up his degree by taking one class in the summer and one in the fall. "I realize the amount of money I could have made if I had gone to the NFL, but I wanted to stay in school. I wanted to be with all my friends and teammates, living the college life and going through the graduation process. All those things make up my college experience, and I didn't want to give that up."
Despite his desire to live a normal college life, Leinart is far from normal. In a city renowned for its celebrities, Leinart is one of Los Angeles's biggest right now, which makes even going out with a friend a top story. "I went to an Angels game with Nick Lachey, who's a buddy I normally hang out with, and it was all over the TV," Leinart says. "That's the thing about the celebrity life -- you never know who's watching you. You just have to be really secure about what you're doing."
Even Leinart's love life has been the topic of gossip columns. He's been linked to everyone from Jessica Simpson's best friend, CaCee Cobb, to Alyssa Milano. "It's crazy," Leinart says of the rumor mill. "Alyssa Milano is a friend of mine and nothing has ever happened between us, and CaCee is a friend and we hung out during the season. I get linked with these people because these are celebrities I've hung out with, and it's kind of sad that I can't go out with them without getting my name in the paper. I just want to hang out. I don't want to be in all the magazines; that's not who I am."
In fact, Leinart has been dating USC freshman basketball player Brynn Cameron since February. The two had been friends since they met in a study hall in October. "I have a girlfriend now who I'm very happy with," says Leinart, who attended a handful of women's basketball games this past season disguised in a hat and an oversized hooded sweatshirt. "I'm a normal guy, just like any other 21-year-old college student, and I'm with someone who treats me normal and that's the most important thing. It's hard to trust a lot of people right now and know exactly what they're after."
That's why the allure of being the most eligible bachelor on a campus teeming with beautiful women was never as big a draw to Leinart as it was made out to be. "A lot of people may wonder why I would have a girlfriend my last year in college, but I'm extremely happy with Brynn," he says. "She doesn't know the Matt Leinart that's in the press; she just knows me as little Matty, her boyfriend. I mean, she didn't even know what a Heisman Trophy was. That's what I love about her."
As Leinart sits outside of Heritage Hall, his Heisman visible through the oversized glass doors, he shakes his head as he thinks about how lucky he's been. "I always knew I wanted to come back, but I couldn't have imagined it would work out like this," he says. "I came back to play football, and in the process I realized what Brynn and I had. I realized that I really care about her. It worked out so well. I'm back here at school, happy with my decision, happy with the team and happy with my relationship. Life doesn't get much better than this."