Leinart still confident outside the starting quarterback spotlight
Crowds surrounded Matt Leinart during Super Bowl Media Day
Leinart said backing up Kurt Warner has been 'a humbling experience'
Leinart: 'I think I could have been the starter to get us to this point'
TAMPA -- Matt Leinart's still got it. That much was apparent as Maria Menounos patiently waited 10 minutes behind the Arizona Cardinals quarterback, waiting to talk to him while he was doing a radio interview at Super Bowl media day.
When Leinart finally turned around to see Menounos and a dozen other cameramen and reporters waiting for him, he smiled and opened up his handheld camera to capture the moment. "I want to show this to my son one day," he said as he scanned the masses and turned the camera around on himself. "Show him who his dad was."
The Cardinals and the rest of the NFL are still trying to figure out who Cole Leinart's dad is and what he will be.
There was a time when Leinart wouldn't be surprised by the sight of reporters waiting to talk to him or feel the need to capture the occasion on a camcorder. He was one of the most famous college football players ever, winning two national champions, a Heisman trophy and rolling with a Hollywood crew that included Nick Lachey, Alyssa Milano and the cast of The Hills.
That seems like a lifetime ago as Leinart enters the biggest game of his career as a backup and not the starter.
"I've grown up a lot," says Leinart, who has only thrown 29 passes in four appearances this season after being supplanted by Kurt Warner as the starting quarterback of the Cardinals before the season opener. "I'm not the same guy I was three years ago or even a year ago. I'll be the first to admit that I've made some mistakes the last three or four years, just like everyone else, but it just so happens that mine were magnified. But I've definitely grown up a lot."
This wasn't the way Leinart had scripted the start of his NFL career or his first trip to the Super Bowl. He had rededicated himself to football in the offseason, spending more time in the gym and film room than the clubs and lounges he had famously frequented in college and as a rookie. While Leinart was physically and mentally prepared for a breakout year, he was done in by a poor preseason, highlighted by an ugly three-interception performance against Oakland, and the re-birth of Warner, who was never content with accepting the role of teacher and backup.
"It's definitely been a humbling experience," said Leinart, who got a text from Pete Carroll after the NFC championship game telling him to soak up the Super Bowl experience and be ready to play. "Getting to the NFL after having a lot of success in college and not having it go the way you want it to has definitely humbled me. The game is so much harder than I thought but I think I was playing well. But coach [Ken Whisenhunt] made a decision to go with Kurt and that's the bottom line."
While Leinart at first resented the role, hoping that coaches would change their minds at some point, he grew to accept it and even embrace it as the year progressed. He began acting as an extra coach in meetings and on the sideline, picking Warner and offensive coordinator Todd Haley's brain like an inquisitive grade schooler.
For the first time since high school he was able to study the game without being noticed. After the Cardinals' first playoff win, Leinart showered and changed without a single reporter coming up to him as he left the locker room. It has basically been that way all season for him. That is before media day, where he was asked everything from the story behind those infamous hot tub pictures that surfaced last year ("I should have been more careful") to the names of the Jonas Brothers, which, by the way, he got right.
"It's been a nice season in the sense that I've been able to work hard and just fly under the radar and not have to worry about anything," he said. "It's been nice not having all the attention, and sitting back and soaking everything in. But obviously I'd like to be playing."
If Leinart sounds like a different player than the one who hired a Hollywood publicist and canoodled with Paris Hilton after being drafted, it's because he is. While Leinart still goes out about as much as any 25-year-old bachelor, he admits his two-year-old son has changed his outlook on life and also helped in his relationship with Warner.
"I'm really close with Kurt. I call him 'Pops' and 'Grandpa' sometimes because he's got a knowledge about life having been around for awhile," said Leinart. "We were so different when I first came in and now we have a lot more similarities with me being a father and obviously him having a hundred kids. We relate on another level now as opposed to when I came in as a kid from L.A. Our relationship has really grown a lot over the last three years. I think being a father has really helped me so much in my career. Having a son has forced me to grow up in a great way."
During the past season Leinart spoke several times to his college rival Vince Young, who was also replaced by an aging veteran (Kerry Collins) this season, and to Matt Cassell, his former back-up at USC, who shined as a starter at New England after Tom Brady was injured during the season opener. While Young told him Leinart he wasn't alone in his early struggles in the NFL, Cassell, who plans to meet up with Leinart in Tampa this week, told him he was always one play away from being the starter again.
"We're all in this together," said Leinart. "We're rooting for each other as fellow quarterbacks. I don't want to say I was surprised to see what [Cassel] did, but you just never know what's going to happen. He sat four years and was in my position last year at the Super Bowl, and now look where he is, you just never know what's going to happen in this league."
As Leinart walked around the field at Raymond James Stadium, capturing the scene on his camcorder, before being accosted by a Telemundo "reporter" in drag, screaming, "Lion Heart," he smiled as he recorded Warner and many of his other teammates in the media day scrum.
"I really believe I could have led this team here," said Leinart. "I know I'm not Kurt Warner by any means, but I think I could have made the reads and the throws and been the starter to get us to this point."
Leinart's life has often been compared to that of Vincent Chase in Entourage and his season has been eerily similar to that of Chase's this past year -- a former star toiling in obscurity, trying to prove to others that he can get back to where he once was. Leinart is optimistic that his script will have a happy ending, whether it's in Arizona or elsewhere. "I know that I can play," he said. "I know a lot of people think I can't play, but I know that when I get my opportunity that I'll be ready to play. I know that I will be successful and I have a long career ahead of me. My time is coming shortly."