The two quarterbacks first spoke in June. Oklahoma?s Jason White was having dinner in Norman with a group of teammates when one of them, senior safety Donte Nicholson, speed-dialed an old friend from back home in California: USC?s Matt Leinart. Once the connection was made, Nicholson handed the phone to White. They congratulated each other on fine seasons last fall, compared summer workout plans and talked about meeting up in July, when White would be in Leinart?s native Orange County for a football camp. Leinart made a point of giving White some love for winning the Heisman Trophy. ?You win that,? White said in response, ?everything in your life changes.?
They are the Frick and Frack of the 2004 Heisman race. White has the chance to become only the second two-time winner, after Ohio State running back Archie Griffin, in 1974 and ?75, and he is the first winner to defend his title since BYU quarterback Ty Detmer in ?91. (Detmer lost out to Michigan receiver Desmond Howard that year.) But after failing miserably at the end of last season White isn?t a favorite. In losses to Kansas State in the Big 12 title game and to LSU in the BCS championship game, White totaled four interceptions and zero touchdown passes. He punctuated his nasty 13-for-37 performance in the Sugar Bowl with eight consecutive incompletions. �* That showing incurred the wrath of observers such as columnist Tim Sullivan of The San Diego Union-Tribune, who wrote, ?Is the Heisman Trophy subject to a recall vote?? Upon returning to Oklahoma, White found e-mails encouraging him to quit the team, and he was randomly dissed by people on the street. Though the abuse wasn?t widespread, the negative vibe follows him into this season, where he?s no better than third in most preseason Heisman lists, behind Leinart, a junior, and Kansas State senior running back Darren Sproles. ?I don?t expect to be the Heisman front-runner this year,? White says, ?and I don?t care to be.?
Leinart, meanwhile, is still aglow from his 2003 season. It began with his winning the job vacated by Carson Palmer, the ?02 Heisman winner, and ended with an MVP award in the Rose Bowl, where he threw for three touchdowns and caught a 15-yard reverse pass for another score in a 28?14 victory over Michigan that elevated the Trojans to a share of the national title. ?He started much faster than we thought he would last year,? says coach Pete Carroll, ?and then he got better.? Leinart redeemed a loss to Cal in the fourth game with an out-of-the-trainer?s-room comeback (he had banged up his right knee and ankle in the second quarter) against Arizona State the following week. From having never thrown a college pass, Leinart finished sixth in the Heisman voting. ?I?m not concentrating on winning it this year,? he says. ?But if I play well enough, I guess it might happen.?
They are a study in opposites. Leinart throws with a lazy left arm; White, with a stinging right. Leinart can drive to the beach from his apartment in Los Angeles; White lives in a house in Norman, a half hour by pickup from his parents? place in the little plains town of Tuttle. Leinart has been cut once by a surgeon, seven years ago, for a rotator-cuff injury; White has undergone five knee surgeries, including ACL reconstructions on each leg, since arriving at Oklahoma in 1999. Leinart spent much of last season dating professional surfer and model Veronica Kay; White lives with his longtime girlfriend, Tammy Winters, and their two-year-old daughter, Tinley. Leinart plans to return to USC next fall for his final year of eligibility but might be lured to the NFL; White, who was granted a rare sixth year of eligibility by the NCAA because of time lost to his many injuries, will welcome an NFL opportunity, but not at the expense of college football. ?This is probably going to be the best time of my life,? says White, 24. ?Why not stretch it out as long as possible??
Nothing better illustrates the differences between the two than their responses when SI inquired about photographing them together for the cover of this issue. Twenty-five years ago Oklahoma?s Billy Sims was the returning Heisman Trophy winner, and his chief challenger was USC?s Charles White. (White would win the award that season.) On the cover of the 1979 college football preview issue, the two playfully wrestled with the trophy under the oh-so-?70s billing: HEY, MAN, THAT?S MY HEISMAN! SI sought to have Leinart and White re-create that shot.
?Pretty cool,? Leinart said.
?Not for me,? White said. ?That ain?t what I?m going for this year.?
?That?s not what I?m going for, either,? Leinart said, ?but it still sounds pretty cool.?
Last December, White revealed a touching, old-school appreciation of his Heisman victory. He received the trophy on a Saturday in New York City, attended the Heisman banquet there on Monday and then chose to tote the statue home, rather than having it shipped. That led to a curious exchange with a baggage agent at the Newark airport. ?They give you the trophy in this big silver box,? says White. ?So when I?m checking it, the guy asks me what?s in there. I tell him, ?Heisman Trophy.? He gives me this look, like Yeah, right. Then he scans it and says, Well, I?ll be danged.?
Back home in Tuttle, White put the Heisman in the passenger seat of his father?s 2001 Chevy 4�4 double cab pickup and took it on tour. The first stop was the home of his 28-year-old friend, Brian Stewart, a former volunteer coach at Tuttle High who has battled brain tumors since he was a teenager. Then it was on to the high school, where the coaching staff had prodded White into chasing the dream of playing college football. The next stop was Norman and, finally, back home to his parents? house, where the trophy rests. ?Besides seeing my daughter born,? says White, ?winning the Heisman was about the best thing that?s happened to me.?