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The tall pedestrian swooped in suddenly, hustling through the bumper-to-bumper traffic on Collins Avenue in Miami Beach a few days before Super Bowl XLI. "Dude, you might want to roll up your window," Brian Panique told his childhood friend and now roommate, Arizona Cardinals quarterback Matt Leinart, who was fiddling with his BlackBerry in the backseat of a Cadillac Escalade. Leinart, already annoyed by the gridlock, hit the power-window button and rolled his eyes at the thought of having to deal with another amped-up autograph seeker.
The man, who had spotted Leinart from the sidewalk, lingered beside the SUV for a couple of seconds before it dawned on Panique that he might have given his buddy some bad advice. "Uh, Matt," he said, gesturing toward the pedestrian. "I think that's your coach."
Down went the window, and out went Leinart's hand and an awkward but enthusiastic "great to meet you!" That was how newly hired Cardinals coach Ken Whisenhunt was welcomed into Leinart's world, the closest thing to a real-life version of Entourage the NFL has to offer. Like the HBO series' main character, actor Vincent Chase, Leinart, 24, is a generous, genial star who copes with celebrity by surrounding himself with trusted friends and deftly blurring the line between business and pleasure.
Unlike Chase's, however, Leinart's career arc is as robust as one of his sublime seam passes. On July 27, when the Cardinals report to training camp in Flagstaff, Ariz., Leinart begins the transition from promising rookie to, potentially, the savior of pro football's longest-foundering franchise. Last season, even as Arizona wheezed to a 5-11 record, Leinart showed flashes of excellence in 12 games, completing 56.8% of his passes for 2,547 yards, including an NFL-rookie record 405 in a Nov. 26 loss to the Minnesota Vikings. He won only four of 11 starts after taking over for Kurt Warner, but of greater importance he captured the locker room. "Matt has a one-on-one relationship with everyone on the team," running back Edgerrin James says. "He has a chance to be special because guys will go the extra mile for him."
With the poise of a tested veteran, the courage to take chances downfield and an uncanny ability to exploit gaps in coverage--in Whisenhunt's words, "anticipating windows with the touch and depth perception to put the ball in the perfect spot"--the 6' 5" lefty has already made an impression on opposing defenders. "He did a great job last year, and I'm sure he'll get even better," says Brian Urlacher, the Chicago Bears' All-Pro middle linebacker. "We all know he's calm back there, and if they can find a way to protect him, look out."
Winners of one playoff game since 1947, the Cards have remained a laughingstock in the age of parity. Yet Leinart regards raising Arizona as a plausible story line. "I'm so excited about this season," he says. "I know I've got to get better at a lot of things, but I'm so much more comfortable. I think the guys have responded to me, and we have high expectations. We know we can win."
Here's something else Leinart knows, and he learned it the hard way: When you're in the limelight, the glare doesn't fade when the game ends. Starting in the fall of 2005, as the reigning Heisman winner and national champion quarterback who chose to return for his senior year at USC--not to mention playing in L.A. for what amounted to the city's de facto pro football team--Leinart experienced a level of scrutiny to which few college athletes can relate. And the tabloid-style treatment has only intensified, from suggestive cellphone photos at a New York City club, to rumors of a romance with Paris Hilton, to the breaking news tag on a cable-channel ticker announcing that his former girlfriend, Trojans basketball player Brynn Cameron, was pregnant with his child.
Earlier this month, at a dormitory complex across from the UC Santa Barbara campus in Goleta, Calif., Leinart was besieged once again. This time he was fielding questions from an audience of more than 200 kids, who were attending the first Matt Leinart Football Camp, though some of those who raised their hands seemed better suited for the first Ted Koppel Interview Camp.
What NFL player do you hate the most?
"Uh, wow, that's a tough one....Anyone who went to UCLA."