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
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.
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."
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
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?
that's a tough one....Anyone who went to UCLA."