We had seen this movie before. The hugely talented kid insists that he will return for his final season, that he would never abandon his mates, his alma mater, for the siren song of the pros. But as the day of reckoning draws nigh, as the mountains of cash come into sharper focus, the resolve melts: The player discovers the urgency of "taking care of my family."
That's why the events of last Friday at USC were so remarkable. Trojans quarterback Matt Leinart, whose vows to return for a fifth year had seemed to waver down the stretch of his dream season, scheduled a press conference. Having won the Heisman Trophy, the lanky lefty had eviscerated Oklahoma's defense in the Orange Bowl, throwing five touchdown passes. As a probable top 10 pick in the draft--some scouts foresaw him going No. 1--Leinart was all but guaranteed a signing bonus of $10 million.
His statement, in light of those numbers, was stunning: "I would like to announce that I'm coming back for my senior season." Up went a roar from some 500 students and fans at Heritage Hall, where Leinart's bust will someday reside under plexiglass. After already postponing his announcement once, Leinart still hadn't made up his mind upon waking up that morning. Among those he thanked for helping him arrive at his decision was his father, Bob, a long-time manufacturer's rep in the gift industry who is a fixture at Trojans practices.
Why stay? Leinart spoke of a desire to win an unprecedented third straight national title. He also showed qualities increasingly rare among athletes in his situation: patience and perspective. "Being here with my friends and teammates ... is ultimately more satisfying and will make me happier than any amount of money," he said. "Being in college is the best time of my life."
His college experience sounds like it would be the best time in anybody's life. Leinart has effortlessly assimilated into L.A.'s celebrity demimonde. He has dated a model, Veronica Kay, and befriended Jessica Simpson and Nick Lachey. Recently he went on Jimmy Kimmel Live, but only after producers agreed to invite Lachey. After this, Cleveland would be a bit of a comedown.
Leinart's remarks echo the sentiments of his coach, Pete Carroll. Twice fired in a 16-year pro career, Carroll knows what a cold business it is. After the Orange Bowl he sat with Leinart on a dais. Though he looked straight ahead, there was no question whom Carroll was addressing when he said, "This is the time of their lives. The NFL does not feel like this. When you know it's so special, why would you want to leave it so soon?"
"I don't think I talked him into anything," Carroll told SI. "This is a bright kid who thought this through himself." Making Leinart's decision easier was the state of the teams with the top picks in the draft: the 49ers, the Dolphins and the Browns. "It helped that those three were so screwed up," said a source close to Leinart. With the Browns and the 49ers still without a coach last week, Leinart "couldn't get a read on where he stood." Early-drafting teams are often in disarray, but this year's seem more bumbling than usual.
So Carroll, whose tenure at USC has been defined by how his program has responded to the loss of seemingly irreplaceable players-- quarterback Carson Palmer in 2003, wideout Mike Williams in '04--doesn't have to replace this one. Leinart will again collaborate with the Maestro, offensive coordinator Norm Chow. In addition to its pilot, both star running backs, the top three receivers and five offensive linemen with starting experience return. That's right: The offense that just hung 55 points on Oklahoma will be vastly improved. "It's a great opportunity to stay at the cutting edge," says Carroll, "to take this offense as far as we can take it."
As he did last season, Leinart will insure himself against injury with Lloyds of London. While he acknowledges that he is taking a risk, he points out that he could improve his draft position. Scouts rave about his football smarts--Leinart reads defenses better than some NFL QBs--but his arm strength is average. Tendinitis curtailed his throwing last summer; he now has a year to work on getting more heat on his passes.
Mostly, though, he'll have another year to hang out on the USC campus, closing in on his sociology degree while dodging coeds who ride to class on cruiser bikes as they talk on their cellphones. While the NFL isn't going anywhere, "there is something special going on right here that I didn't want to give up," said Leinart, who will now go on doing what he's been doing: having the time of his life.