ARIZONA CARDINALS quarterback Matt Leinart entered Level 10 Fitness, a bare-bones gym roughly the size of a four-car garage, in Manhattan Beach, Calif., last month still wearing the USC workout shirt he'd had on hours earlier while lifting weights at his alma mater. PAIN IS CERTAIN said the front of the shirt; SUFFERING IS OPTIONAL read the back.
The message fits Leinart, who at 25 is trying to shake off a disappointing entrance into the NFL and two seasons cut short by injuries—a sprained left shoulder as a rookie, then a fractured left collarbone in his fifth game last season. "I know how it feels to be out, and it sucks," said Leinart, who's eyeing the July 23 start of Cardinals camp. "Not being able to be a part of the team is motivating—so is the pain. I'm 100 percent now, but I worked my butt off to get here."
If photos that surfaced on the Internet in March made some fans question that motivation (one shows Leinart and several women in a hot tub; another shows him apparently helping a woman indulge in a beer bong), the QB has a believer in Arizona coach Ken Whisenhunt, who dubbed him the starter ahead of Kurt Warner. Leinart has spent the off-season working with John Lott, Arizona's strength and conditioning coach, and Alex McKechnie, the athletic performance coordinator of the Lakers, whom Leinart met as a junior at USC. Lott devised Leinart's four-day-a-week weight-lifting program (which has the 6'5", 232-pounder benching 275 pounds and hang-cleaning about the same), and he also has Leinart running an hour a day. McKechnie, meanwhile, has Leinart working out for 30 minutes each day with a device called the Core X System, which engages the core and a wide range of other muscles through the resistance of a four-pronged elastic device that attaches to the wrists and the thighs.
Leinart began working toward his return almost as soon as he went on IR. He broke down film with offensive coordinator Todd Haley before each of the final 11 games and prepared as if he were playing. Then he analyzed each game from the sidelines with the coaches. "You can tell that he's more confident, and I think a lot of that goes back to understanding the offense," Whisenhunt said last month.
Arizona (8--8 last season) is hoping Leinart can capitalize on a good receiving corps and lead the team into playoff contention. "If things don't happen for him this year, it's not because of something he didn't do," says Lott. "I've seen him mature. He knows this is it. This is his year."