Matt Leinart: The failure of Southern California’s golden boy


I went through a jersey phase in my high school years. They were comfortable, I had no interests outside of sports and it was a way of distancing myself from the average sports fan. There were no team limitations to my jersey purchases, just two qualifications: The jersey had to be of a specific player and the player had to be an outstanding talent.

My collection was a laundry list of NFL greats. An old, authentic Jim Brown in white. A Ladainian Tomlinson in navy blue. A Michael Irvin throwback from the 1992 NFC Title Game. And then there was a red Matt Leinart jersey. Purchased in the spring of 2006 and then never worn unless it was a flag football game played under muddy conditions. I had a very real case of buyer’s remorse.

Chalk it up to being a 17-year-old boy under the heavy influence of ESPN, but I thought Matt Leinart was as close to an All-Pro lock as one could get at the No. 10 pick in the draft. His nearly-legendary college career included 99 touchdowns against 23 interceptions and a Heisman Trophy. I remember being shocked he slid all the way to the tenth selection, after two safeties, a tight end and some guy named Ernie Sims. This was a guy who led one of the most prolific offenses in memory to a BCS National Championship and an AP title. I assumed he was primed to challenge Steve Young for the honor of the league’s all-time greatest left-handed quarterback. Especially with a washed-up Kurt Warner as his challenger.

Perhaps it was the weight of those crushing expectations that derailed Leinart’s success. Maybe it was all a mirage; Reggie Bush, Mike Williams and a dominant offensive line making it easy for any athlete with an average arm and the ability to digest a playbook. Whatever it was, Leinart’s NFL career was ugly. For a Southern California boy used to dating reality TV stars, it was a deviation from the norm. One can hardly blame Leinart for his inability to turn it around.

Eight years after being drafted into a perfect situation, Leinart has been reduced to a cautionary tale and a potential talking head. As the world witnessed his college coach deliver the city of Seattle it’s first professional sports championship since 1979, it has become more apparent Leinart was a system quarterback. Ken Dorsey with better hair.

Matt Leinart should be entering his quarterbacking prime at 30 years old. He should be at Disney World, thanking Daryl Washington and Patrick Peterson for keeping Peyton Manning off the field just long enough to lead a game-winning two minute drill, complete with a strike to Andre Roberts for the go-ahead score. A millionaire 125 times over, Leinart’s corner of the endzone strike to Roberts should have sealed the deal on a new contract extension. Ken Whisenhunt has just become the current star head coach of the NFL.

Of course, reality is dramatically different, with the only similarity being the link between Leinart and Whisenhunt in current news stories. In this edition, Leinart calls out Whisenhunt on FOX Sports, saying it was Warner who installed the offensive gameplan and delivered a Super Bowl berth to the Cardinals. While this may be partially true, it makes Leinart look like a jealous man, unable to blame himself for his inability to grab the Arizona Cardinals starting quarterback job. Frankly, it makes him sound like a cast member of MTV’s Laguna Beach, the high school reality show he is forever linked to.

Maybe that’s for the best. Matt Leinart was most appealing as a California kid, flip flops on his feet, arms burrowing out of a tank top. I’m sure Leinart is a good person, working hard to succeed in his second career. But for the collective public, he will always be the star quarterback of America’s mid-2000s obsession with Southern California. In an era where The OC ruled FOX and Laguna Beach was MTV’s golden goose, Matt Leinart was the boy who captured our imaginations on the football field. He was the quarterback teenagers wanted to be – the girls, the trophies, the flowing hair.

It was published on that Leinart almost didn’t play football at all, according to Aaron Torres. Leinart had reconstructive shoulder surgery…at the age of 14. He wanted to play baseball but the surgery made him rethink it. After playing a little bit of freshman football, he got hooked and the rest is history.

I bet I’m not the only one who bought his jersey.

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