No swelled head for big man on campus

Sports views

Posted: Thursday, January 20, 2005

Five days after taking what might be the biggest risk in sports history, here is the short list of things Matt Leinart still does not have:

Millions in the bank.

A new car in the driveway.

Regrets.

''I'm relieved more than anything,'' Leinart said Tuesday night over the phone from Los Angeles. ''It feels really good to get all that pressure off my shoulders. It got to the point where I realized whatever decision I made, there was going to be some criticism.

''So,'' he added, ''I just did what was best for me.''

The guys who run the NFL aren't used to hearing ''No.'' Even though Leinart brought the Heisman Trophy back to USC and then tied the bow on a second straight national championship, you'd think the biggest man on campus would be even bigger after announcing he was passing up an eight-figure signing bonus from the pros to come back for his senior year. But no.

Most of the 500 or so Trojans fans who packed Heritage Hall and spilled over onto the lawn outside when Leinart announced his decision Friday have returned to classes. And so has he, with surprisingly little fanfare.

''I walked into geography yesterday and nobody made a big deal. My teacher said some nice stuff, but that's about it,'' Leinart said.

''Other than a few teammates, everybody's been real respectful. And the only reason they're bummed,'' he added, ''is because they thought I was going to buy them cars.''

And so running back LenDale White's request for a Range Rover was put on hold. Ditto for Leinart's purchase of a Chevy Tahoe to replace the little white Ford pickup he's dubbed the ''Danger Ranger.''

''It still gets me where I need to go,'' Leinart said.

Still to be determined is whether he'll be able to say the same about the Southern California program around this time next year. Leinart will be surrounded by another talented corps of skill players; coach Pete Carroll has already seen to that. And he'll still be orchestrating the madcap offensive schemes drawn up by coordinator Norm Chow. Even so, it's hard to imagine the Trojans improving on the just-ended season. Just matching it, considering the raised expectations, will be tough enough.

Maybe that's why so few people were willing to take Leinart at his word. He said all along it would take ''a lot for me to leave,'' and because there seemed to be nothing left to prove in college and everything to gain by turning pro, we just assumed he was talking about money. But that wasn't it at all.

Leinart was raised in a well-to-do section of Santa Ana, Calif., comfortably enough to be able to make decisions based on factors other than need. His parents paid the premiums for a $1 million insurance policy this season — about $20,000 — and they'll do it again next season. Getting hurt would take a huge chunk out of Leinart's net worth, much the same way that Buffalo running back Willis McGahee slid from the top of the draft to the tail end of the first round after wrecking his knee playing for Miami in the Fiesta Bowl, his last college game before declaring for the NFL as a junior. But that doesn't scare Leinart, either.

''I don't play scared,'' he said at last week's news conference. ''I play to win. ... I could be hurt tomorrow.''

The simple fact is that Leinart didn't take that factor into account, either. His decision came down to where he most wanted to be for the next year of his life — no matter where the money or expectations were — and everything kept pointing to the place he already was.

''It's another year with my pals, no matter how it turns out. If I told you what I do with most of my time, my life would sound pretty boring,'' Leinart said. ''But I'll tell you what: I didn't want to look back 10 or 20 years down the road and find out I passed on the chance to be a part of something really special.''

There's no chance of that now, no matter — as Leinart said — how the coming year plays out. What still seems like play will become a job after that, and it's not like his resume will need any polishing by then.

''The attention has been overwhelming at times, and now it might be a little worse, I guess because turning down a lot of money is something nobody has really done before. But this is fun. I just got back to working out this week, and I'm already excited to find out,'' he said, ''how much better we can get.''

Jim Litke is a national sports columnist with The Associated Press. Write to him at jlitke@ap.org.



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