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THE NFL DRAFT

Glitz Package

Matt Leinart's potential as a pro quarterback is matched, perhaps even exceeded, by his star quality, but that doesn't mean he's gone Hollywood

April 28, 2006|Sam Farmer | Times Staff Writer

NEW YORK — Dressed in a black pinstriped suit, wearing a thick diamond watch and looking every bit the magazine cover model, Matt Leinart sat Thursday in a sprawling corner office overlooking Central Park. Robert De Niro's office had just called. Tom Brady was on hold. Across the desk, easing back in his red velour chair, sat one of America's best-known real-estate moguls, a man no stranger to hyperbole.

"This kid is magic," Donald Trump said. "If he comes to the Jets, he'll captivate this city."

It was just another day in the life of the NFL's quintessential apprentice. Leinart has been preened by fashion photographers, punk'd by MTV, and prepped by one of Hollywood's most powerful agencies. A month after he and USC lost in the Rose Bowl to Texas, he appeared in an ad for NFL Network that ran during Super Bowl XL. People magazine named him one of its 100 most beautiful in an issue that hits newsstands today.

Even though Trojan teammate Reggie Bush is likely to be the first overall pick in Saturday's NFL draft, Leinart, who is projected to go somewhere in the top 10 picks, has flexed star power never before seen from a pro-to-be.

Coming off a spectacular college career that included two national championships and a Heisman Trophy, he has drawn frequent comparisons to New England's Brady -- Trump's golfing buddy -- for his ability to make the right decisions under pressure and ultimately win games.

"You can't look past his success," Tampa Bay Coach Jon Gruden said. "... He's phenomenal."

However, Leinart's off-the-field exposure has some in the NFL promoting caution.

"Right now, Matt Leinart doesn't know this isn't the way every day is," Baltimore Coach Brian Billick said. "... I'm sure intellectually he's going, 'I'm putting a dividing line here, and once the draft is over, I'll refocus.' The biggest problem for a rookie is their rookie season started at the end of the college season. They are a worn-out bunch of kids."

But Leinart, who says he can't wait for the draft buildup to end, contends that people who characterize him as Mr. Hollywood -- one New York tabloid deemed him "Madison Avenue Matt" -- are overlooking his devotion to football.

"I just kind of laugh at that," he said. "It hasn't been a distraction, and it never will be a distraction. I've put all of my focus on preparing for Saturday, preparing for pro day, the combine and all that. I have a good team around me that keeps all of the distractions out. There's some things obviously that you do here and there. But ... the whole Hollywood image ... I was born and raised out there, so what's the big deal?"

The big deal that raised eyebrows in NFL circles was Leinart's hiring of Hollywood heavyweight Creative Artists Agency, which typically represents A-list celebrities, to handle his marketing. He later roiled the sports-agent business by firing Leigh Steinberg, once the preeminent quarterback agent, and retaining Chuck Price and Tom Condon. Price is a longtime Leinart associate; Condon, who represents quarterbacks Peyton and Eli Manning, instantly made CAA a major player in the sports business when he jumped from IMG.

"I knew I'd get some criticism or raise some kind of question by hiring CAA," Leinart said. "But I was ready for that."

His star power was obvious Thursday during a meet-the-media session at a New York restaurant. Although some other elite prospects attended the lunch -- among them Texas quarterback Vince Young, Maryland tight end Vernon Davis and Virginia tackle D'Brickashaw Ferguson -- the largest crowds formed around Leinart and Bush.

"You got Matt over there, might be in a movie and things like that," said North Carolina State defensive end Mario Williams, a potential No. 1 pick, motioning to the cluster surrounding Leinart. "You see him hanging out with John Travolta and things like that. If I were in that location, I might have the opportunity to do the same thing."

The notion that Leinart has gone Hollywood is simply wrong, said Steve Clarkson, the quarterback's personal coach and business partner. He said the Leinart the public doesn't see is focused on becoming the best pro player he can be.

"His days, since the Rose Bowl, start at 7 a.m. with training, film watching, therapy, you name it ... all the way up to 7 o'clock at night," Clarkson said. "This is a six-day-a-week ritual. It was a 9-to-5 job and then some. His preparation was second to none, and anybody who followed that program will tell you that."

As for the notion that Leinart flocked to celebrities, Clarkson said, it was the other way around.

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