Check-Out Time for Leinart

NFL rookie is glad to get away from L.A. and get down to business in Arizona, though he can't completely outrun those Paris Hilton rumors

May 26, 2006|Sam Farmer | Times Staff Writer

Matt Leinart says he's neither Mr. Hollywood nor the latest Mr. Hilton, but merely a rookie quarterback for the Arizona Cardinals.

And to him, that's a welcome change.

"I feel like I'm less in the spotlight," the former USC standout said in a phone interview Thursday, after the Cardinals concluded rookie workouts. "I was just so happy to get out of L.A. I love SC, and I'm from Orange County, so leaving my family was tough. But I've never been more ready just to go and experience something new, just get on with my life in the NFL."

Leinart gave a weary sigh when asked about recent reports linking him with hotel heiress Paris Hilton. He said they are simply friends, nothing more.

"It's so dumb, because if it was any other person ... " he said. "If a group of friends goes out to lunch, and we're in that group, then all of a sudden we're an item? It's so ridiculous."

Leinart was recently photographed emerging from Hilton's home early in the morning. His agent later explained that there were "seven or eight people at her home. Rather than leaving at 1 or 2 a.m., they left in the morning."

If Leinart is distracted, it doesn't show. He was remarkably productive in this week's camp, Cardinals quarterbacks coach Mike Kruczek said, and has "exceeded every expectation."

Kruczek, once Terry Bradshaw's backup in Pittsburgh, said Leinart has a second-nature ease when it comes to running the offense and has a much stronger arm than he showed in college.

"Some people have the ability to understand what you're telling them the first time around," Kruczek said. "Matt's a huge sponge. He wants to know everything yesterday."

If things work out as planned for the Cardinals, Leinart will back up Kurt Warner this season and watch from the sideline. But Warner, who turns 35 next month, hasn't started more than nine games in a season since 2001.

"Obviously he's the starter," said Leinart, selected 10th overall. "He knows the system and knows the game. With me coming in, I get a chance to learn from him and really build for the future. When the future is, nobody knows."

This much is clear: He's at ease in Arizona.

"When Matt's in L.A., it seems like that's all people are talking about," said his agent, Chuck Price. "People wait for him with cameras. They follow him out of clubs trying to take his picture. ... In Arizona, he's just a popular football player now."

Well, maybe a little more than that. Even though Leinart is a backup -- or maybe even third-string behind John Navarre -- he hasn't gotten scrub treatment around town. He's a regular courtside at Suns games, and Steve Nash has rolled out the welcome wagon, inviting him over for dinner. Wayne Gretzky has done the same. Leinart threw out the opening pitch at a Diamondbacks game, and his catcher was former USC teammate Taitusi Lutui, also drafted by Arizona.

When rookie camp ended Thursday, Leinart politely declined interviews and rushed off to catch a plane back to Los Angeles, where he was filming a Nike commercial with fellow NFL players Michael Vick, Brian Urlacher and LaDainian Tomlinson. No, he's not a typical rookie.

In the weeks leading up to the draft, there was a gathering buzz among NFL types that Leinart might be entranced by the bright lights of fame. Among his Hollywood friends are Nick Lachey and Jessica Simpson.

His hiring Creative Artists Agency to represent him didn't dampen that concern.

Brian Billick, coach of the Baltimore Ravens, predicted Leinart would be burned out by the time the season rolled around. Marv Levy, Buffalo's general manager, referred to Leinart as "some glamour guy."

The Cardinals, who say they always had Leinart as the top quarterback on their draft board, heard the murmurs.

"I had my concerns coming into mini-camp," Kruczek said. "I didn't know Matt. But once I met him, those all went away. ... Young guys are going to get out a little bit and enjoy life. That doesn't worry me at all. He has to understand that he has to keep himself out of things. Things are going to get blown up to be bigger than they are. He understands that."

Leinart also understands that, even though he's out of L.A., there's a lot of interest in his maneuverings on and off the field. The NFL Network stopped by rookie camp; so did ESPN. Star Magazine recently called the Cardinals, following up on its Paris-Matt story, and the features section of the Arizona Republic has newfound interest in the team.

"I'm at the point now where I've answered every possible question that I can that people are going to want to know," Leinart said. "If they're going to write other stories, that's their problem. But I'm 100% focused on football. Always have been, and always will be until the day I stop playing."

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