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Looking GOOD

Preparing for his second NFL season, being a major celebrity in Phoenix and enjoying fatherhood, Leinart tries to show that he's more than a pretty face

July 01, 2007|Sam Farmer | Times Staff Writer

CHANDLER, ARIZ. — Matt Leinart had the resume for it -- three years in the spotlight as quarterback for one of the most talented teams in college football, with a couple of national championships and a Heisman Trophy to show for it.

And he had the press clippings -- a magazine spread that placed him among the best-looking celebrities on the planet and a constant stream of out-on-the-town sightings linking him to some of the frat-pack set's hottest stars and starlets.

Who could argue the former USC star's Mr. Hollywood label?

But Leinart sure did try.

He still blames that image for his slide to the 10th pick in the 2006 draft by the Arizona Cardinals, even though he didn't help himself by hiring (but later firing) Hollywood heavyweight Creative Artists Agency to handle his marketing.

"So I made a few celebrity friends that I'm good friends with, even better friends today," he says while shooting pool on a table set just inside the front door of his sprawling suburban home. "Who cares if I'm living like a kid?"

Of course, he may live like a kid, but he's 24 now and also a father -- 8-month-old Cole lives with Leinart's former girlfriend in Newbury Park -- so these days he places an even higher value on his privacy.

Having grown used to the paparazzi treatment in Los Angeles, Leinart found an even more frenzied interest in his private life once he arrived in Arizona. All eyes seemed to be on him -- and not just those of traditional football fans hoping he could help turn around the perennially moribund Cardinals.

"Girls were talking about it left and right," said Megan Finnerty, who covers the club scene for the Arizona Republic. "It's not like there aren't good-looking men in Phoenix, but when you're picked as one of People magazine's 50 most beautiful people, that's a huge endorsement."

When Leinart arrived on the scene last year, Finnerty wrote an article headlined, "Diagraming a Play for Cards' Sexy QB," a guide for local women on how best to land Leinart as a boyfriend.

Leinart has a foot in two worlds -- the public he accepts as a highly paid performer for an NFL team and private moments for which he yearns.

He says he moved into a gated community here about a 20-minute drive from Cardinals headquarters in an effort to preserve some peace and quiet. He felt too exposed in his first house, where twice his truck was stripped of its wheels, and once he looked in from his backyard pool to find an uninvited woman rooting through his kitchen cabinets.

"I was in my pool swimming with my dog, and I could see her through the windows," Leinart said. "I got out and said, 'Do you normally go in the house of somebody you don't know?' She was about 50, and I was like, that's some nerve to walk in somebody's house. I just told her to leave."

That he wants some privacy doesn't mean Leinart always shies from the spotlight.

He threw a birthday bash last month that included a pool party at the luxury Mondrian Scottsdale Hotel, which was attended by Dallas Cowboys receiver Terrell Owens and several members of the Phoenix Suns, who had been eliminated from the NBA playoffs the night before.

"Matt has that effect: 'Hey, man, Leinart's having a party,' and people start showing up," said his agent, Chuck Price. "That's the same kind of vibe he gets from Hollywood. He doesn't ask for it; it just happens. But if you look at the kind of people he runs with every day, it's the guys he's known his whole life."

Leinart realizes his staying power in the NFL won't have anything to do with his looks or who his friends are. It'll come down to whether he can coax an offense to the end zone and display the leadership ability coveted by owners, general managers and coaches throughout the league.

"I knew once I went to the NFL, my first thing was, 'I've got to get the respect of these guys,' " Leinart says. "I knew they were going to respect me as a football player, but I just wanted them to respect me off the field. I'm not this Hollywood kid. I'm not this guy who has football as the third priority in his life. That was a bunch of [garbage]. Respect was the biggest thing."

He made good strides on that front last season.

Despite the Cardinals' 5-11 finish, Leinart played well, throwing for 2,547 yards and 11 touchdowns. He nearly led upsets of Kansas City and Chicago in his first two starts, his passing was accurate, and he seemed more mobile than he was at USC.

Norm Chow, the Tennessee Titans' offensive coordinator who ran the offense with Leinart at USC, said the left-hander's performance as a rookie didn't surprise him.

"I knew the characteristics he had," Chow says. "He's accurate, smart, tough, coachable, and has a burning desire to do well. I just don't see how he can fail."

Cardinals fans would like to dream, but they have reason to be cautious.

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