Boy, that Matt Leinart, he sure sacrificed.
To complete his sociology degree and stay eligible to win another Heisman Trophy, Leinart had to enroll in a ballroom-dancing course. Earning two units -- while simultaneously tangoing with his girlfriend from the USC basketball team -- is apparently rough.
"I had one class left and I thought it would be fun," Leinart said.
He spoke a few days before he and the Trojans left for that rugged road opener in Hawaii.
As usual, it was 80 degrees and breezy in Southern California. Palms actually swayed as the school's marching band played "Conquest" on an adjacent field. Leinart had just finished practice with America's most accomplished college football team.
Twenty-two straight wins and two national titles later, he threw deep spirals to what looked like a cadre of 6-foot-4, 220-pound wideouts. They had to have more grace and elan in their strides than the receiving corps of the San Francisco 49ers.
That's the team that would have taken Leinart No. 1 in the NFL draft and rewarded him with millions of dollars to get pile-driven into the ground.
Yep, that Matt Leinart, he sure sacrificed.
Did we mention his main competition for a second straight Heisman resides in his own backfield? He and Reggie Bush (a junior who'll likely go pro after this season) are having fun with the campaign, blogging away on the Internet, enjoying their last year of school like seniors who migrate to Europe with their backpacks for the summer. What a concept, huh? Kids who want the life experience they know they'll never have time to enjoy once they enter the working world.
Perfect weather. A cake of a semester ahead. The chance to keep playing with a dream of a college football team. On the stay-in-school bonuses go.
You look at Leinart, this bushy-haired, boyish upperclassman, a guy who could easily wind up on the cover of a teen magazine. You look at Leinart, who has become, to everyone but UCLA fans, more revered and popular than Kobe Bryant on the Los Angeles sports scene. And it becomes clear:
We are asking the wrong question.
We need to stop with the inane, "Why did you stay at USC and pass up all those millions?" and start with, "Why not?"
The kid's family is not in a dire financial situation that makes going pro a necessity. In the nightmare scenario, Leinart suffers a career-ending injury, thereby costing him all those NFL millions. One, he has an insurance policy worth several million dollars. Two, he does not strike anyone as the kind of guy whose self-esteem is tied to celebrity and fortune. And lastly, he is safer this season behind USC's line than a slipshod NFL team's line.
"People have a hard time accepting the fact that there are young men who simply enjoy the college experience, and they want it to last for as long as they can," said Pete Carroll, the coach who resurrected USC's program. "This is the last time in your life when you don't have that much responsibility or demands on you. Who wouldn't want to hang onto that for as long as possible?"
Maurice Clarett, are you listening?
This is so apropos. The guy who should have never left college early was cut from the Broncos this past week and remained unclaimed by any team. At this juncture for the pudgy, petulant former Ohio State running back, it's Frankfurt or bust.
Meanwhile, Leinart, the kid who had every alleged reason not to stay -- he's clearly physically and emotionally ready for the NFL -- is off to Hawaii to begin defense of the Trojans' national title, to begin his last year of college in paradise.
"I can't speak for other people, but it's what I wanted to do," Leinart said.
How much is he truly missing anyway? At the ESPYs last month in Hollywood, he got to hang out with members of the athletic wunderkind fraternity.
"I met Maria Sharapova," Leinart said, like only a kid who had a seventh-grade crush could. "She's pretty. And she's tall."
Sharapova, the Russian tennis star, LeBron James and Andy Roddick shared tales with Leinart about the demands of being that young and that good. He is also reportedly friends with Mr. Jessica Simpson, Nick Lachey. But don't hold that against Leinart. Nick just wants to align himself with a real celebrity.
Everywhere Leinart goes, he is boffo box office, accosted for autographs even on campus. "Different from last season? No, I don't think so," said Carroll, sarcastically, mentioning that his grandmother's cousin's brother wants something by Leinart signed.
Norm Chow, Leinart's Yoda-like mentor at USC, took a job in the offseason as the Tennessee Titans' offensive coordinator. He left Leinart a voice mail on Tuesday afternoon that essentially ended with, "Now that I'm gone, don't big-time me." Wild, huh, the sought-after NFL coach, reminding his pupil to stay humble.
"I told him I'm not changing," Leinart said. " It's everything around me that's different from what it was at this time last year."
The misguided criticism he receives for staying in school is somewhat expected. Not everyone's values coincide with waiting a year to earn $50 million.
Yet Leinart knows it will not compare to the ribbing he is already taking for enrolling in ballroom dancing.
"It just helps my rhythm on the dance floor," he said. "That's the only thing it helps. It was just something that I thought would be fun."
Fun. If only Clarett and so many others rushing to go nowhere knew: that's what your final years of college are supposed to be.