2001 - 2005
My high school years at Mater Dei there were other quarterbacks with big names in Southland prep football, like Matt Cassel, Brandon Hance, Kyle Boller, Kyle Matter, Chris Rix, John Sciarra, J.P. Losman and David Koral. Matt Grootegoed was my teammate and he was a huge star. We played De La Salle at "the Big A," Edison International Field. They were on an all-time winning streak and the best prep dynasty ever, but we played them even in a 31-28 loss. I had a big game and it elevated my standing. Some people still call that the best high school football game ever played! Bruce Rollinson was our coach and he had played at USC.
My father, Bob, is a big USC fan and he was impressed when he heard that Norm Chow would be the offensive coordinator. Grootegoed committed there and I decided to go, too, but my mind was not right my first two years there. Riding pine was a major downer, but I'd overcome things in life. I'd been roly-poly as a child, and had vision problems, was cross-eyed, wore glasses, and was kidded by classmates who called me "four eyes."
There was considerable competition in the spring of 2003. I knew that it was now or never. If I lost the starting job, the man who won it would probably hold it for the remainder of my career, and maybe beyond. I lifted and went from 215 to 225-230 pounds, which made an enormous difference mentally as much as physically.
Coach Rollinson showed a replay of the 2000 Mater Dei-De La Salle game to me in the spring of 2003. I was "terrible," in danger of losing the job to John David Booty, Matt Cassel, Brandon Hance or Billy Hart. I was actually third string going in to the spring and I just remember it being a battle, but I remember working very hard that whole off-season. My whole mindset was that it kind of miraculously shifted from March to the three months before the first game to where, this is my opportunity, and my confidence kind of built as the practices went on because I could see the coaches gaining confidence in me, and I was gaining confidence in myself. From then on out I just took the reigns and went with it and then slowly the players started respecting me and gaining confidence in me, and that's when I knew it was my team and that I could actually play there and be successful.
In the first game at Auburn I was 17-of-30 for 192 yards, mostly working short yardage in Chow's up-dated version of the "West Coast offense." Mike Williams caught eight passes for 104 yards. Hershel Dennis rambled for 85.
At Arizona State, I was limpin' around. Pete Carroll just challenged me to play through it because he needed me to. "If you limp, you're not playing," he said to me. The Arizona State faithful were in a frenzy when the Sun Devils took a 17-10 lead early in the third quarter, as road crowds always are when they think the home team has a chance at an upset. I just gritted my teeth, put the pain up in my attic, and hit the first three passes in the second half. We scored 27 unanswered points and won, 37-17. My teammates knew I was not a pretty boy, a Tinsel Town guy.
After the game, my teammates talked about my toughness and effort. The game was a turning point for me as well as the program. LenDale White rushed for 140 yards off the bench. Ryan Killeen kicked three field goals, and I hit on 13 of 23 attempts for 289 yards and two touchdowns. We scored 27 unanswered points and an ultimately convincing win.
In 2003 there were a lot of unanswered questions, but it was exciting. We were Rose Bowl champions, national champions. We savored it. Sports Illustrated featured me scoring on my touchdown reception, trumpeting the 2003 national championship with the headline, "USC's the one!" Five 2003 Trojans made All-American. They included wide receiver Mike Williams, offensive tackle Jacob Rogers, defensive end Kenechi Udeze, punter Tom Malone, and myself.
ESPN started calling USC a "Hollywood school," the "University of Sexy Chicks." My name started to get linked to Mandy Moore and Alyssa Milano, but I had to stay focused when it came to football. I worked hard and was a leader. It was all about winning.
Bruce Feldman of ESPN the Magazine wrote an article that painted me as "the artist as a young quarterback," a guy with a mind that allowed me to see things - openings, defensive shifts, "vivid images" - that other players were clueless about. The coaches were really praising me. Chow said my mind was "perfect." My mother said I had a photographic memory.
The game just slowed down. Some people have it and some people don't. I guess I just process stuff differently. But really, it's never been something I've worked on. My dad talks about a Mustang League World Series duel between me and a kid from Puerto Rico. He described the Puerto Rican as "a guy who looks like Cerrano from Major League." After 15 pitches I won the match-up by taking "just a touch off it," which describes many of my passes. I struck out "Cerrano" to win the game.
My father "died" on a hospital operating table when I was younger. I prayed and stayed strong for my mother, and he came back. Every Wednesday at USC he made the drive from Santa Ana to L.A. to have lunch with me. We only missed one lunch. The week of the Cal loss in 2003. We didn't miss one after that.
In 2004 I struggled against Virginia Tech and they led 10-7 at the half. We struggled at times but Reggie Bush being the big player he is made big plays. I just kind of got in a groove. I struggled in the first half a little bit. We were off our timing a little but. It was loud, I remember it being super loud, like 80,000 or the 90,000 people there were for Virginia Tech, so it was definitely a hostile environment, and I really believe that that game really prepared us for the whole game to do what we did. Playing a team like that that early, battling back from halftime, playing a championship caliber team playing in a BCS game that only had two losses the whole year, so it definitely helped us the rest of the year and we won.
Against Cal in 2004, obviously there was a lot of hype going into that game. It was kind of a revenge game for us; I wasn't really thinking like that but inside of everyone else including the coaches we just wanted that game bad, and I just remember it was a battle from the get-go. I mean we got on 'em early, we got up 14-0 or seven or something like that, and the defense was playing good, but the one thing was they kept the ball so often and kept the defense on the field so long, and we kept going three-and-out, four-and-out, and the defense was getting tired and all that, and it came down to the last series of the game - back and forth, back and forth - and then four plays on the nine-yard line. With a potent offense like that, with a smart offense, it's like, this is gonna be tough. I remember just sitting on the sidelines just thinking to get ready for a two-minute drill and try to score and get the game, but our defense; the first play we had a chance, the second play, now get down to the third and fourth play, you're getting down, it's critical, the two biggest plays of the year, and we stop 'em.
In the national championship win over Oklahoma, Lee Corso went on record saying that it was the greatest single performance in a game that he ever saw. I was the game MVP after passing 18-of-35 for 332 yards and five touchdowns. We left no doubt. I think we proved we were the number one team in the country - without a doubt.
Then I decided to return for my senior year because the things I valued at school were more important to me than money. I realize the money I could have made if I had gone to the NFL, but I wanted to stay in school. I wanted to be with all my friends and teammates, living the college life and going through the graduation process. All those things made up my college experience and I didn't want to give that up.
Being in college was the best time of my life. There was something special going on at USC that I didn't want to give up. I was having fun there. It's all a part of growing up, all part of being a kid, and I wasn't ready to pass that up. A lot of people said they didn't envy me being in that situation. In a way, it was a great position to be in, but on the other hand it was one of the biggest decisions of my life. There was still a lot of motivation for me to play college football. I realized that some saaid there's really not much more I could accomplish, but I got a lot stronger physically and mentally. Another year of experience helped. It's not about the awards. It’s not about trying to win another Heisman. It was really about trying to win a third national championship and getting better as a player.
The next level is business. I was playing for passion and for the love of the game. Sometimes I just kind of looked around and thought, it's cool being in the position I was in. Yeah, life is pretty cool.
As for my celebrity status, it was crazy. I got linked with people because they're celebrities I've hung out with. It was kind of sad that I couldn't go hang with them without getting my name in the paper. I just wanted to hang out. I don't want to be in all the magazines. That's not who I am. When I go out, it's all over the TV. That's the thing about celebrity life. You never know who's watching you. You just have to be really secure in what you're doing. I'm a normal guy, just like any other young guy. Really, there's nothing special about me. It's hard to trust a lot of people and know what they're after.
At one party, I tagged along and Nick Lachey was there. Introductions were made and then it was cameras, paparazzi. A cop asked me for my autograph. I just thought, "Yeah, I can live the life of an NFL player right here in L.A." I was partying with Jessica Simpson and Lindsay Lohan. I was shooting for Esquire and GQ, was a guest on Kimmel and had my own Internet TV show, and was hanging out with Maria Sharapova, Wayne Gretzky and Adam Sandler.
I remember when Carson Palmer won the Heisman, he said his heart was beating out of his chest. Mine was about to do the same thing. I just kind of dropped. My legs were weak. My heart was beating 20 beats a second. It was probably one of the greatest feelings I've ever had in my life. I was a fat kid, cross-eyed, and other people made fun of me. So I was extremely honored.
But when I got home, I put the trophy away and acted like nothing had happened. I was still the same guy. I let my team know that I thanked them. Then, I continued to work hard
I feel like I still have so much more to accomplish. I'm still the same person and act the same. All my friends treat me the same, as a goofball. They still could care less. I remember talking to Jason White after he won and him saying how winning the Heisman changes your life completely. My life changed drastically. A few years ago I was a nobody. To me, I'm still a nobody, but in the eyes of a lot of people I'm a role model, which I take pride in. It's been an incredible journey so far.
I love having pressure on my shoulders. I've been having pressure my whole life. That was the spot where we wanted to be as a team. We liked being on the national stage where everybody's watching us. I had great players around me. Our system worked, obviously. We recruited the best players every year. We had backups who were awesome.
I'm not the most physically gifted kid. I'm not going to scare anybody with my arm or with my running ability. But I felt like my mind set me apart. And my accuracy.
I'm laid back. But I expect perfection. I'm very hard on myself. On the field, I have a cool confidence. I've never been arrogant. I could care less about awards. I just want to win. I don't like being in the spotlight. I just like playing. Obviously, you're going to be the hero or the goat when you're the quarterback. But I'm kind of a more roll-with-things kind of person. As a person, I'm pretty boring. I play video games. That's my favorite hobby.
If you told me when the 2003 season started that I'd do what I did, I never would have believed it. The season I had, that the team had, I think no really expected that. It was a dream come true. It was kind of surreal in a way. I learned a lot from Carson Palmer on how to lead a team. He was the same all the time, never nervous, always calm under pressure. And that's kind of how I was. The way Carson carried himself, even when he was getting ripped by everybody, I really admired that. I tried to be the same way. And with all the talent around me, it would have been hard not to be successful.
Mike Williams had my back from day one. He was constantly in the newspapers saying I was the man. When one of the best players in the country is saying, 'This is our guy. He's going to lead us wherever we go," that gives you great confidence.
The toughest game of my career was the 2005 Notre Dame game. I was in shock. I didn't want to celebrate 'till the clock hit zero because who knows what can happen in three seconds? It was just a great game and I'm still really speechless. I would imagine this will go down as one of the greatest games ever played.
They played exactly how we thought they would. They did pressure us a little more than we thought and put pressure on me and that can get you off rhythm a little bit, but they did what we thought and I missed some easy throws that would have been big plays.
Of the fourth and eight during the final drive, Dwayne Jarrett made a great move on the defensive back and the ball just fit in there perfectly and he just took off and did the rest. I actually thought I underthrew the ball. The camera caught me doing a little sign of the cross before that last drive. I needed all the help I could get.
Of the rollout to set up the winning score, we were trying to throw it low and get a quick hit but it is tough to hit those and they covered it well. I probably could have got in the end zone on that play but the ball got popped out.
I was off all night. I don't really know what was wrong. I threw two bad interceptions. But what matters is how we finished the game.
Against UCLA in my last game at the Coliseum, I was a mess, an emotional wreck, but Reggue carried the day. Getting to the national championship game in 2005 at Pasadena was a great way to end my whole career: in L.A., in front of your home fans and family and friends.
It was crazy, it was intense. It was an honor to play in that game, some called it the best game ever played. Texas was up to the challenge and Vince Young was great. I felt we had the best team but all the credit has to go to Texas.
Matt Leinart may be the greatest college football player who ever lived. He made All-American three years (2003-05), was the runaway winner of the 2004 Heisman Trophy and a New York finalist behind teammate Reggie Bush (2005). Leinart was three times All-Pac-10 and twice the conference Offensive Player of the Year. He won the Columbus Touchdown Club's Archie Griffin award (2003-04), the Walter Camp award (2004), was the AP Player of the Year, the Manning Award-winner, and Victor Award College Player of the Year. Leinart was a two-time Playboy Pre-Season All-American (2004-05). He won the Johnny Unitas award (2005), the Pop Warner award (2005), and was The Sporting News Sportsman of the Year (2005) and, along with Bush, Sports Illustrated's co-Sportsmen of the Year. He was elected to the USC Athletic Hall of Fame and was twice team captain (2004-05). In 2003 he led the Trojans to victory over Michigan in the Rose Bowl (earning the Player of the Game award) and a national championship. The 2004 unbeaten national champion Trojans are one of the finest teams in history. Leinart's performance against Oklahoma in the 55-19 BCS Orange Bowl national championship game is rated amng the best ever, and he was the game's MVP. In 2005 pundits called USC "the greatest college football team of all time" until they lost to Texas in the BCS Rose Bowl national championship game. Drafted in the first round by Arizona, Leinart became the Cardinals' starting quarterback.
Causes Steven Travers Supports
Conservative, Christian, USC, American patriotism