Signing Day Stories: Leinart was so close to never playing football
Feb 5, 2014 at 9:45a ET
Love them or hate them, the USC Trojans were college football’s glamour program of the 2000’s.
Before the SEC went on a seven-title winning streak, before Nick Saban made the sport his personal playground, before Johnny Football and Oregon’s 50-shades-of-neon uniforms were all the rage, there were Pete Carroll’s Trojans. USC’s combination of Cali swag and Hollywood star power made them the team in college football.
Yet in reflecting back on the Trojans’ glory days, it’s incredible to consider that maybe their most important player not only almost didn’t end up at USC, he nearly ended up not playing football at all.
“I had a little bit of a different experience,” former Trojans quarterback and Heisman Trophy winner Matt Leinart said. “I actually entered high school as a baseball player. I was just going to play football for fun.”
Football for fun?
It doesn’t seem possible, but it wasn’t until a major shoulder injury put Leinart’s baseball career on hold that he seriously considered football, and even then he had no grand visions of playing in the NFL or even the Pac-10 (Pac-12 now). After surgery forced him to miss both football and baseball season as a sophomore in high school, Leinart was thankful just to be playing any sport at all the following year.
“I had major reconstructive shoulder surgery at 14 years old,” Leinart said. “I was told I would never pitch again. [My journey into football] was more fear of the unknown. Do I go back to baseball and re-injure myself?”
In a world where parents constantly wrestle with the idea of letting their kids play football for safety concerns, ironically the same sport became a safe-haven for Leinart after his baseball injury.
“I had played freshman football, so I’d had a taste of it,” Leinart said. “I was raw, but I could play. Basically I said, ‘I’ll quit baseball and play football and kind of see where it goes.’”
Baseball’s loss quickly became football’s gain, as Leinart soon found himself as the starting quarterback at Santa Ana Mater Dei, one of the nation’s top high school programs. Within months, he drew the attention of college coaches across the country. That fast evolution into a major college prospect surprised everyone, including Leinart himself.
“Even my junior year I was so new to the sport I didn’t think about recruiting,” he said. “It wasn’t until after my junior year I started getting recruiting letters. That’s when I realized, ‘Oh, wow, I’m going to get a scholarship to play Division I football. That’s pretty cool.’”
Some of football’s most established powers began showing interest. Michigan told Leinart they liked what they saw on tape, and after he threw in front of the coaches at a camp in Ann Arbor, he earned a scholarship offer. USC also showed interest under former coach Paul Hackett coaching, giving Leinart two premier programs to choose from. He elected to make an announcement prior to his senior year.
“I fell in love with Michigan while I was out there,” Leinart said. “But ultimately it came down to USC. I wanted to be close to home.”
From there was it a never-ending slew of big wins, Rose Bowl appearances and Pete Carroll man-hugs? Not exactly.
Just as Leinart was getting ready to sign his Letter of Intent that winter, Hackett and his coaching staff got fired. With no immediate successor in sight, Leinart reopened his recruiting to a handful of top programs. He visited Oklahoma, which had just won the 2000 national championship. Arizona State was intrigued as well.
Then there was another school, also in Los Angeles, which had previously showed interest.
“I actually grew up a UCLA fan,” Leinart said. “That was my team.”
But while the Bruins may have been Leinart’s “team,” they were hardly the school of his football dreams.
“I went to UCLA on an unofficial visit, and the vibe was just different,” Leinart said. “It was one of those atmospheres -- I can’t explain it. But I just didn’t like it.”
Not that it mattered. Once Leinart got to know the new staff at ‘SC, he again committed to the Trojans. Carroll was in town and brought an All-Star staff with him that would eventually change the landscape of college football. And they had their quarterback of the future.
“When Pete Carroll’s staff got hired, you just felt the energy,” Leinart said. “He was telling us, ‘We’re going to turn this program around. You watch!’ With Pete, you believed it.”
The Trojans went 6-6 in Carroll’s first season in 2001 but then followed up in Year 2 by going 11-2 and winning the Orange Bowl behind Heisman Trophy winning QB Carson Palmer. That started a string of seven straight years of at least 11 wins per season (depending on how you feel about an asterisk from the NCAA), including a split national championship during Leinart’s redshirt sophomore year in 2003 and an outright title in 2004, the season Leinart collected a Heisman of his own.
Maybe more incredible was the transformation of USC Leinart saw by the time he left campus.
“The perception when I committed was that USC was a terrible team,” he said. “They had all the talent in the world, but could never pull it together.”
Safe to say, things had changed quickly. By the time he left USC, the Trojans were winning big and bringing in the best high school players from all over the country.
And while the Trojans dynasty didn’t happen solely because of Leinart, he played as big a role as anyone. Even if the whole thing did happen practically by accident.
“The recruiting process is great,” Leinart said. “Everything is always more fun when you look back at it, knowing what you know now.”
Of course, who could’ve known at the time that the star high school baseball player would eventually evolve into one of the best in college football history?
(To read Randy Moss' Signing Day story, and how he'd still choose Notre Dame, click here.)
(To read how Donovan McNabb almost got Michael Vick to Syracuse, click here.)