The buzz around Matt Leinart's decision has cooled a bit but will undoubtedly return in April for the NFL Draft where he was all but guaranteed to be the number one overall pick. With that pick, Leinart would have received millions as well as all the perks that come with being the very first player taken in the NFL draft. Many have come before him, gotten their huge signing bonuses and accolades only to drift into obscurity and to be remembered every April as a number pick that never materialized. Several teams have had them and many more will in the future. It is simply the nature of the business.
College kids full of promise playing amongst their peers are asked to step up their game even more to play at the highest level of football in the land. Even the best college talent has fallen short against what many call the greatest collection of athletes that is the National Football League. Some of the kids coming out of college have what it takes to succeed in the NFL and many others do not. That doesn't stop the mad dash for cash that the draft has become. Prospects that seemingly don't have a realistic chance of playing in the NFL are jumping at the chance because just being drafted carries a nice paycheck. Now, that may not be the case with the later rounds but if you can put together an impressive workout at the combine and pro scout workouts, you can ascend the draft board quickly. Get some buzz about your name and sure enough, Mel Kiper Jr. is talking about you on SportsCenter. Truth be told, the NFL Draft is more lottery than it is football. Seeing how a prospect performs at the college level often doesn't translate into how that same kid will play in the NFL. Some examples; how about an easy one: Ryan Leaf. The kid was a monster quarterback in college but as Crash Davis would say, he had a million dollar arm and a ten cent brain. There are others that would be fun to list but rather how about the ones that were written off as too small to play at the next level? Guys like Zach Thomas and Tedy Bruschi. Heck for that matter, just look at the Patriots and you can find all kinds of those examples.
Too many prospects are coming out early for all the wrong reasons. Many are coming out so they can get a slice of the NFL pie which is certainly within their rights to do but it was refreshing to see someone do what many fans (like myself) wish others would do and that is stay in school. Leinart may end up never playing a down in the NFL but in making his decision to stay at USC for his senior season he has made himself a fan favorite around the country. Even people like me who would normally root against USC will be pulling for Leinart to succeed next season. Why not? He has displayed virtually every quality that you could ask for in an athlete that is in the nation's spotlight. He respects his coaches, his teammates and the commitment he made to the university when they agreed to give him an education in return for his getting to play ball on Saturdays. He didn't bolt for the big money and fame of the NFL but rather elected to stay at USC and try and do what has never been done, win three straight National titles.
In making the decision to stay at USC next season, Leinart showed to the country what those around him already knew; he is more than just a football player. He is a role model for kids both in college and those looking to go to college in the future. Even more than that, his decision could be a reminder to us all that while it is often a harder path but following the path less traveled often brings greater rewards. Personally, I have trumpeted Mr. Leinart's actions to my two children as ones that they could learn from. I have the utmost respect for this young man whom I have never met but has made an impression on a country not only by his play on the field but also off. I am sure that Leinart weighed the options of growing into the draft rather than staying in school. I am also confident that he was advised of the risks that he was taking by not entering the draft. It remains to be seen what kind of player he will be in the NFL or if he will even make it, but one thing is clear, his legacy will never be forgotten in Southern California and his display of character and maturity should never be forgotten by anybody.
Thank you, Mr. Leinart. Thank you for having the courage to follow your heart and be willing to take a chance that so many others in your shoes wouldn't have even considered. No matter where you football career takes you, know that there are many like myself that consider themselves to be Matt Leinart fans.