Matt's make-or-break year

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As Matt Leinart enters a bare-bones gym roughly the size of a four-car garage in Manhattan Beach, Calif., he is still wearing a USC workout shirt he had worn earlier in the day while lifting weights at his alma mater.

"Pain is Certain," said the front of the shirt; "Suffering is Optional," read the back.

The message couldn't be any more fitting for Leinart, who at 25 is trying to shake off a disappointing entrance into the NFL with his first two seasons cut short by injuries -- a sprained left shoulder as a rookie, then a fractured left collarbone in his fifth game last season.

"[The injuries] really motivated me," says Leinart, who was named the team's starting quarterback heading into the start of Cardinals camp Wednesday. "Sitting there, being hurt, not being able to be a part of the team, the pain is really motivating. I know how it feels to be out, and it sucks. I'm 100 percent now and I worked my butt off to get to this point."

Leinart began working almost as soon as he went on IR last season. He broke down game film with offensive coordinator Todd Haley each week and analyzed the action from the sidelines with coaches giving Leinart assignments as if he were a scout. He also spent more time in the weight room than ever before, setting personal records by bench pressing 275 pounds and hang cleaning about the same to get in the best shape of his career -- he was already at his playing weight (232 pounds) a month before camp.

"Matt knows this is it, if things don't happen for him this year it's not because of something he didn't do," says Arizona Cardinals strength and conditioning coach John Lott, who has Leinart working out four times a week and running every day for about an hour. "I've seen him mature and it's great to see your quarterback grow. He was challenged and he's answered the bell. Bill Parcells used to say if it's been three years and the light hasn't turned on yet, you might want a road map. I think he knows that and the lights on now. He knows that this is it. This is his year."

When Leinart takes a break from his workout, he smiles as he looks down at his sweat drenched USC shirt. It's been over two years now since he played his last college game but he is still thought of as the Trojans' Heisman winning quarterback, a bittersweet tag he'd like to graduate from by completing his first full season as an NFL starter.

"It's been awhile now. I love 'SC, I always will but when I go back there in the off-season I go there to work out and train and that's about it," he says. "I had a lot of good memories there and a lot of great times in football with my guys but there comes a point where you got to move on and mature."

If there were one glaring criticism about Leinart coming into the NFL and even into his third season, it would be his maturity. It was one of the reasons he fell from the projected first overall pick in the 2004 NFL draft to the 10th pick in 2005 after he had ballooned into a bona fide Hollywood celebrity following his senior season at USC. While Leinart attempted to restore his off-field image this year by turning down invitations to celebrity parties and red carpet events, photos surfaced on the Internet of Leinart and Nick Lachey at his house with several women in a hot tub and another of Leinart helping a woman indulge in a beer bong.

"I've taken some hits and I've learned from my mistakes and I've learned from everything I've been through," says Leinart. "It's difficult. It's one of those things where I've come to realize that my life is magnified through the media in whatever I do. I just try to understand that but also realize that this is my life and I'm going to try to have fun. I don't want to have any regrets when I'm 50 years old and say, 'Gosh, I wish I had done this or that.' At the same time, you have to be smart about what you do, that's the biggest thing because I am a person that's out there and people look up to me and kids look up to me."

One kid in particular that looks up to Leinart is his 20-month-old son Cole, who lives with his mother and USC women's basketball player Brynn Cameron, whom Leinart dated while he was in school. While Leinart and Cameron are no longer together, Leinart sees Cole on a regular basis. He is in Leinart's arms after his workout, with him when he goes to Lakers games, in a car seat as Leinart drives out of the Standard Hotel prior to the ESPYs.

"It's a trip because when you become a father or a parent, it puts things in perspective in your life," says Leinart. "You just realize, 'Wow, this is my son and I basically live for him.' I don't care about myself or getting things for me. Little things don't matter anymore and you put him before everything else. He's your family. He's the reason why I wake up. He's the reason why I play football. There really isn't anything better than a father-son relationship. That's the coolest part. I love being a dad and I love him more than anything. It's so excited to see him grow up."

Now, it seems, is Leinart's time to grow up. After breezing through a great college career, Leinart is at the crossroads of his young NFL career, eager to prove that he is more than just another Heisman winning quarterback struggling to make it at the next level.

"At 'SC, being in a system for five years and starting for three years, going into my senior year it was a breeze," says Leinart. "It was more a situation where I was a coach and teaching the younger kids when I was leaving. That's how the NFL is it's just a matter of getting to that point. It's difficult because the game is so hard but you have put in all the work and put in your time until you get to that point and I think I'm finally getting to that point."