The two quarterbacks first spoke in June. Oklahoma‚Äôs Jason White was having dinner in Norman with a group of teammates when one of them, senior safety Donte Nicholson, speed-dialed an old friend from back home in California: USC‚Äôs Matt Leinart. Once the connection was made, Nicholson handed the phone to White. They congratulated each other on fine seasons last fall, compared summer workout plans and talked about meeting up in July, when White would be in Leinart‚Äôs native Orange County for a football camp. Leinart made a point of giving White some love for winning the Heisman Trophy. ‚ÄúYou win that,‚Äù White said in response, ‚Äúeverything in your life changes.‚Äù
They are the Frick and Frack of the 2004 Heisman race. White has the chance to become only the second two-time winner, after Ohio State running back Archie Griffin, in 1974 and ‚Äô75, and he is the first winner to defend his title since BYU quarterback Ty Detmer in ‚Äô91. (Detmer lost out to Michigan receiver Desmond Howard that year.) But after failing miserably at the end of last season White isn‚Äôt a favorite. In losses to Kansas State in the Big 12 title game and to LSU in the BCS championship game, White totaled four interceptions and zero touchdown passes. He punctuated his nasty 13-for-37 performance in the Sugar Bowl with eight consecutive incompletions. ¬†* That showing incurred the wrath of observers such as columnist Tim Sullivan of The San Diego Union-Tribune, who wrote, ‚ÄúIs the Heisman Trophy subject to a recall vote?‚Äù Upon returning to Oklahoma, White found e-mails encouraging him to quit the team, and he was randomly dissed by people on the street. Though the abuse wasn‚Äôt widespread, the negative vibe follows him into this season, where he‚Äôs no better than third in most preseason Heisman lists, behind Leinart, a junior, and Kansas State senior running back Darren Sproles. ‚ÄúI don‚Äôt expect to be the Heisman front-runner this year,‚Äù White says, ‚Äúand I don‚Äôt care to be.‚Äù
Leinart, meanwhile, is still aglow from his 2003 season. It began with his winning the job vacated by Carson Palmer, the ‚Äô02 Heisman winner, and ended with an MVP award in the Rose Bowl, where he threw for three touchdowns and caught a 15-yard reverse pass for another score in a 28‚Äì14 victory over Michigan that elevated the Trojans to a share of the national title. ‚ÄúHe started much faster than we thought he would last year,‚Äù says coach Pete Carroll, ‚Äúand then he got better.‚Äù Leinart redeemed a loss to Cal in the fourth game with an out-of-the-trainer‚Äôs-room comeback (he had banged up his right knee and ankle in the second quarter) against Arizona State the following week. From having never thrown a college pass, Leinart finished sixth in the Heisman voting. ‚ÄúI‚Äôm not concentrating on winning it this year,‚Äù he says. ‚ÄúBut if I play well enough, I guess it might happen.‚Äù
They are a study in opposites. Leinart throws with a lazy left arm; White, with a stinging right. Leinart can drive to the beach from his apartment in Los Angeles; White lives in a house in Norman, a half hour by pickup from his parents‚Äô place in the little plains town of Tuttle. Leinart has been cut once by a surgeon, seven years ago, for a rotator-cuff injury; White has undergone five knee surgeries, including ACL reconstructions on each leg, since arriving at Oklahoma in 1999. Leinart spent much of last season dating professional surfer and model Veronica Kay; White lives with his longtime girlfriend, Tammy Winters, and their two-year-old daughter, Tinley. Leinart plans to return to USC next fall for his final year of eligibility but might be lured to the NFL; White, who was granted a rare sixth year of eligibility by the NCAA because of time lost to his many injuries, will welcome an NFL opportunity, but not at the expense of college football. ‚ÄúThis is probably going to be the best time of my life,‚Äù says White, 24. ‚ÄúWhy not stretch it out as long as possible?‚Äù
Nothing better illustrates the differences between the two than their responses when SI inquired about photographing them together for the cover of this issue. Twenty-five years ago Oklahoma‚Äôs Billy Sims was the returning Heisman Trophy winner, and his chief challenger was USC‚Äôs Charles White. (White would win the award that season.) On the cover of the 1979 college football preview issue, the two playfully wrestled with the trophy under the oh-so-‚Äô70s billing: HEY, MAN, THAT‚ÄôS MY HEISMAN! SI sought to have Leinart and White re-create that shot.
‚ÄúPretty cool,‚Äù Leinart said.
‚ÄúNot for me,‚Äù White said. ‚ÄúThat ain‚Äôt what I‚Äôm going for this year.‚Äù
‚ÄúThat‚Äôs not what I‚Äôm going for, either,‚Äù Leinart said, ‚Äúbut it still sounds pretty cool.‚Äù
Last December, White revealed a touching, old-school appreciation of his Heisman victory. He received the trophy on a Saturday in New York City, attended the Heisman banquet there on Monday and then chose to tote the statue home, rather than having it shipped. That led to a curious exchange with a baggage agent at the Newark airport. ‚ÄúThey give you the trophy in this big silver box,‚Äù says White. ‚ÄúSo when I‚Äôm checking it, the guy asks me what‚Äôs in there. I tell him, ‚ÄòHeisman Trophy.‚Äô He gives me this look, like Yeah, right. Then he scans it and says, Well, I‚Äôll be danged.‚Äù
Back home in Tuttle, White put the Heisman in the passenger seat of his father‚Äôs 2001 Chevy 4¬•4 double cab pickup and took it on tour. The first stop was the home of his 28-year-old friend, Brian Stewart, a former volunteer coach at Tuttle High who has battled brain tumors since he was a teenager. Then it was on to the high school, where the coaching staff had prodded White into chasing the dream of playing college football. The next stop was Norman and, finally, back home to his parents‚Äô house, where the trophy rests. ‚ÄúBesides seeing my daughter born,‚Äù says White, ‚Äúwinning the Heisman was about the best thing that‚Äôs happened to me.‚Äù
Not that it made his life easier. On Dec. 6, four days before ballots were due, White was pounded by Kansas State, casting doubt on his worthiness even before he won the award by a narrow margin over Pittsburgh wide receiver Larry Fitzgerald and Mississippi quarterback Eli Manning. When White flopped in the Sugar Bowl, it was as if he‚Äôd besmirched the trophy and failed those who voted for him. Steve Hummer of The Atlanta Journal-Constitution called White the ‚Äúrumored Heisman Trophy winner.‚Äù
What few people knew was that White‚Äôs physical state had deteriorated over the course of the season, until the player who took the field in the Sugar Bowl was held together by tape and salved by anti-inflammatories. White had missed numerous days in 2003 preseason camp because his surgically repaired right knee wasn‚Äôt quite ready. ‚ÄúIn the middle of two-a-days, the trainer told me, ‚ÄòMake sure you‚Äôve got Number 2 and Number 3 [QBs] ready to go,‚Äô‚Äù says Sooners offensive coordinator Chuck Long. During the season White skipped Monday practices to rest the knee. He suffered a painful sprained right hand and a concussion in the second quarter of the Kansas State loss and broke a sesamoid bone under his left big toe in the third quarter of the Sugar Bowl. ‚ÄúHe certainly had several medical challenges,‚Äù says team physician Donald McGinnis. ‚ÄúHe was no doubt affected.‚Äù
Yet White never mentions the injuries unless prodded. ‚ÄúI ain‚Äôt using excuses,‚Äù he says.
Two weeks after the Sugar Bowl, on the same day that casts were placed on his right hand and left foot, he underwent arthroscopic knee surgery. White spent more than a month recuperating--and marinating in the criticism. ‚ÄúJason doesn‚Äôt say much, but he takes stuff to heart,‚Äù says Sooners defensive end Dan Cody. ‚ÄúAll the talk hurt him. We all hated to hear it, and you can see it‚Äôs motivating him now.‚Äù
Easing back into practice in the spring, White found himself reborn. He says his knees feel better than they have since he was a run-pass quarterback at Tuttle High. ‚ÄúWe‚Äôre seeing a guy back on top of his game,‚Äù says senior center Vince Carter. White does sprints every day with corners and tailbacks, gliding over the grass instead of limping across it.
More than a thousand miles west, Leinart continues to adjust to the role he claimed in the spring of 2003. ‚ÄúYour life is going to change,‚Äù offensive coordinator Norm Chow told him then. ‚ÄúYou‚Äôre the USC quarterback.‚Äù It‚Äôs what Leinart had wanted. He had been a 14-year-old baseball prodigy with an 87mph fastball until the rotator-cuff injury ended his days as a pitcher. Shifting his focus to football full time, Leinart was a Parade All-America at perennial power Mater Dei High in Santa Ana, passing for 2,870 yards and 28 touchdowns as a heavily recruited senior. (He picked USC over Michigan.) But in 2002, while most of the nation marveled at Palmer‚Äôs Heisman year, Leinart chafed at having to sit. When he got his chance last year, Leinart threw 38 touchdown passes and just nine interceptions. ‚ÄúCoach Carroll was surprised, Coach Chow was surprised,I was surprised,‚Äù says Leinart.
Yet for much of the season he got almost as much attention for his relationship with Kay. ‚ÄúEveryone was so disappointed when I broke up with her,‚Äù says Leinart, groaning. ‚ÄúWe were talking once last year and she said, ‚ÄòGod, this is Blue Crush.‚Äô You know, the movie with a quarterback and a blonde, blue-eyed professional surfer. But she travels eight months a year, and I got busy as the starter. She‚Äôs an awesome girl, and we‚Äôre still good friends, but it was just time.‚Äù
Trojans defensive end Shaun Cody says, ‚ÄúWe hear he‚Äôs looking for another famous girlfriend.‚Äù
‚ÄúI‚Äôve got to stay out of trouble,‚Äù says Leinart. ‚ÄúYou look around here, L.A., Hollywood, there are beautiful women everywhere. But you‚Äôve got to sacrifice [to play football], or at least pick your spots.‚Äù
Leinart will have enough trouble picking his receivers. If Mike Williams doesn‚Äôt regain his eligibility after attempting to enter the NFL draft as a sophomore (the NCAA was scheduled to rule on his reinstatement this week), the most experienced wideout will be untested sophomore Steve Smith, who caught 17 balls last year. (Williams and the graduated Keary Colbert combined for 164 catches.) ‚ÄúHe‚Äôs going to get a lot more responsibility this time around,‚Äù says Carroll of his quarterback.
Leinart has prepared accordingly. Given a choice by the team‚Äôs strength coach between working out at 8 a.m. or 10 a.m. in the off-season, he showed up at 7:30. He‚Äôs begun getting loud on the field. ‚ÄúThat was weird at first--a laid-back Orange County guy yelling,‚Äù says Cody. ‚ÄúBut it‚Äôs good.‚Äù In spring fitness testing Leinart stunned his teammates with a 36-inch vertical leap. ‚ÄúHuge,‚Äù says senior tight end Alex Holmes. ‚ÄúA lot of people didn‚Äôt realize he‚Äôs an athlete.‚Äù
In less than a month the Heisman race will begin in earnest, with media charting the players‚Äô weekly progress. ‚ÄúI won‚Äôt concentrate on that,‚Äù Leinart says. ‚ÄúBut it would be an honor.‚Äù He has been warned of what‚Äôs in store if he wins.