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Who Wants It?

Aug. 16, 2004
Aug. 16, 2004

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Aug. 16, 2004

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Who Wants It?

Jason White has a message for Matt Leinart: Winning the trophy isn’t all it’s cracked up to be

The two quarterbacks first spoke in June. Oklahoma’s 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’s 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’s native Orange County for a football camp. Leinart made a point of giving White some love for winning the Heisman Trophy. “You win that,” White said in response, “everything in your life changes.”

This is an article from the Aug. 16, 2004 issue Original Layout

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 ’75, and he is the first winner to defend his title since BYU quarterback Ty Detmer in ’91. (Detmer lost out to Michigan receiver Desmond Howard that year.) But after failing miserably at the end of last season White isn’t 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, “Is the Heisman Trophy subject to a recall vote?” 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’t widespread, the negative vibe follows him into this season, where he’s no better than third in most preseason Heisman lists, behind Leinart, a junior, and Kansas State senior running back Darren Sproles. “I don’t expect to be the Heisman front-runner this year,” White says, “and I don’t care to be.”

Leinart, meanwhile, is still aglow from his 2003 season. It began with his winning the job vacated by Carson Palmer, the ’02 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 28–14 victory over Michigan that elevated the Trojans to a share of the national title. “He started much faster than we thought he would last year,” says coach Pete Carroll, “and then he got better.” Leinart redeemed a loss to Cal in the fourth game with an out-of-the-trainer’s-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. “I’m not concentrating on winning it this year,” he says. “But if I play well enough, I guess it might happen.”

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’ 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. “This is probably going to be the best time of my life,” says White, 24. “Why not stretch it out as long as possible?”

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’s Billy Sims was the returning Heisman Trophy winner, and his chief challenger was USC’s 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-’70s billing: HEY, MAN, THAT’S MY HEISMAN! SI sought to have Leinart and White re-create that shot.

“Pretty cool,” Leinart said.

“Not for me,” White said. “That ain’t what I’m going for this year.”

“That’s not what I’m going for, either,” Leinart said, “but it still sounds pretty cool.”

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. “They give you the trophy in this big silver box,” says White. “So when I’m checking it, the guy asks me what’s in there. I tell him, ‘Heisman Trophy.’ He gives me this look, like Yeah, right. Then he scans it and says, Well, I’ll be danged.”

Back home in Tuttle, White put the Heisman in the passenger seat of his father’s 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’ house, where the trophy rests. “Besides seeing my daughter born,” says White, “winning the Heisman was about the best thing that’s happened to me.”

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’d besmirched the trophy and failed those who voted for him. Steve Hummer of The Atlanta Journal-Constitution called White the “rumored Heisman Trophy winner.”

What few people knew was that White’s 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’t quite ready. “In the middle of two-a-days, the trainer told me, ‘Make sure you’ve got Number 2 and Number 3 [QBs] ready to go,’” 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. “He certainly had several medical challenges,” says team physician Donald McGinnis. “He was no doubt affected.”

Yet White never mentions the injuries unless prodded. “I ain’t using excuses,” 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. “Jason doesn’t say much, but he takes stuff to heart,” says Sooners defensive end Dan Cody. “All the talk hurt him. We all hated to hear it, and you can see it’s motivating him now.”

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. “We’re seeing a guy back on top of his game,” 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. “Your life is going to change,” offensive coordinator Norm Chow told him then. “You’re the USC quarterback.” It’s 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’s Heisman year, Leinart chafed at having to sit. When he got his chance last year, Leinart threw 38 touchdown passes and just nine interceptions. “Coach Carroll was surprised, Coach Chow was surprised,I was surprised,” says Leinart.

Yet for much of the season he got almost as much attention for his relationship with Kay. “Everyone was so disappointed when I broke up with her,” says Leinart, groaning. “We were talking once last year and she said, ‘God, this is Blue Crush.’ 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’s an awesome girl, and we’re still good friends, but it was just time.”

Trojans defensive end Shaun Cody says, “We hear he’s looking for another famous girlfriend.”

“I’ve got to stay out of trouble,” says Leinart. “You look around here, L.A., Hollywood, there are beautiful women everywhere. But you’ve got to sacrifice [to play football], or at least pick your spots.”

Leinart will have enough trouble picking his receivers. If Mike Williams doesn’t 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.) “He’s going to get a lot more responsibility this time around,” says Carroll of his quarterback.

Leinart has prepared accordingly. Given a choice by the team’s strength coach between working out at 8 a.m. or 10 a.m. in the off-season, he showed up at 7:30. He’s begun getting loud on the field. “That was weird at first--a laid-back Orange County guy yelling,” says Cody. “But it’s good.” In spring fitness testing Leinart stunned his teammates with a 36-inch vertical leap. “Huge,” says senior tight end Alex Holmes. “A lot of people didn’t realize he’s an athlete.”

In less than a month the Heisman race will begin in earnest, with media charting the players’ weekly progress. “I won’t concentrate on that,” Leinart says. “But it would be an honor.” He has been warned of what’s in store if he wins.

“I’ve got to stay out of trouble,” says Leinart. “You look around L.A.--beautiful women everywhere.”
You win the Heisman, White said to Leinart in June, and “everything in your life changes.”
COLOR PHOTOPHOTOGRAPH BY DARREN CARROLL “I don’t expect to be the front-runner this year,” says White of the award, “and I don’t care to be.”COLOR PHOTOPETER READ MILLERLEAD RIDER Teammates say Leinart is more take-charge in practice these days.COLOR PHOTOBRIAN BAHR/GETTY IMAGES THROWBACKS Onfield at least, the QBs will reprise the ’79 roles of White and Sims (inset).COLOR PHOTOROBERT E. HUDSON JR./ICON SMI  See caption above.   COLOR PHOTOSTEVE SCHAPIRO   See caption above.   COLOR PHOTO