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Matt Leinart envisioned the money. He recognized the opportunity. But in the end, the USC quarterback decided to do what he does best.
On Friday, before a phalanx of cameras at a packed news conference on campus, the Heisman Trophy winner announced that he would forgo an opportunity to earn an instant fortune in the NFL — probably more than $10 million guaranteed — and would return for his final year of eligibility.
Leinart's decision means he will play next season with the potential for serious injury that could jeopardize his health and future earning power. But he said the rewards of remaining in college outweighed the risk.
"The one thing I realized is that the NFL is a business," Leinart said. "In college, I'm playing for passion and for love of this game.
This is fun. There's nothing like this right here. There's nothing like being at USC, winning national championships and being part of this whole program."
Hundreds of fans who filled the lobby at USC's Heritage Hall and spilled outside roared when they heard Leinart end more than a week of speculation by declaring he would return to help the Trojans try to win an unprecedented third consecutive national title.
Leinart, 21, was regarded as a certain first-round draft pick and a possible top-five selection in the April 23 NFL draft. Scouting expert Gil Brandt, a former personnel director for the Dallas Cowboys, projected Leinart as the top pick overall, which belongs to the San Francisco 49ers.
After passing for five touchdowns in the Trojans' Orange Bowl victory over Oklahoma on Jan. 4, Leinart spent 10 tortuous days gathering information and wrestling with his decision. Today is the deadline to make oneself available for the draft.
Leinart had planned to announce his decision Thursday but pushed it back to consider his options. He said that no particular conversation swayed him.
"I never had a 100% decision the whole week, but there were days I leaned toward going and there were days I leaned toward staying," he said.
Leinart said he awoke Friday at 8 a.m. and was still undecided.
"I woke up
and just laid in my bed for like three hours and thought," he said. "I was in a bad mood. I didn't know. I really didn't know.
Ultimately, it was just my gut feeling. I'm happy with it, I don't have any regrets, no doubts."
USC Coach Pete Carroll, who was seated nearby when Leinart went to the microphone to announce his decision, stood and hugged the 6-foot-5, 225-pound Orange County native after he said he was coming back.
"All of a sudden you can become a multimillionaire — that's hard to just turn away from and not many guys would do that," Carroll said. "But this is a very unique person and a great character kid, and he's willing to postpone that to do something that's really in his heart, that he loves doing."
Leinart, who is 25-1 as a starter, appeared on more than a dozen magazine covers before the season. He was trumpeted as a front-runner to win the Heisman and a certain first-round draft pick. Leinart, though, maintained from the start that he intended to return for his final season.
Still, his decision shocked many of his teammates.
"If it were me, I don't know if I could have turned it down," said junior tight end Dominique Byrd. "He's been saying he's going to stay all along. He's a man of his word today."
Former USC quarterback Carson Palmer was among the NFL players whom Leinart consulted before making his decision. Palmer won the Heisman in 2002 in his final season of eligibility and received a $14-million signing bonus after he was selected by the Cincinnati Bengals with the first pick in the 2003 draft.
Leinart, however, chose the path taken by former UCLA quarterback Troy Aikman and Peyton and Eli Manning. All three bypassed the chance to turn pro as juniors and were selected with the top pick in the draft after their final seasons.
"We talked the other night. I think he made a good decision," said Archie Manning, father of Peyton and Eli and himself a former NFL quarterback. "Injury is the only thing he's risking, but you risk injury every time you play."
Aikman, too, said Leinart made the right call.
"Having played in college and the NFL, I know that the college experience is pretty unique. If you're not ready to give that up and you're enjoying it, then don't," he said. "The only thing you have to worry about is injury. But if you're confident in your ability and confident in the people around you, then enjoy it. You can wait 12 months."
Leinart's father, Bob, said this week that his son played last season with a $1-million insurance policy that was purchased through Lloyd's of London for a premium of about $20,000. Matt Leinart said the family would purchase insurance again next season, but had not yet investigated the amount or cost.
Leinart did not throw last summer and was limited during training camp because of tendinitis in his left elbow. Some NFL sources speculated that the lingering effects of an injury might have influenced his decision. But Leinart said Friday that he was ready for the battery of physical and psychological tests that players are put through before the draft.
"I think my arm is strong enough to play in the NFL," he said. "I'm not the most physically gifted kid — I'm not going to scare anybody with my arm or with my running ability, but I feel like my mind sets me apart
. One more year can only help me."
Leinart said he thought his decision "made a statement to college football — maybe to student athletes about school being more important" than money.
"This is what I want to do. I'm having fun here," he added. "It's all a part of growing up, all part of being a kid, and I wasn't ready to pass that up."