Back in the game

Times Staff Writer

Brynn Cameron was 19 and unmarried when she found out she was pregnant, and she reacted in the way so many uncertain and confused young women react.

“I thought, ‘Why me?’ ” Cameron said. “I thought, ‘You’ve just ruined your life.’ ”

Cameron is talking on a warm, sunny afternoon as Cole Cameron Leinart, her 13-month-old son, kept busy by throwing cheese crackers and a Nerf football on the steps of USC’s Heritage Hall.


If Cameron was a scared, unmarried mother-to-be 22 months ago, she was also blessed with advantages she now treasures. She’s attending USC on a full scholarship, now six games into her junior season after redshirting last year. Her family -- mother Cathy, father Stan, older sister Emily and younger brothers Jordan and Colby -- has offered a support system of love and baby-sitting that many unwed mothers never receive.

And the father of her sturdy, active, towheaded son is Matt Leinart, the Heisman Trophy-winning former USC quarterback who is recovering from a broken collarbone that prematurely ended his second season with the NFL’s Arizona Cardinals.

There is no hiding from the fact that Cameron and Leinart had a testy child-support payment issue last summer that publicly erupted after Leinart appeared at the ESPY Awards in Los Angeles and talked about changing his son’s diapers.

Cameron responded in a story in the Ventura County Star, saying: “It’s kind of hard for me as the mom -- I’m with Cole probably 99.9% of the time -- to open a magazine or read a newspaper article with Matt saying, ‘Oh, I love being a dad. I love changing diapers. I love doing this.’ I’m like, ‘Wait, what?’ I’m doing all the work, but he gets all the credit for it.”

In the same story, Cameron referred to gossip magazines’ routinely showing Leinart at bars and parties, saying, “I don’t want to sit here and bad-mouth his lifestyle, but it is hard because we are different people. He likes that Hollywood stuff, and I don’t like that.”

The issue was finally settled, and there is a truce between Cameron and Leinart. Neither says much about what happened last summer.

“I wish it hadn’t happened,” Cameron said. “Some things got blown out of proportion.”

Said Leinart: “There is no point in talking about something like that. It’s in the past.”

Cameron and Leinart say they communicate amicably about Cole, and now about sports.

After Leinart’s season-ending injury last month, Cameron left him a voice message. “It was sweet,” Leinart said. “And understanding.”

Leinart has encouraged Cameron, who is a 5-foot-10 guard and career 52.9% three-point shooter, to resume a basketball career she thought was over on the day she learned she was pregnant.

“Oh my gosh,” she said, “I thought my life was over, school was over, basketball was over. I just thought I was done.”

Said Leinart: “That she put her career on hold, that was tough. But I told her that when you’re healthy enough to go back and do something you love, you should do it. She’s a super-competitive person. So I just told her, ‘You’re there, in school, on a full ride, so enjoy your last couple of years. Who knows what happens after college?’ ”

Cameron and Leinart had stopped dating by the time Cameron discovered she was pregnant. But even though she had doubts about how her life would continue, Cameron said there was never a doubt she would have her baby.

“It wasn’t ideal,” she said. “I grew up in the Mormon church, and family is so important. I was scared to tell my parents, I was nervous about a lot of things. But I knew I was having my baby. You know things happen to other people. You just never think it will happen to you.”

From her family, Cameron received immediate understanding. As far as basketball, she didn’t think about it. “I went to my brother’s football games,” she said. “I hung out with my sister. I just kind of enjoyed getting big and getting ready to be a mom.”

Two months after Cole was born, Cameron went outside to the hoop in her family’s driveway, the one where she shot hundreds of times a day while she was at Newbury Park High, and took a shot. Then another and another. Her dad stood next to her.

“I told my dad it all felt new to me, the basketball, the shot, everything,” Cameron said. “My dad said not to worry, that it would come back.”

Cameron was dismayed at first that her rhythm was gone, and she is still hesitant to say with certainty that her shot is back. She has started five of the first six games, is shooting 32.4% from three-point range and averaging 8.7 points overall. Leinart, though, says he knows.

“Since I’ve known her, Brynn was always kind of nonchalant about basketball,” he said. “She’d score like 30 points and have nine three-pointers and then act like, ‘Who cares?’

“But she’s a very good offensive player and she shoots better than anybody I’ve ever met. I used to make fun of her for hating playing defense, but I’ll say this: She’s probably the best shooter in the country.”

USC Coach Mark Trakh said he never had any doubt Cameron would be back. “She told me she was going to have a baby and that she’d come back,” he said. “When I was coaching at Brea High School I had a player have a child. She came back, played her senior year and the whole community rallied around her, so I’ve been through this before.

“It’s about life being not ideal. Things happen.”

It disappoints Trakh that Cameron has earned more media attention for having a child with Leinart than she has for being a basketball player.

“It’s a darn shame in the Los Angeles market, with a lot of positive things going on, that’s what women’s basketball has to do to get some publicity,” he said.

But Trakh and Cameron also understand that dynamic. “She has a message to send,” Trakh said. “She has matured tremendously and can be a great example.”

Said Cameron: “Since this has all come out, I’ve heard from a lot of girls, moms [and] parents who went through the same thing. It’s nice for me to talk to girls. Being a single mom, you don’t grow up thinking that’s how it will be.”

Cameron has an apartment near campus for nights when practice is late or there is a game. Sometimes, Cole attends practice and Cameron’s mother helps with the day care.

Cameron’s brother Jordan, who had gone to Brigham Young last year to play basketball, is attending junior college this season and will play football next season for USC. He will share the apartment, and Cole care, with Brynn.

Leinart is taking fatherhood seriously, Cameron said.

“He’s in a tough position,” she said. “Football-wise, injury-wise, it’s a lot to deal with for him too. It’s been rough for us, but after everything that’s been said we’ve worked it out. We will be close forever. We have different lives now, but we have Cole. We’ve got to make it work.”

Leinart said he thinks Cole will appreciate Cameron’s perseverance.

“Not giving up on school, on basketball, that shows what type of person Brynn is,” Leinart said. “It’s very, very hard to do, and when Cole grows up he’ll know his mom stuck it out and raised him.”