In hurry-up society, credit Leinart for refusing to spike his USC youth

OTHER VOICES

September 06, 2005|By Kevin Van Valkenburg

IF, AT SOME POINT this season, USC quarterback Matt Leinart breaks his arm or blows out his knee, don't be one of the Monday Morning Quarterbacks in a rush to point out that he should have turned pro after winning the Heisman Trophy last season. And don't feel sorry for him either. Instead, do something that's as illogical as it is wonderful.

Applaud his decision anyway.

Applaud Leinart - who in all likelihood passed up a guaranteed $25 million as the first pick in the NFL draft to return for his senior season - because he wanted to hold onto something that doesn't, and shouldn't ever, have a price tag. His youth.

Look around you. It seems everywhere you turn these days, sports are pressuring kids to grow up quicker. Scouting services are now publishing annual rankings of the country's best sixth-graders. Each year, a growing number of high school football stars are being pressured to skip the second semester of their senior year so they can participate in spring practices at college football factories. Instead of worrying about who they should take to the prom, they end up running wind sprints and eating cafeteria food. Am I the only one who finds that ridiculous?

As fans, we're in such a rush to anoint someone the Next Big Thing, we're constantly forgetting that a person's ability to throw a post pattern shouldn't force them to blow past seminal moments in their lives just because we're eager to see if they'll succeed at the next level.

Maybe Leinart realized that, even though you can buy a big mansion and fill it with expensive furniture and fancy artwork, it'll never have the same charm as your college apartment, with its ratty, garage-sale couches and its wrinkled movie posters stuck to the wall with thumb tacks. Sure, the mansion will be nice. Someday. But it certainly won't guarantee happiness. Sometimes, it just makes you want a bigger mansion. Just ask Terrell Owens.

Or, better yet, ask Maurice Clarett. Two years ago, Clarett was Leinart: the big man on campus who had just led his team to a national championship after the school had suffered decades of disappointment. But Clarett was in such a hurry to grow up, and had so many foolish people (journalists included) telling him he could compete against the grown men of the NFL, he managed to miss out on the kinds of friendships and memories that endure long after your football career is over, which Clarett's may in fact be.

One of my roommates and closest friends in college has played wide receiver for several NFL teams in the past few years, and though he's no star, he's got a Super Bowl ring and makes more money in a single year than I'll make in five. He's got a big house, a nice car, and there's a swarm of females waiting outside the team hotel in every city. But he said something recently that really didn't surprise me: I'd give it all up, he said, to be able to go back in time and live like we did in college. I love the NFL, he added, but it doesn't compare to sitting around and eating frozen pizza and Ramen noodles with your best friends.

This isn't a Stay in School message. Those are far too frequent and much too sanctimonious for my tastes. In fact, I think the Maurice Claretts and LeBron Jameses of the world should have every right to turn pro at whatever age they want. No one whines that Maria Sharapova didn't go to college before she started making millions. I just wish they weren't in such a hurry to leave their youth behind.

We don't like to talk about it, but professional sports is a cold, unforgiving business. Just listen to talk radio in this town. In 2002, Kyle Boller was a hero on campus at Cal. Now he's getting hammered daily by fans who are convinced he's to blame for their unhappiness each Sunday. Does it really surprise anyone that Leinart might want to put that off for a year?

I don't care if Leinart wins another Heisman or another championship, though he's certainly off to a good start after throwing for 332 yards against Hawaii. I do hope he stays healthy, though it's nice to hear he took out a big insurance policy on himself in case something does happen. Mostly, though, I'm just glad he didn't pass up another year of drinking cheap beer with his roommates, as well as a chance to take a ballroom dance class with his girlfriend.

Those moments pass you by in a hurry, and once they're gone, the frozen pizza and Ramen noodles never taste quite the same.

Kevin Van Valkenburg is a Sun sports reporter. E-mail him at kevin.vanvalkenburg@baltsun.com.

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