It's the lasting impression that counts -- at least in terms of college hardware.
There were doubts whether Jason White would be able to walk onto the field at the beginning of last season. Oklahoma's resilient quarterback had undergone two knee reconstructions. Near the end of the season, not only had he clinched the Heisman Trophy, but his team was being compared to the best of all time.
Jason White is the first Heisman Trophy winner to return since Ty Detmer in 1991. (Getty Images)
Lasting impression? No touchdowns and four interceptions in a pair of season-ending losses to Kansas State and LSU. No conference or national championship. White left such a bad taste in some Heisman voters' mouths that Altoids were optional.
"The key is just not to worry about what fans say about you," said White, who threw for 40 touchdowns and only 10 interceptions in a 12-2 season. "You're going to play for your teammates and your coaches and yourself."
Matt Leinart hasn't reached that level of cynicism yet. Life is good, really good. USC's handsome junior quarterback is practically fresh bait for paparazzi in celebrity-saturated L.A. He went from Matt Who? to photographers practically going through his trash in a magic 2003 season.
A Pac-10-record 38 touchdown passes were part of the foundation for the Trojans' first national championship (shared with LSU) in 25 years. But before Leinart had his own weblog, enjoyed the dating combo platter (actress/pro surfer Veronica Kay) and was The Next Big Thing, BMOC at USC, he left his own lasting impression.
"It was fun to be part of that," Leinart said of the rubber-stamp on his 2004 Heisman candidacy. "Catching a touchdown in the Rose Bowl."
When offensive coordinator Norm Chow trotted out one of his favorite trick plays against Michigan in January, he probably didn't know he was also pushing Leinart out of the womb into the Heisman spotlight. Receiver Mike Williams took a reverse handoff from running back Hershel Dennis and easily found Leinart open in the left flank for a 15-yard touchdown pass. USC went up 28-7, and you could almost see Wolverines' shoulders slump.
It was called the signature play of the 28-14 victory, clinching the game, national title and Rose Bowl MVP for Leinart. Oh, and it also left the voters something sweet to chew on in the offseason.
Leinart, the quarterback of this year's SportsLine.com's All-America team, is also this year's Heisman Trophy favorite going into the 2004 season. The stars seem to have aligned to anoint him.
Two of the school's five Heisman winners (Charles White, O.J. Simpson) have won the trophy in the year after a national championship. Neither of those players, though, came from as much obscurity as Leinart from one year to the next.
Redshirted as a true freshman, Leinart was almost an afterthought as he watched Carson Palmer win the trophy in 2002. Even in spring practice 2003, Leinart had a tenuous hold on the starting spot.
Still, it wasn't until midway through the season that Leinart felt he had returned to the comfort level he enjoyed at Mater Dei High in Santa Ana, Calif.
"Not cockiness, but just that confidence and swagger when you know you can play," Leinart said. "Like I did in high school. I just kind of got that back. I was having fun playing football again. I didn't have the confidence, but the confidence came back."
In the last nine games, Leinart threw for 2,632 yards and 30 touchdowns. It was Guns N' Roses for Leinart who was surrounded by some of the best talent in the country. Receivers routinely made one-handed catches knowing that somehow, some way, their guy was going to get it there.
So what better way to go out in 2003 by leaving a tease for 2004? Chow had used the quarterback throwback play during his only year at North Carolina State. Twenty-one years ago, he called for BYU's Steve Young to catch a scoring pass on a similar play to beat Missouri in the 1983 Holiday Bowl.
"We knew we were going to it eventually," Leinart said. "That turned out to be the best time. It's just catching the defense off guard. It's either going to work or it's not. I'm going to get a touchdown or Mike's going to throw it away or he's going to get blown up. Obviously, they weren't ready for it because we hadn't done anything like that all season."
The challenge is more than defending a national title. You can prepare to win a national title in your first as a starter. Go back to Miami's Bernie Kosar at Miami and it has been done several times in the last two decades. But you can't prepare to win a Heisman.
No how. No way. White, who won the award, is still feeling the effects of being kicked to the curb by critics after his spectacular season. Having a chance to become the second back-to-back winner of the Heisman has melted into just that: a chance.
In the wake of White's poor finish, a columnist called for a Heisman "recall vote." There were cries of pushing the voting back until after bowl games.
"There's not much I have to do for that now," said White who is the first player to defend his Heisman since Ty Detmer in 1991. "I don't think about it much."
Chow was Detmer's quarterbacks coach (and co-offensive coordinator) back then. Maybe that's why, when Heisman hype became apparent, Leinart was warned by Chow that "everything was going to change."
"I do remember exactly what he told me and it was like, 'Yeah, yeah,'" Leinart said. "You don't realize it until it happens."
While the shooters aren't really digging through his trash, the world suddenly seems to have an unhealthy interest in who he is dating. Meanwhile, White, pretty much everyone's All-America quarterback after last season, seems worn out from the process.
The pride of Tuttle, Okla., got a key to the city and had his name painted on a water tower.
"But all of that's over now," White said. "I don't worry about it anymore."
The two were supposed to meet at the Elite 11 quarterback camp in July in Southern California. Because of conflicts, the meeting never came off, but the pair spoke over the phone in the offseason to compare notes.
"I told him every quarterback knows that when you're winning, you're the hero and when you're losing, you're not," White said. "You take the blame ... The key is not to worry about what fans say about you."
Even without Heisman hype, White has had his own mountains to climb. The two knee surgeries helped the NCAA decide to award him a sixth year of eligibility. He was a redshirt freshman in the 2000 national championship season, but appeared in only two games without throwing a pass.
While the Sooners have a lot of their talent back, the question once again has to be in the back of fans' minds. Will White hold up?
"We talked about winning the Heisman, how hard it was, how his life had changed drastically," Leinart said. "He had huge numbers all season and they judge him on his last two games. I think he was deserving of the trophy. He battled through a lot of stuff in his career."
Maybe the best, most equitable thing for everyone concerned would be that White gets a national championship and Leinart gets his Heisman. How would that be for a lasting impression?
Or do the pair already know the score?
"Some games, people think you're the greatest thing in the world," White said. "Other games, you're the goat. That's just part of being a quarterback. It's how well you recover."
|SportsLine 2004 All-America Team|
|RB||Darren Sproles||Senior||Kansas State|
|OL||Alex Barron||Senior||Florida State|
|K||Jonathan Nichols||Senior||Ole Miss|
|LB||Kirk Morrison||Senior||San Diego State|
|Offensive Player of the Year: Matt Leinart, USC|
|Defensive Player of the Year: Marcus Spears, LSU|
|Coach of the Year: Rich Rodriguez, West Virginia|