TAMPA — Enter the room full of Cardinals, and the most familiar faces need no introduction.
Among the notables are quarterback Kurt Warner and his ever-present smile, surprisingly modest receiver Larry Fitzgerald and suddenly revived running back Edgerrin James.
Then you come to the place where Matthew Stephen Leinart is seated, and you're practically looking for a name tag. But tap your long-term memory, and it all comes rushing back — the Heisman Trophy, the national championship, his selection in the first round of the draft.
The terms "Matt Leinart" and "low key" once would have seemed like an odd pairing considering his status as one of the most decorated college quarterbacks in history and the fact Paris Hilton once considered him part of her clique.
But circumstances have changed for the Cardinals backup, viewed as the franchise quarterback when drafted 10th overall in 2006. Now, Leinart's career is on hold while Warner, 37, caps his. The whole thing used to be frustrating. At times, it was puzzling. But Leinart has come to terms with it while growing up a little, too.
"It's been really nice to be out of the public eye," the former Southern Cal star said. "This is my job. This is my career. It's nice not to have to do all the interviews and all that kind of stuff."
At least not as many interviews. It's almost impossible to ignore the contrast in what has become of Warner and Leinart over the past two years. Leinart started the final 11 games of his rookie season and appeared to be the Cardinals' long-term solution under center. He started the first five games of 2007 only to suffer a season-ending broken collarbone that gave Warner a chance to start.
In an open competition at the start of this season, Warner won out, and his career has been revived. Leinart lay low and soaked up all he could from one of the game's top quarterbacks. Just 25, he certainly isn't too old to learn.
"I've definitely grown up a lot the last couple of years," Leinart said. "The biggest reason is probably because of my son and becoming a father and looking at life from a different perspective. It's been a humbling experience. I know I'll look back 10 years from now and say this year has been a great learning year for me, a big steppingstone to where I need to go."
He believes he'll still get there. Seems the Cardinals agree. Coach Ken Whisenhunt said he labored over the decision to name Warner the starter in August. Leinart's talent was undeniable, but Warner's experience shined through.
Eight days before the season opener, Whisenhunt made up his mind.
"I stayed up all night making the decision on Kurt Warner," he said. "To Matt Leinart's and Kurt Warner's credit, they both competed very hard for that position."
Hard to argue with the decision considering the Cardinals are in their first Super Bowl. But does Leinart feel a part of this given his inactivity? If nothing else, his travails have helped him see the bigger picture.
"We all put in the same amount of time. We all sweat out there at practice," he said. "Kurt's gotten us to the Super Bowl, and we have a chance to win it. I have a long career ahead of me. Maybe I'll get to play in a Super Bowl and lead this team to a Super Bowl. It's still great to be part of it, and you really try to savor the moment."
His college coach, Pete Carroll, has been texting Leinart for reinforcement. The first one came the day the Cardinals won the NFC title game.
But if Leinart needs any more perspective, there is plenty available in the guy who has become one of his closest friends: Warner. After all, he knows a thing or two about patience.
"I didn't start my first game in the NFL until I was 28 years old, and my career has turned out pretty good," Warner said. "He's got a few years yet before he reaches that age."
Stephen F. Holder can be reached at [email protected]