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ANDY TEMPLETON, FOR THE ORANGE COUNTY REGISTER
Former Mater Dei and USC quarterback Matt Leinart gives encouragement to the middle school players that play for the Urban Youth Football League.

Leinart determined to win in community

OCVARSITY.COM

SANTA ANA – You don't know Matt Leinart.

You might know the high school quarterback that was on all kinds of All-American teams. You might know the young man who took the reins from Carson Palmer and helped transform USC back into a national powerhouse. You might know the quarterback who won trophies on the field and dated them off of it.

You might know the prospect who had his character questioned after pictures of him partying in a hot tub became public. And you might know the guy who was the supposed to be the future for the Arizona Cardinals before being released in 2010.

But you don't know Matt Leinart, because if you did, you'd know that those things don't matter all that much. You'd know that what happens eight Saturdays a year at Mater Dei High School is what he feels defines him as a person.

"This is what I love," Leinart said. "This is what inspires me to be better."

The Urban Youth Football League has changed in the five years since its inception. An idea that Leinart had while still in college, the UYFL buses players from inner-city Los Angeles and Santa Ana to Mater Dei, where the kids suit up in pads, helmets, cleats and uniforms, keeping them off of the streets and out of trouble – at least for a few hours each week. And it has evolved to include academic support, medical exams and nutritional information.

Jason Rivera, 35, directs the UYFL in Santa Ana.

"We send the buses out to pick the kids up," Rivera said. "We bring them in. We have some kids that live underneath freeways. We let them know as long as they show up, we'll get them fed with some Subway and teach them football – the game of life.

"It's about making good decisions, trusting the person next to you, and it's about following a great leader."

And for many of these kids, finding a great leader isn't easy. Parental involvement in the UYFL is nearly non-existent. Rivera estimates that 90 percent of the participants in the league are legitimately at risk for gang activity, violence, drug use and other societal plights.

"The target is kids that come from bad neighborhoods, and what we want to let them know is that we grew up in the same kinds of neighborhoods and made the right decisions, choosing sports," Rivera said. "We want to let them to know that just because you're in a neighborhood, you don't have to be part of a neighborhood."

Rivera knows about these neighborhoods because he grew up in one. Before playing football at Mater Dei, Rivera navigated a world filled with police cars, helicopters, gang shootings, drug dealers, burglary and stolen cars in Santa Ana's Delhi neighborhood.

It's an upbringing Leinart can relate with more than most realize.

Leinart and his older brother Ryan grew up off of South Bristol Street and West Segerstrom Avenue in Santa Ana, and while the neighborhood wasn't as dangerous as the children they're now mentoring experience, it wasn't without its perils.

"I'm not saying I grew up in a terrible area, but I did have gang members four or five houses down from me and my brother," Leinart said. "We laugh about it now, but when we were younger, whether it was baseball or basketball or whatever, if a ball rolled down the street toward them, we'd just say, 'OK, let's play later.' We didn't want to run down there."

And then there was the time where Matt and Ryan got off the bus and headed home, only to walk by chalk outlines on their street. Making things even more difficult, Matt was a really big kid. He was tall; he was wide.

"He was just humongous," Ryan Leinart said.

When Matt was 9 years old, his weight would have forced him to play Pop Warner football with kids three or four years older. So, he didn't play. Instead, he gravitated to baseball and basketball, the two sports his parents could afford.

Eventually, Leinart grew into his body, going on to star at Mater Dei and USC, where he won two national championships and a Heisman Trophy. While at USC, Leinart's movie-star looks and constant winning coupled to make him something bigger than the average college football star.

"We've had a lot of great players who have been stars here, media stars if you will, and when Matt was here, he took it to another level where he was more of a celebrity," USC sports information director Tim Tessalone said. "What he did wasn't just sports news, it was news in Hollywood and the entertainment world."

After leaving USC, photos of Leinart partying with various women started popping up online, including shots of him holding a beer bong and hot-tubbing with attractive young women in bikinis. Leinart's name started to be linked to women like Paris Hilton, earning him even more unwanted attention.

"He's been through the wringer," Ryan Leinart said.

Still, he stayed focused on the things he really wanted to accomplish off the field.

The Matt Leinart Foundation was the second thing Leinart did after being selected by the Arizona Cardinals 10th overall in the 2006 NFL Draft. The first? He bought his parents a new house and moved them out of the increasingly dangerous Santa Ana neighborhood where he and his brother grew up.

But Leinart didn't leave Santa Ana behind, just like he didn't leave inner-city Los Angeles after he left USC.

The UYFL buses in 200 children from eight schools in Los Angeles and two in Santa Ana, bringing them to Mater Dei High eight Saturdays a year. With a staff of young and old coaches, teams get to compete with one another and gain a better understanding about life and about caring.

"Just being around, what I want them to know is that there are people who care about them," Rivera said. "Some of them don't have parents, and they don't know what a hug is.

"Seeing these coaches flying around, hugging them, getting involved with these kids, that's what this is about."

In addition to gaining a better understanding of football, the children receive tutoring at school and, perhaps most important, medical physicals.

Just this year, doctors discovered undiagnosed cases of juvenile diabetes, high blood pressure and a heart murmur – ailments that potentially could be fatal if untreated.

"When we can see the lives we've saved, that's just huge for us," Ryan Leinart said.

For Matt, who has a 5-year old son, Cole, setting a good example is a big motivation. Leinart shares custody with his son's mother, former USC basketball player Brynn Cameron.

"Matt's an awesome father," Ryan Leinart said. "He's addicted."

Leinart's parental instincts can be seen in his actions on the field during the UYFL. Just like he is with his son, Leinart wants to be on the field with the kids participating, encouraging them and coaching them up.

It's a big part of the reason why Leinart is so hands on when it comes to his foundation.

"It's very easy to always write a check and not find out what the check is for and not get involved," Ryan Leinart said. "If an athlete writes a check, I have nothing but respect for that person, but if an athlete writes a check and wants to find out where it goes and wants to effect changes in kids' lives, to me, that's a special person."

And Matt Leinart said being there at Mater Dei is a huge thing for him.

"Donating your time is as important, if not more important, than donating your money," he said.

And by being there, he has been able to see the differences he's made.

The program has also made an impact on homeless children, including one who caught Leinart's eye. Nicknamed "Sunshine" after the long-haired character in "Remember the Titans," he sleeps in shelters in West Los Angeles. But on Saturdays, he flies around the football field, his hair hanging out of the back of his helmet, and he smiles.

"I don't know how to explain it. I just can't," Leinart said. "I don't even know how to come to terms with it. But the fact that he's here, it's really inspiring to me."

Leinart's NFL future isn't in doubt, but it is clouded with uncertainty. Currently a free agent, Leinart will have to wait until the end of the league lockout to negotiate with any teams. After being released by Arizona last year, Leinart signed a one-year deal with Houston to be the Texans' back-up quarterback, but he did not get on the field.

He hopes to find a team willing to let him compete for the starting job, but regardless of where he is playing, Leinart will still have Santa Ana on his mind, thinking about those Saturdays when he can get out on the field and play football with kids in desperate need of hope and opportunities.

"This is, besides my family and my career, this is right up there at the top," he said. "For me, it's what's it all about, to be in a position to be a positive influence in these kids' lives, to change their lives even in the slightest bit.

"I've seen it have a huge impact over these kids' lives. It's awesome, man. I love it."

Contact the writer: dwoike@ocregister.com


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