Football phenom Matt Leinart opens up about life on and off the gridiron
Famed quarterback and Manhattan Beach local Matt Leinart has been busy. Since retiring from the NFL, he has built a successful career as a studio analyst at FOX Sports and FS1. He runs an eponymous foundation for underprivileged youth. He coaches youth baseball and football and is active in the Manhattan Beach community. With all he is doing, it was a surprise to learn that Matt recently earned his real estate license and joined Schneider Properties South Bay Real Estate Team. We sat down with Matt for a candid conversation where the former football phenom turned broadcaster and philanthropist opened up about his life on and off the gridiron, his triumphs and disappointments, love and loss, fatherhood and the importance of family.
- WRITTEN BYMICHELE GARBER
- PHOTOGRAPHED BYBO BRIDGES
On an early autumn afternoon in Downtown Manhattan Beach, Matt Leinart pulls up in his dark SUV, pops on a baseball hat and strolls inside Noah’s Bagels. Dressed head-to-toe in black athletic gear, he epitomizes the low-key, unpretentious guy he’s widely said to be.
Yet even in his ball cap and inconspicuous attire, at 6’5” with movie-star good looks Matt turns more than a few heads while sipping his iced coffee on the patio. Notably, Matt—who is clearly a modest guy—takes absolutely zero notice of all the unsolicited attention.
It has been a difficult week for Matt. Only a few days earlier, he had to put down his cherished 11-year-old German shepherd, Hunter, who had been with him since his rookie year in the NFL. The tender, heartfelt way he speaks of losing his canine companion hints at the tenor and candor with which he will share other personal stories in the moments to come.
A self-described “open book,” Matt is remarkably unguarded and forthright. After only a few moments with him, it is clear what makes him tick. For Matt, family is everything. His life has been shaped and guided by his love of and loyalty to his family. They are his touchstones.
The desire to make his parents—especially his mother—proud has informed nearly every momentous decision he has made along the way. His older brother, Ryan, is his best friend. He is utterly devoted to his son, Cole. And now as he prepares to build a life with his fiancé, Josie, family is taking on even greater magnitude.
It is through this lens that Matt shares one of his deepest heartbreaks. In January he lost his beloved mother, Linda, to leukemia. Diagnosed in November 2016, the family had mere months together before her passing, and the loss has been excruciating for the Leinarts. As Matt explains, “We knew about three weeks in … we sensed something was really wrong. It happened really fast, in less than three months.”
Trying to put a brave face on it, Matt expresses gratitude that his son was able to know his grandmother. “My mom and my son were really close. He was my mom’s pride and joy … the first grandkid. They had a really special relationship. So he got 10 good years with her and has memories he’ll remember.”
As Matt conveys his love for his mother and the closeness of his family, his stoicism belies the raw anguish and heartbreak he is still experiencing from this profound loss.
In a bittersweet instance of blessed timing, just one week before his mom passed Matt learned he was being inducted into the College Football Hall of Fame—an immeasurable honor only bestowed upon fewer than .0002% of those who’ve played college football. Some of the notable players and coaches also being inducted in the 2017 class are Peyton Manning, Kirk Gibson, Marshall Faulk, Adrian Peterson and Steve Spurrier.
On one of the days when Linda was slightly better and more coherent, Matt was able to share the exciting news with her. One final opportunity to make her proud.
That Matt Leinart would ultimately be inducted into the College Hall of Fame was inevitable. He is one of the most decorated college football players in history and is widely considered one of the greatest college quarterbacks of all time.
In 2004 he won the Heisman Trophy, Walter Camp Award, Manning Award and was named AP Player of the Year. He led his SC Trojans to three conference titles and two consecutive AP national championship titles, a BCS championship title, was a two-time First Team All-American, a two-time Pac-10 Player of the year, Rose Bowl MVP, a first round NFL draft pick and holds numerous other records.
Yet with such an illustrious career, one might assume that Matt began playing the game at an early age. And it may seem unimaginable to many—especially diehard SC Trojan fans—that he not only almost didn’t go to SC, but he almost didn’t play football at all. When asked how he got his start in football, Matt says, “Baseball was my first love. We were not a football family.”
Matt and his brother were both athletes, but their focus was on other sports. “I was a baseball lover my whole life. It was my #1 sport. I played flag football in middle school, but for me it was always baseball first, then basketball. Football was third.”
Matt may have loved baseball, but destiny had other plans for him. The Leinarts lived just two minutes from Mater Dei High School, the private Catholic school that has dominated Southern California athletics—especially football—for generations. Though the Leinarts were a middle-class family, Linda was determined to have her boys attend Mater Dei. She wanted them to have a private school education.
Matt explains, “Going in to high school, my brother, Ryan—who is five years older—wished he had played . It was one of his regrets. He is the one who encouraged me to play. He said, ‘If you don’t like it after a year, you can quit. But you have to try it.’”
As fate would have it, Matt—a southpaw pitcher—suffered a significant shoulder injury, requiring surgery, which ended his baseball career. Surprisingly the injury had no impact on his ability to throw a football. So Matt opted to play football instead, with no future plans beyond playing at Mater Dei.
As he explains, “I didn’t really care about it. I didn’t live for it. It just fell in my lap. But I was good at it and worked really hard at it … and eventually grew to love it. Then my junior year I was being recruited and offered scholarships.”
While still attending Mater Dei, Matt committed to USC. But that year the Trojans suffered one of their worst seasons on record. It was the first time in SC history the team came in last place in the Pac-10. The coaching staff was let go. With those who had recruited him out, Matt was unsure if SC was still the right fit for him. He de-committed and began seriously considering alternate schools—most notably Michigan.
Fortunately Matt’s heart was in Southern California. When SC athletic director Mike Garrett brought on Pete Carroll to helm the program, Matt’s concerns were assuaged … and Linda Leinart along with countless Trojan fans could breathe a sigh of relief. Matt would stay in Southern California and play for SC.
Following his illustrious career at SC, expectations were high for Matt’s future in the NFL. He was the #10 overall first round draft pick, signing with the Arizona Cardinals where he played for four seasons. He also played with the Houston Texans and the Oakland Raiders. Yet his NFL career was beset with injuries—several of them season-ending.
“I’ve never been one to use my name for anything. It’s just not my nature. I prefer to earn things on my own and do something because I’m good at it, I’m driven and i have a work ethic to do it.”
Matt candidly reflects, “I played for seven years. Injuries are what forced me to call it quits. I had an injury early in my career at Arizona, and I lost a lot of confidence. And I had a coach with whom I didn’t see eye-to-eye, who didn’t believe in me … and you especially need confidence in your quarterback.”
The Cardinals’ coach infamously set up an inner-team rivalry between Matt and retiring QB Kurt Warner. Reflecting on that time, Matt shares, “Kurt Warner, who is now in the Hall of Fame, beat me out in a great battle of the fall. I did well, but I just lost confidence there. I got it back in Houston as a backup. Gary Kubiak and Greg Knapp were my coaches there, and they were phenomenal.”
When Matt got hurt again, in his sixth season, he started to reconsider his career. “After that I was tired, missed my son, was always away, splitting time. I was tired of getting hurt … of working really hard to get back into shape, only to get hurt again. It really takes a mental toll on you. That passion wasn’t there anymore, and I knew it.”
He decided to retire from the NFL at age 30. Matt then found himself in a position common among most retired athletes: wondering what he should do next. The transition from football—or any professional sport—to the next phase of life is challenging for many athletes. Only an elite few are able to parlay their athletic careers to lucrative alternate endeavors. It is highly common for a professional athlete to run through their money quickly and find themselves broke by 40.
But Matt had been smart with his money, and he was smart with his next career move. He accepted a position as college football studio analyst with FOX Sports.
“The TV was something I always thought I could naturally get into, just because of my experience,” Matt shares. “I had worked at FOX a little bit before I was officially retired. FS1 had just launched. Everything was brand new. I had a lot of great teachers helping me at FOX … still do to this day. Just slowly things fell into place.”
Effusively he adds, “I love my job. I get to talk about something that I’m really passionate about, but I don’t have to travel. I don’t have to get hit. My mom was really, really proud of me for doing something different—for making a living outside of football and finding something I’m passionate about.”
Unlike football, broadcasting didn’t come easily at first for Matt. “TV is hard, and to be good at it is hard,” he explains. “But I find that part to be most fascinating … the competitive nature. It’s hard to find that after football. For me, this job does that. It’s challenging. Especially when that red light comes on.”
Matt recalls fellow FOX media personality Michael Strahan asking if he liked his job during his first year there. When Matt replied that he was still working on his comfort level, Michael shared, “Let me tell you something. I’ve been doing TV for a long time, and when that red light goes on, I’m still like …” and he gasped, demonstrating the nervousness he feels when he goes on the air. As Matt says, “It happens to Michael … it happens to everybody.”
“It’s been exciting during the off-season to expand my mind and interests … to talk about and do something beyond sports.”
At the center of Matt’s life is his 11-year-old son, Cole, who was born during his rookie year at Arizona. Though Matt was away quite a lot during training and football season, he kept a home in LA so he could be near Cole and made sure to be in Cole’s life … spending as much time with him as possible. His desire to live closer to Cole was an integral part of Matt’s decision to ultimately leave the NFL.
“It always comes down to what is best for your kids,” he says. “Cole is a good kid. A happy kid. He works hard, does well in school. He’s kind. He loves sports.”
Much like his dad, Cole plays baseball, basketball and football. Matt says that Cole prefers basketball, but like most kids he’s into whatever sport is currently in season. This summer he was into all-star baseball.
He’s young, and Matt wants him to love every sport when he plays it.
Matt is often asked if he wants Cole to play football, especially with the debate over concussions. “Playing sports teaches you so much,” he shares. “It teaches you about teamwork. And no sport is more about teamwork than football. He doesn’t play tackle. He’s only in fifth grade. Cole is a great athlete—good in all the sports. I’m not pushing it on him; I want him to play what he loves. I won’t be upset either way if he does or doesn’t play football. I just know how great a sport it is and what it gave to me.”
Beyond the fulfillment Matt is enjoying in his new career, he has also found joy in his personal life. Matt is engaged to Josie Loren, a former actress who is now pursuing her law degree. The couple plan to marry next May and hope to grow their family shortly after Josie completes law school. In 2016 they purchased a home together in Manhattan Beach, with a huge backyard for their future larger family.
Matt says, “Josie and I are polar opposites. We even each other out. We have a good balance. I’m really laid-back, and she’s passionate and fiery.”
Josie is Cuban-American and grew up in Miami. Her family fled the Castro regime. Matt continues, “She is really determined and she pushes me—which is great.”
Josie and Matt will have a blended family, which Matt acknowledges can be complicated. But he says they all work well together. “Cole and Josie are close. He loves her, and she loves him. His mom lives nearby. We’re all very friendly.”
This spring with the encouragement of Josie, his family and his friend Nick Schneider, Matt earned his real estate license and joined Schneider Properties. As to why he took on this new endeavor, Matt explains, “One of my best buds who I played football with has a real estate company. It’s a great industry, especially in Southern California, where you can do well and meet great people. As I got older, I knew it was something I should get into, but it was out of my comfort zone.”
There is plenty of down time with his TV work during football’s off-season, and Matt craved structure and wanted to do something to stay busy. So he dedicated himself to studying and passing the real estate exam.
“After my mom passed, it became something I wanted to do for myself and for her,” he says. “And Josie urged me to do it. I was proud and excited to take it on. I enjoy studying and learning something new. And working with Schneider Properties team is like working with family. It was a natural fit.”
He says taking on the new career has several purposes in his life. “It’s been exciting during the off-season to expand my mind and interests … to talk about and do something beyond sports. It’s also good for Cole and my future kids,” Matt shares. “I want to set an example for them. And my mom would be proud.”
How active Matt will be in the real estate industry is yet to unfold. His full-time position with FOX during football season will impact his involvement, but in the off-season Matt is excited to be actively involved.
As a public figure, some may infer his name recognition will be an asset to him as a Realtor, but Matt isn’t focused on that. Modestly he says, “I’ve never been one to use my name for anything. It’s just not my nature. I prefer to earn things on my own and do something because I’m good at it, I’m driven and I have a work ethic to do it.”
He pensively adds, “Despite the loss and the heartbreak this year, it’s important to me to do things I know my mom would be proud of and that keeps me busy and excited for the future.”