Young athletes from elementary and intermediate schools in Costa Mesa sat in the stands at Jim Scott Stadium on Tuesday to take in words from a pro who was once in their shoes and went on to great achievements.
Matt Leinart, an NFL free agent quarterback and Heisman Trophy winner, delivered a short but meaningful message to the children enrolled in the inaugural Costa Mesa Summer Sports Camp at Estancia High School.
Leinart, who attended St. John the Baptist School in Costa Mesa before going on to star at Mater Dei High School and USC, stressed the importance of education and talked about the values he learned from competing in sports.
"[Sports] taught me teamwork, respect, how to be accountable and how to prepare not only for competition but also for the future, for life," Leinart said after Costa Mesa Mayor Jim Righeimer introduced him as "one of Costa Mesa's finest."
Leinart, 30, is clinging to those values amid a pivotal, challenging situation in his life.
After his one-year stint as a back-up quarterback with the Oakland Raiders, Leinart, the former No. 10 NFL draft pick of the Arizona Cardinals, is hoping for a phone call that will land him a spot on a team.
"I'm confident it's going to happen," he said moments before interacting with the children and signing memorabilia and a few T-shirts. "It's been an interesting off-season for me, but it's been very productive in other areas. I'm still confident in my ability. I'm still confident that I'll be on a team."
Leinart conceded he has never been in this situation before, as a free agent hoping for a team to reach out to him after he tried to find stardom with the Cardinals, Houston Texans and Raiders.
"It's been a humbling experience," Leinart said. "I played for so long, and I still want to play longer, but I'm just more mature about it. I'm more able to deal with it in the way that I can.."
Until that phone call from an NFL team comes, Leinart is happy to give back to the community. He not only provided a message to the youths but also gave money to support the sports camp, which is free for students and relies on donations.
The Leinart Foundation, which is also directed by his older brother, Ryan, donated $2,000, said Steve Mensinger, an Estancia booster and Costa Mesa's mayor pro tem.
It's estimated that it will cost $20,000 to run the camp or roughly $150 per young athlete.
About 150 kids are enrolled in the camp so far, Estancia Principal Kirk Bauermeister said.
He said Leinart's visit was a great way to start the four-week sports camp, which began Monday. The camp features several sports and is run by Estancia coaches the first two weeks and Costa Mesa High Schools coaches the final two weeks.
"I just thought it was really cool," Bauermeister said of Leinart's visit. "It's great to have those guys come back to the community because the kids look up to him, as well they should, because he's a quality guy. It was a real nice touch to start the camp and something I think the kids will remember."
After his interaction with the children, Leinart spoke exclusively to Estancia cheerleaders, who are among several high school athletes helping to coach the campers.
"[Leinart's message] was inspirational," said cheerleader Memphis Prow, 16, who will be a junior. "Seeing someone who has gone so far, and what he has done, I think it definitely inspires the kids because they get to have that person telling them all these things. I think it was really cool, especially for the boys."
Estancia football Coach Mike Bargas was impressed with Leinart.
"He gives back to the community," Bargas said. "It's really cool when people put their money where their mouth is, and he's willing to do it."
Leinart overcame being overweight as a child.
Jessica Perry, the Estancia girls' athletic director, watched Leinart grow up as they both attended St. John the Baptist and Mater Dei and were in the same grade.
Leinart and Perry shared a hug and briefly caught up before Leinart spoke to the campers.
"I'm really excited to be here," said Leinart, who encouraged the kids to have fun. "It's an honor to be here."