To say that Ryan's weekend with Matt Leinart was amazing would be an understatement. To say it was unbelievable would be an understatement. Perhaps Ryan summed it up best when he said, "It was one of the most awesome weekends of my life!"
Matt Leinart recently rolled out the red carpet for his young friend when he flew Ryan out to Phoenix for the Monday Night Football game between the Arizona Cardinals and the Chicago Bears. Although the game didn't end up as Ryan (and the rest of us) would have liked, there were way too many positive experiences that happened over Ryan's 2 1/2-day visit to spoil the memories.
Ryan and I arrived in Phoenix early Sunday afternoon and Matt's brother, Ryan (who was so helpful in making all of the pre-trip arrangements), picked us up at the airport and drove us to our hotel. Matt was busy with an autograph session that afternoon which gave us a chance to settle into our hotel room (again, compliments of Matt). We enjoyed some time swimming at the hotel pool which is something that you can't do in Wisconsin this time of year! Matt called later that afternoon and said that he was excited to see Ryan and was driving over to pick him up. Ryan and I headed down to the lobby and just outside of the front entrance there was Matt in his red, Ford F-150 truck. I could tell that Ryan could hardly wait to see Matt as he quickly picked up his pace. When Matt climbed out of his truck Ryan pretty much ran over to give him a big hug. They talked for a minute and then Ryan jumped into the front seat for the short ride over to Matt's house. Ryan was just beaming with admiration.
Matt and his family put together a fun and relaxing barbeque for the evening and Ryan had a blast just "hanging out" with Matt and his friends. Matt gave him the grand tour of his new home which Ryan later told me that he wants a house this cool when he's on his own, too. Bob Leinart, Matt's dad, had fun joking around with Ryan all evening and his mother, Linda, was always right there for a little hug and pat on the back for Ryan. He also had a lot of fun hanging out with Matt's friends who like to talk about football as much as Ryan does. After dinner, Matt and Ryan took some time to listen to music on Matt's laptop and Ryan's iPod, enjoyed some delicious ice cream compliments of Cold Stone Creamery, and Ryan even got a sneak peak at the Cardinals Playbook. Matt also brought out the Heisman Trophy so that Ryan could get a picture with it (he tried to lift it but it weighs something like 45 lbs.)
After dinner, Matt invited Ryan and I over to the Cardinals practice facility. Ryan really enjoyed the tour and the opportunity to meet Coach Green and all of the stars on the team. And, of course, he got a picture standing in front of Matt's locker in the Cardinal's locker room.
The next day was game day and Ryan could hardly wait. He was all decked out in his Matt Leinart Cardinal's home jersey and he also wore his USC cap for good luck. Matt's parents picked us up to take us to the game shortly after lunch and on the way to the stadium Matt called them from his cell phone. It turns out that Matt had arranged for Ryan to have pre-game field passes. What a way for Ryan to get to experience his first NFL game!
Being on the field was an unreal experience for Ryan. He kept looking up into the stands and imagining what it must be like to play in front of all of these fans. It was about 3 hours before kickoff so we had plenty of time to mingle along the sidelines, snap a few pictures sitting on the Cardinals bench and catch a glimpse of some of the players warming up. One of the Cardinals players stopped by when he saw Ryan in his Cardinals jersey and tossed him an authentic NFL football which he held onto tightly for the rest of the night.
The crew from ESPN's NFL Gameday were also down on the field before the game and took the time to come over to chat with Ryan. What a great bunch of men. They really took a sincere interest in Ryan's story and were speechless when they heard about how Matt had arranged for Ryan's trip to see his first NFL game along with some personal time with his favorite quarterback. They ended up airing a special segment during the live ESPN telecast on the relationship between Matt and Ryan and showed footage of the two of them hanging out on the field before the game. Later, an ESPN security guard came down to the field and escorted Ryan and I up to where ESPN was broadcasting their live pre-game show. It turned out that the guys on the show were pretty touched by meeting Ryan and had a few gifts for him. When the show wrapped up they called Ryan up on stage and presented him with an ESPN cap and Monday Night Football t-shirt autographed by Chris Berman, Tom Jackson, Michael Irvin, and Steve Young. Ryan's eyes were huge and his smile was from ear to ear.
It was time for kickoff. We sat with the Leinart family and Ryan had a blast at the game especially because Matt came out on fire in spotting Arizona to a surprising 20-0 halftime lead. Unfortunately, a few 2nd half miscues by the Cardinals let the Bears back into the game and they ended up losing a close game 24-23. Following the game we had locker room passes so Ryan had a chance to catch up with Matt. Ryan gave Matt a hug when he saw him a told him, "You played a great game. Sorry you didn't win." He also met a couple of Matt's celebrity friends including Demi Moore and Ashton Kutcher.
The next day we flew home with a suitcase full of souvenirs and memories that will last a lifetime. Surprisingly, when Ryan and I were waiting to board the flight a group of about 5-6 college guys came up and said, "Man, we didn't know that we would be flying with a celebrity today!" Ryan and I looked at them a little puzzled and they told us that they had seen Matt and Ryan on the sidelines together before the game with all of the TV crews and photographers huddled around. And, when we did board the plane, the pilot was standing at the entrance to the cockpit and said to Ryan, "Didn't I see you on ESPN last night!?!" Ryan just smiled and politely said, "Yes." The pilot told him, "I'm a bears fan but I'm still cheering for you." It always amazes me how kind many people are and how simple words like this can warm Ryan's heart.
We are so humbled by the generosity of Matt and his family and are so grateful for all of their support throughout his ongoing battle with brain cancer. When you're around Matt and Ryan, you can tell that there is a very special bond. One that started just two short years ago but one that didn't just happen, it was meant to happen.
God bless the Leinart's and all of the USC players and fans for their ongoing support.