By Randy Cavin
Press Sports Editor
There was a time Ryan Leaf had it all and now he is trying to get a bit of it back and give some to others.
The 43-year-old Leaf was at Watkins Auditorium on the campus of UT Martin and spoke to several hundred people in attendance Friday afternoon about his short-lived career in the National Football League, his troubles with drug addiction, and legal problems which led to time spent in prison.
Leaf led his high school football team in Great Falls, Montana to the state championship. He then went to become a Heisman Trophy candidate at Washington State University as the starting quarterback and led the team to its first Rose Bowl appearance since the 1931 season.
The star quarterback finished as a runner-up for the Heisman Trophy to Charles Woodson in 1997, and he decided to forego his senior season at WSU. So, he entered the 1998 NFL Draft as a junior. He was taken by the San Diego Chargers with the No. 2 pick. Peyton Manning was chosen in front of him with the No. 1 pick by the Indianapolis Colts.
“I was glad Indianapolis took Peyton with the first pick,” Leaf said. “I did not want to go there in middle America. I wanted to go to Southern California with warm weather and beaches. Here I was, a 21-year-old, and I was just handed a check for $31 million. It was all about money, prestige, and power for me.”
Leaf, in his own mind, had made it. He was given a $31 million contract and a $10 million signing bonus.
Leaf’s NFL Career
“I was going to play 15, 20 years in this league, make millions and millions of dollars, win some Super Bowls and ride off into the sunset,” Leaf remembers thinking. “This was a goal I had set, and I was about to achieve it. I was the only man from Montana to be drafted in the first round of the NFL Draft.”
The man’s first two starts were wins for the Chargers. His career started to slip after that, and then his life. Leaf was on his way to becoming known as the biggest NFL Draft bust. The third game of the season against Kansas City turned out to be a disaster for Leaf and the Chargers.
Leaf only completed 1-of-15 passing attempts with two interceptions and two sacks. He refused to accept the blame for his own poor performance. Leaf instead shifted the blame to his teammates and coaches. He even went off on a San Diego sportswriter the day after the game.
“I walked into the game at Kansas City and played the worst football game of my life,” Leaf said. “It was humiliating. It was embarrassing and it was not ultimately the way I played that made it worse. It was how I reacted and I how dealt with that failure. I did not realize failure was on opportunity to do better.”
Leaf’s career in San Diego only lasted three years. He missed the second season with the Chargers with a shoulder injury and started nine games his third year. He was released by the Chargers in March 2001, picked by Tampa Bay and released by the Buccaneers the first week of the season.
Dallas claimed him and released Leaf in May 2002. Seattle took a chance on Leaf and signed him to a one-year contract. Leaf then abruptly retired at the age of 26.
Night of His Downfall
Leaf just wanted to fade from the public after he retired from football. He kept hearing on national media outlets how he was now the biggest draft bust.
He went to a boxing match in Las Vegas one night – the night that led to his addiction to opioids and changed his life forever. There were celebrities there from sports and entertainment.
“I walked into the door into a crowded arena,” Leaf said. “I was thinking ‘Please don’t recognize me. Please don’t recognize me.’ Then the emcee started announcing all the celebrities in the audience. There was Charles Barkley, Dr, Dre, Tiger Woods, and then he announced me. The whole MGM Grand booed and hissed.
“That had happened before, of course, just as an opposing quarterback. But you always have this armor on. The helmet, the shoulder pads. This, for whatever reason, was more about me as a person. It was just kind of sliced open and filleted for everybody to see. And that night would change my life forever because of what would happen next.”
The disgraced former quarterback went to a party that night after the fight.
“An acquaintance of mine was there. He offered me some Vicodin,” Leaf says. “I, of course, knew what Vicodin was from my orthopedic surgeries during my playing career. And this would be the first time that I would take them in a recreational way.
“He gave me two pills, and I mixed them with my alcohol that night, and it worked. It was a pain killer. All the emotional pain that I was in disappeared. Every morning, I would wake up, and the first thing in my brain would be, ‘Do I have pills?’ And then once I took them, I didn’t feel anything. I could just disappear and live in this foggy ether of nothingness.”
Using the Crutch
Leaf used his newfound crutch for the next several years and it led to run-ins with the law.
He was arrested several times on drug and burglary charges. Leaf was back home in Great Falls and woke up one morning looking for one of his pills. He did not have any and starting looking up ways to kill himself.
Leaf thought about cutting his wrist, but he could not go through with it. He then drove to his parents’ house to pull his car into their garage and asphyxiate himself. However, when he arrived at their house the entrance to the garage was blocked. Leaf then drove around looking for more pills and broke into a house near his parents’ home.
He went back to his home and the police were already there. He was arrested again two days later for another burglary charge. Leaf was convicted of burglary and criminal possession of drugs. He was sentenced to seven years and served nine months in a treatment facility.
His opioid addiction had taken his life to rock-bottom. Leaf was released but his legal troubles kept piling up. He eventually spent more time in prison and met someone who changed his life.
The Road to Recovery
It was Leaf’s cellmate in prison who changed his life to what it is today. Leaf’s cellmate, who was a veteran of the Iraq and Afghanistan wars, asked him if he would go to the prison library with him and help other prisoners learn how to read and write.
His cellmate was in prison because he made a bad choice. He got drunk, got behind the wheel of a vehicle, had an accident, and killed someone.
“And he said, ‘Ryan, you’re going to get out at some point. This is what we’re going to do. We’re going to go down to the prison library. We’re going to help prisoners who don’t know how to read learn how to read,’ “ Leaf said.
Leaf was reluctant to do it, but he did anyway and it changed his life. He was touched when a prisoner came up to him and admitted he could read and write. Leaf went back to the library the next day, and he kept going back because for once in his life he realized he was helping others.
“I realized that I was being of service to another human being for the first time in my life,” Leaf said. “I knew that it was going to have to be the foundation for when I got out. I was there because of what I did, and no one else. I was forced to see it in a lot of the people I was surrounded by. People who could not hold themselves accountable.”
His Mission to Help Others
Leaf made some bad choices and choice is the message he wants to bring to people. He only wants people to make the right choice in their life. Leaf is now married with a 21-month-old child, and he wants to be a positive example to his family and other people he encounters.
He is now an ambassador Transcend Recovery Community, which has a mission of taking the stigma off of mental illness and drug addiction, which is an illness. Leaf does not want people, especially young people, to make the same bad choices he made.
Leaf believes it begins with accountability, community, and spirituality.
“The only thing you can control is your accountability,” Leaf said. “If things go bad, you can’t blame somebody else. When I was in the NFL, I pushed everybody away. I did not have any community. I live in Los Angles right now and the community unbelievable for recovery. If I had thought five years ago when I was sitting in a prison cell that I would be here standing in Martin, Tennessee talking to a group of people about my life, I would have totally denied it.
“Now I am part of it and it grows and grows and grows. I don’t necessarily adhere to any religion. There is no way I could have played in the NFL, and there is no way I could be standing here talking to you now, but there is a reason for that.”