By Randy Cavin
Press Sports Editor
Former NFL quarterback Ryan Leaf is a good example of how a person can go from the bottom of the barrel into turning his life around for the good of others as well as himself.
Leaf went from playing in the Rose Bowl to becoming a Heisman Trophy finalist, the No. 2 pick in the NFL Draft, all to way to being a drug addict and convicted felon.
Now he is going around speaking in big cities and small towns about mental health illness and drug addiction. He spoke Friday afternoon at Watkins Auditorium on the campus of UT Martin to several hundred people about the choices they make and will make during their lives.
Leaf received some good news on his way to Martin as he was offered a job as a college football analyst for ESPN.
“I was unbelievably excited when I got the call,” Leaf said. “My wife and I planned our life out about three years ago with what it would look like, and what I wanted to do. There are a lot of people I should thank along the way, and who I am going to give 110 percent, and a lot more. It is a great company in the world of college football.”
Leaf played for Washington State University and entered the NFL draft in 1998 after his junior season. College football is still an important part of his life as he has a weekly radio show about the Pac-12.
Now he will get to expand and share his college football knowledge across the nation.
“The last three years I have been inundated with the Pac-12 on Sirius XM,” Leaf said. “Now I am going to branch out more with the national scene. There are some real fans down here in the South and it is going to be awesome. I will be able to call some games, maybe, down here this year.”
It is possible he could have said no to the ESPN offer and waited for a chance to be an NFL analyst. However, his passion is with college football.
“The greatest sport I think is college football,” he said. “It is the fan-base, the stadiums, the environment, and all of it. I don’t watch the NFL all that often. I do have the NFL Sunday Ticket and the Red Zone just to keep up with it. But, college football, I am up past 11 p.m. watching games through the last quarter until the game is over. It has always been a big part of who I am.”
Leaf does not want to use the ESPN platform for his recovery message. He does not think that would be the right thing to do. Leaf only wants to do what ESPN is hiring him to do, which is to be a college football analyst.
“I want to tell the story and not be the story,” Leaf said. “I may continue and do things like this, but I would really like to be looked upon as a solid analyst who tells the story about college football. I will be doing some studio work and some things like that. So, it will be all-encompassing. I told them my kid is 21 months old right now, so I am willing to put in the work.”
Leaf working for a major sports media company is a completely different thing for him. Leaf was not exactly the most pleasant person for media to interview when he played in the NFL.
He had a bad exchange with a sportswriter in San Diego the day after the Chargers lost at Kansas City because of an extremely bad performance by him. Now the shoe will be on the other foot, and he regrets that incident happened.
“It is embarrassing to me when I see it or I hear a story from someone on how they had a bad interaction with me,” Leaf said. “I was this cocky, arrogant individual, and now I try not to be that individual anymore. I am sure some of it is still there and I will behave as such at some point. I think the difference is I will be aware of it, and maybe then apologize at the moment.
“I think the biggest change in me is I am developing the ability to recognize when something happens like that and make a positive change at that moment.”
Leaf will call games mostly on ESPN2 and ESPNU He will be paired with play-by-play announcer Clay Matvick.
“Ryan has experienced the high and lows in the game of football, putting him in a position to relate to a wide range of situations players can find themselves in,” Lee Fitting, ESPN seior vice president of production said in a press release Sunday night. “He will be able to rely on those experiences in his analysis, making him a tremendous asset for our team.”