Ryan Leaf went from being a promising National Football League quarterback to one of the biggest busts in league history. It was a spectacular – and public – fall from grace.
Leaf, who up to that point had enjoyed success his whole life, didn’t take his professional downfall well. Chemical addiction and prison time followed. But he managed to turn his life around, and recently shared his story of recovery as keynote speaker during the 2018 Fairbanks Circle of Hope Dinner.
“The thing I’m most grateful for is that I get to travel around this country and see my recovery community get larger and larger,” Leaf said to a room of almost 700 people at the Indianapolis Marriott Downtown. “I meet people in every city trying to alleviate this disease. That motivates me to keep doing what I’m doing – in particular staying sober.”
Before sobriety, it was sports that served as Leaf’s main motivation. Especially football. A native of Great Falls, Mont., Leaf noted he’s the only NFL first-round draft pick from that state.
“There are more first-round draft picks in the Manning family, so I think I’m pretty special,” he said. “That was a big part of the problem.”
Leaf isn’t sure where his ultra-competitive side originated. His parents have always been admirable role models. Dad served two tours in Vietnam, raised three boys and ran his own successful insurance company. Part of the problem, Leaf thinks, is that by his early teens he had figured out he could get away with more than his peers simply because he was good at sports.
“I know now that I was a drug addict long before I ever took a drug,” Leaf said. “Competition was my drug. I had to win at everything, and if I didn’t, I had to win it right back. And in that process, embarrass you this time.”
He went on to play football at Washington State University from 1995-97, leading the Cougars to their first Rose Bowl since 1931. In 1998 Leaf was a Heisman Trophy candidate along with the elite company of Peyton Manning, Charles Woodson and Randy Moss. Later that year he was drafted second overall by the San Diego Chargers and signed a $31 million contract. All by age 21.
“I liken it to giving a 13-year-old $31 million,” Leaf said of those heady days. “That was about the maturity level I was at.”
His definition of success at that time was money, power and prestige. By those measures Leaf was on top. And indeed, he won his first two NFL starts, which hadn’t happened for a rookie quarterback since John Elway in 1983.
Then Leaf played his worst football game ever in week three at Kansas City. That wasn’t his undoing though. It was how he dealt with it.
“That was always the issue with me,” Leaf said. “How I responded after that game reverberated through my whole life.”
That included being caught on video yelling at a reporter in the Chargers’ locker room. It was a scene that became his reputation.
“My career was over after three games,” Leaf said. “Considering that I wanted to be a professional football player from the age of 4, that was a difficult pill to swallow.”
He did in fact play for five more seasons, including with the Tampa Bay Buccaneers and Dallas Cowboys. But no matter where it was, there was always an issue.
“I know now that I was the problem,” Leaf said. “I was the common denominator in all of it.”
Substance abuse had never been part of it. Leaf didn’t taste alcohol for the first time until his 18th birthday. He viewed his high school peers who did drink as morally corrupt.
“I’d show up to parties with six-packs of 7-Up, mainly just as my way of saying you people are awful,” Leaf said. “I thought I was better than everyone.”
When he did officially quit football – and had no transition plan into what he’d do next – substance abuse became a crutch. Leaf remembers exactly when it started.
Three months after leaving the NFL, he was at a fight in Las Vegas. The announcer was calling attention to celebrities in attendance. The crowd cheered after every name was announced. Except Leaf’s. For him they booed heartily.
“I felt like I was sliced open for everyone to see,” Leaf said of the experience.
At a party later that night, an acquaintance gave him some Vicodin. Leaf had taken them for football injuries before. This time he used them for emotional pain.
“I was able to walk in and out of those parties and not feel the judgement,” he said.
So began an eight-year descent into crippling self-medication. Leaf still lived in a million-dollar home overlooking the ocean in San Diego, but every day the drapes were closed. He made the occasional public appearance in an attempt to show everyone he was fine. Leaf estranged himself from those who still cared about him, instead surrounding himself with enablers.
Eventually the money ran out and he moved back to Great Falls to a tiny apartment. Every morning his first thought was do I have pills, and if not how can I get some?
“That was my whole day,” Leaf said. “As soon as I found some, my day was over.”
He was trapped in an endless cycle of guilt and shame that ended as soon as he had pills in hand, only to return once the effects of those pills wore off. His cries for help to the universe went unanswered. Until the universe sent the sheriff’s department on March 30, 2012, for burglary, theft and drug charges. He was arrested just days later for the same offenses.
Leaf spent the next 32 months in prison. And yet nothing had really changed in him, even despite no longer abusing pills.
“I was still angry and judgmental,” he said. “Now I was just in the most miserable place I could be. I felt even more like a victim.”
It took his cellmate to help him see the light. An Iraq War vet who was serving time for killing someone while driving drunk, he had made amends and was trying to improve himself. Leaf tried to instill his nihilistic attitude in him.
Finally his cellmate snapped one day. He said, “You need to get your head out of the sand. You don’t understand the value you have – not only for the men in here but for when you get out.”
Then he practically forced Leaf to come with him to the prison library to help teach an illiterate inmate how to read. Leaf grudgingly went. Then kept going back
“A week into it, I realized I was being in service to another human for the first time in my life,” he said.
In time Leaf became an assistant to a substance abuse counselor. He realized that kind of work would have to be his foundation after prison if he didn’t want to return to the person he was before.
After his release from prison on Dec. 3, 2014, Leaf entered addiction treatment in California even though he was no longer using drugs. He still needed it for his mental health. While there he reached out to Transcend Recovery in Los Angeles for a job. They offered Leaf an entry-level position, a gesture he was so grateful for that he bear-hugged his interviewer. The irony of once making $5 million a year and being miserable to earning $15 an hour and feeling valued was not lost on him.
“Those ideals I thought were success had been flipped on their head,” Leaf said.
He also started attending AA and got a sponsor. Now, in addition to sponsoring others, Leaf regularly prays and meditates, things he never did previously.
He’s often asked if you knew then what you know now, how would your life have turned out?
“I wouldn’t be the guy you see now,” Leaf answers. “I’m eternally grateful for having spent time in prison. I never thought I’d be able to say that. I don’t recommend it, but it was what was needed for me. My hope is someone hears this story and it doesn’t have to get to that point for them.
“We are all flawed human beings, just trying to be better every day. I had forgotten that, for so long. I had to be reminded.”