The Redemption of Ryan Leaf Will Be Televised
And blogged about. And chronicled in newspapers. Once upon a time the WSU football phenom had the world at his feet. Now, after a very public addiction to prescription painkillers, he’s ready to talk. And talk. And talk.
WITH NOWHERE TO GO, HE RAN. Just packed up and fled twelve hundred miles to the dust-caked scrubland of West Texas without leaving a forwarding address. A guy his size—six feet six inches, 245 pounds, biceps like HoneyBaked hams—could never truly disappear, but the wide-open Southern sky had a way of shrinking a man. And down there anonymity cost as much as a Stetson and a new pair of cowboy boots. Maybe he could at least blend in, he thought, throw them off of his scent long enough that they’d forget about him. But he should have known better.
If a stranger asked, Ryan Leaf would say he left Montana behind and moved to Canyon, Texas, home of the West Texas A&M Buffaloes, to teach young men how to throw a football. But that wasn’t true. Not entirely. He came here in 2006 to bury the old Ryan Leaf. Carve out a shallow grave in the dry red dirt and dump the body of the cocky, combustible kid who finished his football career at Washington State University as the school’s greatest quarterback, only to flame out spectacularly in the NFL—a supernova of rage and petulance. The new Ryan wouldn’t be better. He’d just be normal. The kind of guy who read the sports page instead of worrying if he’d be in it.
Except just like he’d done so many times before, he made a mistake. A big one. And that was all those people with the tape recorders and the cameras and the vans with satellite dishes needed to sniff him out. They’d caravanned out to the brush country and started stabbing the dirt with spades, and after the fields were scarred with hastily dug holes and they’d finally found the body, they’d whooped and hollered and dragged it back through the streets of Canyon. And then they broadcast the footage to the rest of the country.
Now, in November 2008, he sat alone in the dark of his home, watching the news of his latest failure scroll across the bottom of a flickering television screen. ESPN’s Joe Schad reports West Texas A&M places QB coach Ryan Leaf on indefinite leave for asking a player for a pain pill, the ticker read. In that moment he knew two things. First, he was addicted to Vicodin. He couldn’t deny that anymore. He’d started taking it to numb a throbbing in his wrist, but the physical pain had long since subsided. Now he was popping pill upon pill just to block out the self-loathing that had tormented him for a decade.
And second, the new Ryan knew that no matter how deep he buried the old Ryan, someone would always find him.
• • •
DO NOT CRY for Ryan Leaf. He wouldn’t want you to. And besides, he had his shot at greatness. In 1997 the 21-year-old from Great Falls, Montana, led the WSU Cougars—who had been picked to finish seventh in the Pac-10—to their best season in nearly 70 years. And the biggest game of his career came right here in Seattle on November 22. In front of more than 74,000 people at Husky Stadium, and in need of only one more win to earn a trip to the Rose Bowl, Leaf calmly picked apart the University of Washington defense, adding to a barrel of conference passing records that would later earn him Pac-10 Offensive Player of the Year honors. With the score tied 7-7 in the second quarter, he dropped back, caught sight of wide receiver Chris Jackson sprinting down the sideline, and hit him in midstride for a 57-yard score. WSU never lost the lead, and Leaf racked up 358 yards and three scores that day. When time ran out, hundreds of the Cougar fans in attendance streamed from their seats, holding up roses and blanketing the field in crimson. Those who didn’t celebrate by trying to rip down the goalposts flocked to Leaf and lofted him onto their shoulders. After a year of carrying the school on his back, its fans were carrying him. (Leaf has chronicled his glory years at Washington State in 596 Switch, an auto-biography that will be released by Pullman’s Crimson Oak Publishing in October.)
Three years into a prolific college career, Leaf was already a hero in the tiny town of Pullman. But now pro scouts across the country were salivating at the prospect of adding him to their roster. Guys who get paid to yammer with authority about the likelihood a college athlete’s skills will translate to the pro—guys like ESPN’s draft analyst Mel Kiper and his heavily moussed huckster’s haircut—mocked anyone who didn’t believe that Leaf would carpet bomb the NFL with touchdowns. So with one year of college eligibility remaining, Leaf left WSU and entered the draft. And just as predicted, on April 18, 1998, the San Diego Chargers selected him with the second pick in the draft and signed him to a $34 million contract that included a $12 million signing bonus.
But not long into the 1998 season, those talking heads were gagging on their words. The cannon arm that had served Leaf so well in college was failing him in the pros. Physically, he looked the part of an NFL quarterback, but his decisions on the field proved he was overwhelmed and unprepared. By the end of the year he’d thrown for just two touchdowns, while being intercepted 15 times. For the next three years he was plagued by injuries and never played a full season, and by 2002, after a brief stint at Seahawks training camp, Leaf had washed out of football altogether at the age of 25. The analysts who had once pegged him as a future Hall of Famer were calling him the biggest bust in NFL draft history.
“When your confidence, self-esteem, and abilities don’t match the moment, you’re dead meat,” says T. J. Simers, a veteran sportswriter for the Los Angeles Times. “There’s a long list of those guys.” And it’s a list that includes a lot of quarterbacks. Take Heath Shuler (drafted third overall by the Washington Redskins in ’94), Tim Couch (drafted first overall by the Cleveland Browns in ’99), and JaMarcus Russell (drafted first overall by the Oakland Raiders in ’07). All three came into the pros carrying similarly stratospheric expectations, and all were just as woefully ineffective as Leaf was. Yet none got tarred with the “biggest bust” label, and there’s a good chance it’s because they lacked the two things that Leaf actually had: an ego that dwarfed his talent and a relationship with the media that bordered on nuclear.
Simers was one of the first to document Leaf’s immaturity. In a column published August 11, 1998, weeks before the regular season started, he blistered Leaf, calling him a punk and reporting on his refusal to bus his own table at the Chargers training facility, his snide remarks about fellow rookie quarterback Peyton Manning, and his alleged advances toward another NFL player’s wife.
San Diego fans were apoplectic. Who was this hack from LA to attack their new hero? Leaf was just a kid, they sputtered. A brash one, sure, but one who would back it up on the field. But then on September 20, Simers’s prophecy of the savior-who-never-was began to come true as Leaf imploded in a game against the Kansas City Chiefs, throwing four interceptions and fumbling three times. And one day later, when San Diego Union-Tribune reporter Jay Posner asked Leaf about his postgame altercation with a cameraman, the fiery quarterback erupted. Unaware of or indifferent to the fact that he was being filmed, Leaf leapt from the folding chair in front of his locker, loomed over the seated Posner, and screamed, “Don’t talk to me, all right?” His cheeks, smooth and without a hint of stubble, flushed red. “Knock it off!” The five-second clip went national within days, playing in an endless loop in sports highlight reels and branding Leaf an arrogant, entitled child.
Thirteen years later Posner just sighed when I asked him about his run-in with Leaf in San Diego. He won’t excuse Leaf’s inability to handle criticism, but he’s convinced that the era of media saturation that started in the late ’90s is at least partly to blame for Leaf’s public image problem. “There have been physical altercations between athletes and sportswriters before,” he said. “And the incident between Ryan and myself wasn’t even physical. The difference is that it was caught on video.”
WHO WOULDN’T LIKE TO YELL at a reporter sometimes? I got the luxury to do it in front of the world.” Had those words come from Ryan Leaf’s mouth in July 1998, they would have dripped with acidic smugness and a complete lack of self-awareness. As it is, though, they came from Leaf in July 2011 and they dripped with self-deprecation. He even grinned a little sheepishly when he said it. This was a relaxed, reborn Ryan.
That’s not to say he’s lost all of his swagger. Ironically much of his current efforts to rehabilitate his image—and to land a job in sports broadcasting—are based right here in Seattle, where just over a decade ago he was persona non grata. When I met him at his publicist’s office in the U District, just blocks from Husky Stadium, I asked if it makes his skin crawl to spend this much time so close to his old nemesis. He just leaned back in his chair and smirked. “I dominated that stadium, so I kind of like being here,” he said, recalling his 1997 Apple Cup victory in Seattle. He’s having fun, but there’s an edge to his words that makes me wonder if a poorly worded question could unleash the media-hating Ryan Leaf of old. (Now is a good time to mention that the WSU football team’s head trainer from 1978 to 1999—a man with whom Leaf is still close—was once, several years ago, my uncle by marriage.)
And yet his face didn’t flush when the topic of his eight-month addiction to Vicodin came up. His tone was measured, but he wasn’t swallowing his rage. No question was off limits, and at times the details spilled out of him without prompting. It started in March 2008, after he aggravated an old wrist injury while leading a throwing drill at a West Texas A&M practice. (Loosened over the years by a condition called scapholunate dissociation, his wrist pops out of joint easier than most.) The pain—the same pain that had ultimately forced him to retire from the NFL—was too much, so the team physician wrote him a prescription for 90 pills. With five refills. “I manipulated the situation,” Leaf said, acknowledging the size of his initial haul. “I think I signed some autographs for his kid.”
In front of 74,000 people at Husky Stadium, and in need of one more win to earn a trip to the Rose Bowl, Ryan Leaf calmly picked apart the University of Washington defense.
In the beginning he’d take one on nights when the grinding ache became unbearable, making it possible for him to watch SportsCenter after practice and focus on the highlights instead of obsessing about his wrist. But the genetic markers that blessed him with a high pain tolerance—a trait that had come in handy as he endured more than his fair share of hits in the pros—most likely raised his tolerance for the narcotic. So when one wasn’t enough, he graduated to two. When two weren’t enough, it was four. By October 2008, the throbbing in his wrist had long since subsided, but he was pounding 10 pills per night. At once. A dose that large could shut down the lungs of an average man who had never used the drug before, but in a weird way it was the only thing keeping Leaf alive.
Almost seven years after his last appearance in an NFL game—a 19-16 loss to the Denver Broncos—he was still tormented by his inability to live up to expectations, partly because he had a mean competitive streak that equated failure on the field with failure in life. And partly because the yammering analysts couldn’t help but bring up his name every April when a new crop of college kids entered the draft: “Who will be the next Ryan Leaf?” they’d ask with clinical detachment. But what Leaf heard was an indictment: “Who will embarrass himself, his alma mater, his family? Who will be doomed to a lifetime of shame?”
He was depressed. And self-conscious, to the point of paranoia. He didn’t even bother leaving the house at night, but he didn’t need to because he finally had the one thing that could shut off the part of his brain that made him hate himself. “I found what worked,” he says. “I disappeared.”
The only problem was that the numb nothingness was temporary. He didn’t need an alarm clock because a chest-tightening fear of not having enough pills for the next day would knock him out of bed in the morning. “The anxiety was overwhelming,” Leaf says. “You’re trying to contribute to a job and be good at it, but the first thing in your mind when you wake up is, ‘Do I have enough pills for tonight? If I don’t, how can I get a doctor to give them to me?’ ” Asking the team physician for another refill would raise suspicion, so when his stash ran low, he’d find an urgent care facility, show the on-call doctor his hinky (but no longer hurting) wrist, and conveniently leave out the fact that he’d already been gobbling pills by the handful for months.
Then on October 30, when he had run out of clinics to scam, he hit up an injured player, one of the 19 and 20-year-old kids he was supposed to be coaching. Uncomfortable and unsure of what to do, the young man—whose identity was never released by the Canyon Police Department—asked his parents for advice. Within a week West Texas A&M athletic director Michael McBroom called Leaf into his office and, across his desk, handed him a printed-out email that detailed the interaction between coach and player.
“This was sent to ESPN anonymously. Did you do what it says?”
A withered Leaf, who had lost nearly 15 pounds since the previous March, looked down. “Yes.”
“Ryan, would you like to resign?” McBroom asked.
“Of course,” Leaf replied. “I need to.”
Back in the U District, he displayed virtually no emotion as he finished this info dump. In fact, he almost looked entirely at ease. This was hardly the first time he’d told the story, but it’s as if each time he does, he rolls another 10-pound rock off his shoulders. “Sometimes she probably wants me to shut up,” Leaf said, referring to his publicist. “But being open and honest isn’t necessarily a bad thing for me anymore.”
• • •
WITHIN TWO WEEKS OF RESIGNING from West Texas A&M, Leaf checked into the Orchard rehab facility near Vancouver, BC. He felt relieved at having his secret exposed to those who knew him, but he was still looking over his shoulder for the men with the tape recorders and notepads. At Orchard he roomed in a lodgelike building that was about a 15-minute run from the main facility, and he dreaded the daily trek—not because he’d have to own up to his addiction once he got there but because of what might be waiting for him at the front door. “My biggest worry, the biggest stress I had was, ‘What morning am I going to come running up and find a camera crew out there?’ ” he told me, shaking his head as he recalled his scrambled priorities. “So, honestly, for the first two weeks I was still hesitant and not fully letting myself go into the program.”
The next 10 months amounted to what would be yet another bizarre, humiliating chapter in Leaf’s life. While he was getting clean, Canyon Police were building a case against him, and on May 20, 2009, a grand jury indicted him on six counts of obtaining a controlled substance by fraud. That same day, the police department issued a warrant for his arrest, but by June 11, Leaf—out of rehab but still living in Vancouver—had yet to turn himself in. (Even the manhunt for Ryan Leaf was overhyped: “He can run but he can’t hide, and we will find him,” the Randall County district attorney told reporters.) Less than a week later, he was arrested at the U.S. border as he made his way back into the country. Two days after posting $45,000 bail in Washington, he finally surrendered to police in Texas, pleaded not guilty, and posted another $15,000 bail. Then he retreated north of the border to await trial.
Once again, the shame was stifling. He holed up in Vancouver, selling chartered fishing trips for a BC company called West Coast Resorts. But otherwise he kept to himself. “I don’t want anyone to know anything about me,” he told The Canadian Press that fall, intimating that he only agreed to the interview because his employer had hired a publicist to help scrub his image. “I’m scared to talk to reporters, because I never know.”
He was still gun-shy that September, when West Coast Resorts gave him an assignment: Make an appearance at the WSU board of trustees black-tie gala dinner in Seattle and shake a few hands. With his connections to the school, his bosses thought, he might have luck booking a few packages. Leaf cringed as he imagined walking into a room of alumni. Even when he’d returned to WSU to get his degree, he avoided campus whenever possible, opting to live for the year in nearby Moscow, Idaho—and that was in 2004, long before the drug drama. How would these people who used to cheer for him look at him now? What kind of snide comments would they make under their breath?
They didn’t glower. They didn’t whisper. They didn’t have a chance. Leaf had barely made it into the ballroom at the downtown Seattle Westin when Doug Thomas, a WSU trustee, and his wife intercepted him and welcomed him to the party. “His big fear was that everyone was going to say, ‘You disgraced us, you big loser,’ ” Thomas says. “He’d been browbeaten by the media for years and years, and what he wanted to do was get away from that noise that kept pounding on him.” The Thomases invited him to stop by their home in Bellingham for lunch the next time he was driving through town, and the invitation did more than just put him at ease. It hinted at the possibility there was still a place for Leaf among Cougar faithful.
The friendship with Thomas led to one with another trustee, Glenn Osterhout. And along the way Leaf reconnected with Jack Thompson, a fellow former Cougar QB, who had played for WSU in the 1970s. A decade earlier, Thompson had tried to help Leaf navigate the pitfalls of young stardom; now he was guiding Leaf through his re-introduction to the university’s extended family. “I remember telling him, ‘You’re very lucky to have gone to Washington State,’ ” Thompson says. “There are other schools that would have cast him out.” Leaf was building a network—a social support group, really—that he could trust to look out for his best interests. Which made all the more confusing his reaction to Osterhout’s suggestion that he submit to an interview with cougfan.com, a website that reported on WSU sports exclusively. Osterhout was friends with the editor, Greg Witter, another alum, and was confident the resultant article would be fair. But Leaf was spooked. “Let’s put that on hold for a while,” he said. “I’m not sure I’m ready.”
Three months into the relationship with Thomas, Thompson, and Osterhout—whom Leaf had come to identify as his “council of elders”—he finally relented and granted the site an interview. The article, published January 27, 2010, soft-pedaled Leaf’s addiction to painkillers, and afterward he began to feel better about opening up. So he called Witter again, this time with a request for help: In March, Leaf had agreed to a plea bargain on the drug charges and his sentencing was coming up. He knew a phalanx of reporters would be waiting outside the courthouse in Canyon and he wanted to be prepared with a statement. Could Witter help him write it?
On April 10, after being sentenced to 10 years of probation and receiving a $20,000 fine, Leaf, sporting a closely cropped businessman’s haircut and dressed in a tailored, ash-gray five-button suit, addressed the media. “I want to publicly apologize to Coach Carthel and the entire staff and team at West Texas A&M,” he began. He went on, recognizing his family, the rehab center, and his friends at WSU, and then answered every question fired his way. When it was over he was buzzing. For the first time since entering the NFL, he wasn’t scared to show his scars.
Requests for interviews came pouring in, and he granted one after another. Even the one from T. J. Simers, his old tormentor from the L.A. Times. “I can’t even think of anyone else in the ballpark that might be close to my combination of disappointment and failed expectations,” he told Simers, answering a question about his failure in the NFL that just a few years earlier would have enraged him. Simers grudgingly admits he’s sold on Leaf’s transformation. “I’ll give him the benefit of the doubt right now,” he says. “I would absolutely be surprised if he makes another mistake.”
Days later, Leaf agreed to make an appearance on xx1090, an AM sports talk radio station in San Diego. He hadn’t addressed reporters there since 2001, and he’d left town a reviled man. For all he knew host Darren Smith would ambush him, commit an on-air ritual sacrifice for the sake of all the Chargers fans who still held a grudge against the kid who’d killed their hopes in ’98. So as soon as Smith introduced Leaf to his audience on April 19, Leaf interjected, asking if he could say something to the people of San Diego. “I’m very sorry for what a poor representative I was of the city and the Chargers organization in my time there,” Leaf said, his voice shaking. “For many years I wanted to pretend that it never happened, but of course it did. And I have to own that.” He exhaled audibly, and 12 years of guilt began to dissipate. “It was absolutely the showstopper of all showstoppers,” Smith says now. “For the first time, people heard genuine emotion and humility from this guy. And it was closure.”
Closure for San Diego. And closure for Leaf.
• • •
MORE THAN A YEAR AFTER RYAN Leaf’s first tentative—and, this time, intentional—steps back into the spotlight, he’s still granting interviews. Radio, TV, newspapers, magazines, it doesn’t matter. He’s even airing his dirty laundry to college athletes in hopes that they’ll learn from his mistakes. In early August, he was invited to the University of Oklahoma in Norman to speak to the football team, which in May lost one of its own to an accidental overdose of five different prescription painkillers.
What happens next for Leaf may be the strangest irony in his story, though. Throughout our conversation he dropped several hints about wanting to get into broadcasting. He could see himself moving to Seattle, he says, depending on whether a job for him might open up at the new Pac-12 network, which will begin televising the conference’s various sporting events next August. Having run from his name and notoriety for so long, he’s embracing it now. After more than a decade of being dismantled by the media—sometimes fairly, sometimes not-so-fairly—he’s finally learning to use it to his advantage.
Possibly for the first time since college, Leaf is comfortable with who he is. So comfortable, in fact, that without any hesitation, he’ll admit something like this to someone holding a tape recorder: Two days after his sentencing and mea culpa in Texas, he watched with disgust as current Pittsburgh Steelers quarterback Ben Roethlisberger made a terse, unapologetic public statement about his own recent brush with the law, unshaven and dressed in a sloppy long-sleeve polo shirt. Leaf called his mother in Montana. “Did you see his press conference?” he asked, ever the competitor. “Mine was better. I totally whipped his butt.”