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.”