Ryan Leaf quietly returns home to build a life

Sep 13 2010 - 5:04pm

Ryan Leaf is up early each day and often out the door before his parents get up. He wants to stay busy, see people if he can. It's a routine he needs.

Life hasn't turned out the way Leaf expected.

He struggled with fame. That led to infamy. He struggled with drugs. That led to shame.

About a decade ago, the ex-quarterback was among the biggest stories in the NFL. When he was drafted in 1998, the debate was over whether he or Peyton Manning should be the No. 1 pick.

Then he turned into one of the biggest busts in league history. He was booed and benched in San Diego, where he lost 14 of his first 18 starts. He lashed out at fans, journalists and teammates who criticized him. And in the years after he washed out of football, his life got worse -- ending in a criminal conviction.

But here's the thing: Leaf gets it that he fell short, how he disappointed, and how he rubbed people the wrong way with his arrogance. And now in the relative calm of his Montana hometown, under the eyes of his parents, he's trying to mount a comeback at the age of 34, nine years after his last NFL pass.

It's not about a return to football. It's about being accepted, about a return to normalcy.

"I would like to be able to walk into a room ... introduce myself and be the person I am now and have people make their judgments from that," Leaf says. "That's all I can do."

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Leaf camped out in front of the television to watch NFL games before he was 4. He'd toss the ball around with his father. The Pittsburgh Steelers were his favorite, Terry Bradshaw, his hero.

He'd pretend to be a quarterback, stuffing a kitchen towel inside the waistband of his sweat pants and using his collection of football trading cards to build defenses in the living room. Little kid stuff, the stuff of dreams.

"He'd lean them up against the couch on the floor, and then he would be the whole offense," said his mother, Marcia Leaf. "He would set the timer on our microwave for the 2-minute drill."

All three Leaf boys were good athletes in Great Falls, in north-central Montana. Ryan, the oldest, played flag football until seventh grade when he moved up to tackle.

From the start, John Leaf remembers, his son was "very, very competitive." At 12, Leaf listed goals: playing football on scholarship at a big college, winning the Heisman Trophy and playing in the NFL.

That desire to win came with a price, even early on.

His parents and Leaf recall his struggles to make friends back then, often buddying up to foes more than teammates. He figured if he got to know them on the field he'd know how to react to them off the field.

"When do you realize when you're a kid that you're going to be great and everybody else doesn't understand that?" Leaf told The Associated Press in a rare series of interviews. "I don't know. I just felt I could beat everybody."

He led C.M. Russell High to a state championship his junior year; an injury early the following season caused him to miss a third of the season.

Though she saw her son's talent, Marcia Leaf had concerns.

She remembers coming home from her job as a registered nurse when Leaf was about 4 and finding his first football helmet -- the Steelers one he'd just gotten for Christmas -- in the trash.

"And I said, 'Ryan, what's wrong? Why's the helmet in the garbage?' And he said, 'They lost.' At a very young age he was all about business and winning."

His high school football coach saw it, too. Leaf was fiercely competitive.

"He just couldn't control his emotions and let that stuff go," longtime Russell coach Jack Johnson said.

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Leaf got a scholarship at Washington State, but didn't get his first college start until late in the 1995 season, when he nearly led the Cougars to a win at No. 22 Washington in the Apple Cup. The Cougars lost 33-30 in front of about 74,000 in Husky Stadium.

Mike Price, then the Cougars coach, said Leaf could be "flighty" and "a challenge."

They hollered at each other more than a few times, but always put it behind them, said Price, who now coaches at UTEP. Like most anybody, he said, Leaf could have used "a few more doses of humility" and he could be brutal in how he told the truth.

"At times it got him in trouble. He had a temper," Price said. "It wasn't always easy but he did a great job."

Leaf blossomed as a junior, leading Washington State to a 10-2 record, a No. 8 ranking and its first Rose Bowl in 67 years. That's when his father realized, "Well, maybe something can come out of this deal."

He finished third in balloting for the Heisman Trophy and gave up his senior year to join the NFL, finishing his Cougar career with 7,433 yards and 59 touchdowns.

It was Manning who went first in the 1998 draft, and Leaf went to the San Diego Chargers at No. 2.

The 6-foot-5 Leaf got a four-year contract worth more than $31 million. His dream of playing NFL football was coming true.

"I was hungry," he said. "I wanted to be good."

And he was -- for the first two games his rookie season. Then came the game he calls "the root of all evil." He was 1 of 15 for 4 yards, lost three fumbles and threw two interceptions in a 23-7 loss at Kansas City.

The press pulled no punches. Leaf didn't either, unleashing profanities toward one reporter in the locker room the next day.

"I was fighting a war on two fronts. I was fighting the best defenses in professional football and I was fighting the media," he said. "At that level you just cannot do that. You just cannot do it. I couldn't stop it, and I didn't try to stop it."

He understood fans' high expectations. He had them, too.

"You go from being the most loved player in the country to two weeks later being one of the most hated. I just couldn't believe how quickly and out of control it got and how poorly I handled it," he said. "And it's been my identity ever since -- as a flop-type of thing."

Though his family reached out to try to help him -- his father and youngest brother, Brady, drove to San Diego -- Leaf didn't let them in.

"I just felt I needed to do this all on my own," he said. "I didn't need anybody's help and I didn't need anybody's advice on how to do it because I'd always been successful doing it the way I knew I could do it."

In a 15-month span, Leaf was released by San Diego, Tampa Bay and Dallas. Seattle gave him a shot but a wrist injury led him to decide to retire in 2002.

His career stats: 14 touchdowns, 36 interceptions, 3,666 yards.

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Leaf expected to be forgotten and in the first few years after the NFL he lived a low-key life. He worked as a financial consultant in San Diego, and returned to finish his degree at Washington State.

At 29, he wanted back into football. Price put him in touch with Don Carthel at West Texas A&M, a Division II school and Leaf, working for nothing, took over as quarterbacks coach at the school in Canyon, Texas.

"It didn't matter," Leaf said of getting no salary. "I was getting to work with the kids."

The Texas Panhandle school was far enough away from his past, his meltdowns, his reputation.

In his first two seasons there, the Buffaloes won 23 of 26 games, and Leaf's quarterback, Keith Null, was tossing the ball all over the Lone Star Conference.

In early 2008, and now coaching golf as well as football, Leaf re-injured his wrist. A trip to a doctor brought relief for the pain. But he kept going back, tapping as many as 10 other doctors for painkillers months after the wrist stopped hurting.

Leaf even visited injured players and stole some of their pain meds. To keep the players from noticing, sometimes Leaf would replace pills he took with medication to treat gout, said James Farren, whose office later prosecuted Leaf.

Farren said Leaf might still be using if not for a burglary at a A&M player's home.

"Strangely, the only thing missing was medication," Farren said. A neighbor identified Leaf and an investigation began. Leaf's "name popped up all over the place" when Farren's office began checking area pharmacies; in an eight-month span Leaf had obtained nearly 1,000 pain pills.

He resigned in November 2008, was indicted in June 2009 and this past April pleaded guilty to eight felony drug charges in an agreement with prosecutors. He got 10 years of probation.

"For me it was an isolation thing. It was almost running and hiding," Leaf said. "I just didn't want to have to deal with anybody or any of those demons of failure or disappointment that I let people down."

His behavior, not a love of drugs, brought him to addiction, he said.

The roots of it started long ago, though.

"I believe my addiction started when I was probably 15 or 16 years old, when I decided that this competitive person was going to be the end-all, be-all -- this is how I was going to beat people, this was how I was going to win, whether you like me or not," he said.

His addiction also showed him he could fall further than his NFL debacle.

"It was letting down a bunch of young individuals who looked up to me and who I really cared about coaching," he said.

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Leaf checks his e-mail each day and draws inspiration from prayers he gets from his sponsor for a 12-step program.

Leaf says he is comfortable financially, helped by relatives who know how to invest and worked with him on his $11.25 million signing bonus.

Divorced, he spent time in rehab in British Columbia late last year, and now lives with his parents -- although he's often away selling resort packages as the business development manager for a Canadian company.

When he's home, he might drive to a friend's ranch northeast of town to help move cattle, sweep out grain bins or harvest wheat. Other times he might head to a mountain river or lake to fish -- a passion since his youth -- or play golf or basketball. Some evenings he plays softball in a league.

For the longest time, Leaf kept his distance from family, from Montana, from his past. Now, though, he finds peace being back home. He says he is happy, challenged anew.

The challenges come in different ways: He'll have surgery later this month to repair the ACL in his right knee, injured on the ranch in an accident in July. With his painkiller addiction, Leaf says he will focus on going "without as much" as he can, enduring the pain.

Leaf takes inventory at each day's end. It's part of his recovery program. Was he obnoxious? Did he get defensive? Did his quick temper get the best of him? If so, he returns to make amends.

He knows his reputation from the NFL isn't going away. Every year when the draft comes along, he knows his name, his legacy will be trotted out for a fresh skewering.

So Leaf keeps moving. He goes to recovery meetings regularly, sees his probation officer in Great Falls and gets drug tested regularly. A misstep could mean prison time. And he wants to help others struggling with drug addiction -- that's what he told the judge in Amarillo. Two days later, he stood in front of a group of teens and talked about his addiction.

"What I can do is live every day what I'm talking about," he said. "Life is life and there are always going to be struggles. But when you're doing the next right thing it seems to make everything a little easier, a little bit better and a lot happier."

 

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