Ryan Leaf can pinpoint the exact moment the final, loose hanging threads of his reputation as America’s golden pin-up boy were obliterated for good.
Before San Diego’s game against Kansas City in the 1998 NFL season, the football star had been holed up in hospital with a Staph infection and was in doubt to play. But he’d just been drafted and the rookie wanted to prove himself — so he took to the field and played what he describes as “the worst game of my life”.
Kayo is your ticket to the best sport streaming Live & On-Demand. New to Kayo? Try 14-Days Free Now >
Leaf’s nightmare consisted of one completed pass and four interceptions. His sense of failure boiled over the next day when the hot-headed quarterback exploded at a journalist during a locker room interview, yelling at Chargers beat writer Jay Posner to “knock it off”.
He stood up and towered over the reporter as he hurled his abuse, needing to be dragged away by teammates before things turned even uglier.
The exchange was caught on camera and Leaf’s image was tarnished for the rest of his career.
“There’s the video when the internet had just started. It was one of the first viral videos,” Leaf tells Rex Chapman in the latest episode of his new podcast Charges, in which the former NBA star speaks to other athletes who have endured high-profile lowpoints similar to his own fall from grace.
“I don’t remember a positive thing (in my career) and I would go on to play for four more years with different teams … but I don’t remember another positive thing because of how I dealt with it. One moment ended it for me, because of how I dealt with failure.”
Good thing baker didn’t get picked by the jets. If grossi annoying him, New York would’ve ate him up. Would’ve had him in there lookin like ryan leaf pic.twitter.com/VzMlXtyVPP
$40m windfall a ‘recipe for disaster’
Leaf was supposed to be the next big thing in football. A freakishly talented schoolboy athlete from a small town in Montana, he excelled at every sport he tried but eventually set his sights on the NFL.
As a college superstar he led Washington State to its first Rose Bowl in 67 years and finished third in Heisman Trophy voting for the best college player in the country.
The NFL was calling and in 1998 Leaf was selected by San Diego with the No. 2 overall pick in the Draft — behind fellow quarterback Peyton Manning, who would go on to craft an astonishing 17-year career in the pros and become an NFL legend.
That’s what Leaf was meant to do too, but a mixture of arrogance, deep-seated self-esteem issues and later, a debilitating drug addiction, meant he never reached the heights so many predicted were in store.
“I just thought I was a better person than you because I could play this silly game,” Leaf tells Chapman.
“When I went into the NFL and I was second overall pick and I was given $40 million, that was like giving $40 million to a 13-year-old. That’s what I would liken it to.
“That’s just a recipe for disaster, period. And that’s what ensued.”
Leaf’s future looked so bright on Draft day.Source:Getty Images
Football career collapses in a heap
Disaster is right. The man used to humiliating opponents with his God-given talent failed to grasp what was required to succeed when up against “the one per cent of the one per cent” in the NFL.
Poor performances led to the unflattering emergence of personality traits that should have been left behind at primary school. But because he was in the big time, Leaf carried himself with far more swagger than his achievements warranted.
“The a**hole, prick was starting to come out publicly … like a petulant child who was dismissive of everyone and everything,” Leaf says.
If a reporter asked a question Leaf didn’t like, he would think: “What the f***’s wrong with you? Don’t you know who I am? This isn’t worth my time. Go away.”
“I was this adolescent,” he said. “This egomaniac with a self-esteem problem.”
Things quickly started to go off the rails. After three seasons in San Diego — the first in which he threw for just two touchdowns, and the second which he missed completely with a shoulder problem — the Chargers were fed up.
Leaf’s work ethic and commitment to training were abysmal, a serious wrist injury on his throwing arm haunted him and he was the man everyone — including his own teammates — loved to hate.
Leaf was shipped off to Tampa Bay in 2001 but didn’t play a game, then went to the Dallas Cowboys. Four games later he was released again and his attempted comeback with the Seattle Seahawks fell flat when he retired at just 26 before the start of pre-season training.
It was a fall from grace nobody saw coming when the man with the golden arm was smiling in front of the cameras on draft day just a few years earlier.
Leaf never reached his potential in the NFL.Source:Getty Images
Moment that set Leaf on path to destruction
Leaf had undergone 15 surgeries over the years and the physical pain opened a gateway to emotional stress that would plague the flamed out football player for years.
He was used to taking mild painkillers and drinking a couple of beers to take the edge off after a game — as he says was standard in the NFL those days — but never became addicted to pills during his playing career.
Competition was always Leaf’s drug of choice, but that changed when he no longer had football.
At a boxing fight in 2004, Leaf was surrounded by celebrities. The announcer made a show of welcoming them all — Michael Jordan, Tiger Woods, Charles Barkley — and they received rousing receptions from the Los Angeles crowd.
But when Leaf’s name was called out, a chorus of boos erupted. Later that night was the first time he mixed the painkiller Vicodin with alcohol, starting a dangerous addiction to opioids.
“My addict brain heard not only are you a terrible football player, but you are an awful human being,” Leaf says of his reaction to the booing.
“I didn’t feel that judgment (when I self-medicated), I didn’t feel that fear, I didn’t feel that less than, I didn’t feel anything. I didn’t feel better, but it turns out I was just searching for that feeling or not feeling any of the feelings I’d had for so long.
“I just wanted to numb out. That night changed, that would be the next eight years of my life chasing that high.”
‘If I can’t be high, I want to be dead’
He was always going to end up in prison.Source:Getty Images
Flat broke, Leaf’s addiction inevitably led towards crime. He was breaking into houses in his hometown — where security was lax and front doors often unlocked — to raid medicine cabinets and steal whatever prescription drugs he could get his hands on.
For Leaf, there was a very specific purpose to his drug-taking.
“I don’t party. I don’t waste my high on anybody else. It’s mine and mine alone. I want to be alone, I don’t want anybody else to see, I want to treasure it,” he tells Chapman.
“I would say no to dates with beautiful women because I had a night set with my pills.
“I couldn’t go a day without numbing myself out and altering my mood.
“If I can’t be high, I want to be dead.”
An arrest in 2009 did nothing to deter Leaf before more breaking and entering charges in 2012 sent him to jail, where he would remain for nearly three years. He knew he deserved it, and in a raw, honest speech to the judge, took full accountability and asked to be locked up.
But even in prison, there was only one thing on Leaf’s mind.
“My mind was still running like a rabbit, or a rat in the maze. I was like, ‘I need to figure out a way to get out of here, get as many pills as I can, ride until the wheels fall off’. That’s all. There’s nothing else out there,” he says. “I still wanted to die or be high.”
The road to recovery
Leaf has been sober since prison, and has made it his mission to not only turn his own life around, but help others do the same.
He’s campaigned for better treatment plans for people with opioid addictions, rather than just throwing them in prison where he says chances of rehabilitation are minimal. He’s also been involved with charities that fund recovery programs for addicts who can’t afford to pay for the help they need.
Leaf’s new lease on life also saw him score gigs in the media as a football analyst, even joining ESPN as a broadcaster in 2019.
It’s humbling and at times painful to trawl through the dark times of his past, but Leaf is happy to talk about his own story in the hope it will help others going through what he’s experienced.
Source: Read Full Article