How Ryan Leaf left a multimillion-dollar career, overcame prescription painkiller addiction, and finally found his calling.
In 1998, it was good to be Ryan Leaf. Fresh off a record-breaking run as star quarterback for Washington State University, Leaf was the second pick in the NFL draft (just behind Peyton Manning), with a six-year, $31.75 million contract from the San Diego Chargers.
But after three disappointing seasons in the NFL, where he bounced from the Chargers to the Tampa Bay Buccaneers to the Dallas Cowboys, Leaf’s once promising football career came to an end. In 2012, he ended up in a Montana prison, arrested on burglary and drug charges stemming from his addiction to prescription painkillers.
According to Leaf, his dramatic fall from NFL stardom to drug addiction to prison was set in motion years before he popped his first pill. “I tell people I was a drug addict long before I ever started taking drugs. Competition was my drug of choice,” he says.
Big man on campus
Ryan Leaf grew up in Great Falls, Mont. For a town that measures 22 square miles, Great Falls packs in a lot of parks — more than 57 of them. That ample green space provided plenty of playing fields for an athletically inclined kid like Leaf, who took up three sports. “I went from season to season. It was football season to basketball season to baseball season, and just repeat,” he said. “I did that as soon as my dad could put some kind of ball in my hand.”
His father cheered him on, but never pushed. “He was just very supportive and encouraging,” he says. “My dad and I would play in the front yard, shoot hoops and play Dutch. He was a competitive guy, and I think I got it from him.”
At Washington State University, he continued to play all three sports. Initially, he didn’t know which one — basketball, baseball, or football — would be in his future. “I just knew that I was going to be a professional athlete,” he says.
In his sophomore year, Leaf finally settled on football, spurred on by a coach who recognized and wanted to harness his talent. As quarterback of the Washington State Cougars, Leaf led the team to its first Rose Bowl game since 1931, and was named a 1997 Heisman Trophy finalist.
January 08, 2018
Janet O’Dell, RN