We’re one week shy of the 75th anniversary of the NFL Draft meaning you’ve more than likely stumbled across at least one debate concerning the biggest draft busts of all time. The first name that usually is mentioned is Ryan Leaf, the #2 overall draft pick in 1999, which I don’t need to remind you was the same year that Peyton Manning entered the league. I suppose Oakland Raiders quarterback JaMarcus Russell is gaining ground on Leaf as quickly as he’s gained weight, but he’s still not quite in the same class as Leaf.
You may or may not be aware though of the personal and legal issues that have plagued Leaf since being written off as an NFL player years ago. Last year, Leaf was arrested along the Canadian border for trying to bring prescription painkillers back to the United States with him. On Wednesday, Leaf pleaded guilty to 8 felony drug charges in a Texas court. By doing so, he avoided jail time, instead receiving 10 years of probation and a $20,000 dollar fine. Leaf, as he explained on the air in Seattle, admitted he has a drug problem, and that his treatment of it has allowed him to stay clean for the past 17 months. The former #1 overall draft pick back in 1999 joined KJR in Seattle to talk about the dramatic changes he’s experienced in his life in the past year and a half since being arrested smuggling prescription drugs into the country from Canada. I’ll just leave it at that and encourage you to take a listen for yourself. Too early to say just yet, but perhaps one of the more memorable stories of personal redemption is in the works with one of professional sports’ most notorious failures.
On his statements made Wednesday outside a Texas courthouse:
“Well it was a statement that I had been writing probably for a long, long time, and it was something that needed to be said. Legal aspects aside, this was about the growth of me and me being near 40 than I am to 20 and perspective of life and where we’re going. And for the longest time, I had the wrong perspective about a lot of things. One being because of football, one being I felt I had let down Cougar Nation and all those great fans that supported me for so long. I was so worried about going around them because I felt I had let them down so bad, and it was completely the farthest thing from the truth. They’re the most supportive, unconditionally great fans anywhere and they support me no matter what. And I couldn’t thank them more. I kind of wanted to explain that as well as everything I went through and how it can help to ask for help, and to be in the right position where people can help you and you can make a beautiful life for yourself and everybody around.”
On his personal story dealing a prescription painkiller addiction:
“Well it’s a constant issue in the NFL. It’s what gets you to play week to week, but it was never really an issue for me until later in life. After many surgeries in both shoulders, my knees, and the ailing wrist, I became addicted to it. Not knowing I was, I was just in pain a lot. And I continued to take them, and then I all of a sudden realized I was just taking them to take them, and at night to get to sleep. And I wasn’t in pain anymore, or at least I didn’t know if I was in pain anymore. It was just a way for me to…I completely recoiled, I became anti-social, isolated, and it just takes away all the bad feelings. You know, all the criticisms of why you weren’t a great quarterback, or how you let down your university, or how you let down so and so, or your family. It was a way to cope, it’s a coping mechanism just like any other addict is. I don’t minimize mine at all because it was prescription medication. It’s the same as anybody else who’s become addicted to something. But prescription medication is an unbelievable problem in this country, just because it has a conception of being a legal drug. And if abused, it can totally take control of somebody’s life, as it did mine. And the hardest thing to do is ask for help, and I had for the longest time tried to have this bravado of everything is okay, I’m not upset about the fact that my career didn’t pan out, or the way things are going now, or the criticism that I get. Maybe I had a 10 year type of protective shield where I could keep piling all that on, but way my career didn’t pan out, but eventually it’s going to take it’s toll. I never talked to anybody about anything. And finally this happening, I look at this happening as a total positive now, because if it didn’t, I would have never been able to ask for help and gone through this unbelievable place in Vancouver and come out of it on the other side with a whole new outlook on life. And if you can believe it, it gives you more confidence than you had before in your life because you don’t have this phoniness with you anymore; you’re naked, you’re vulnerable to the world because you’re honest. And when you stand up in meetings and talk to people – addicts and alcoholics – you can’t lie to them, they’ll see right through you because that’s exactly how they were years and years and years too. So it’s an unbelievable enlightening experience that’s for sure.”
On his time coaching quarterbacks at West Texas A&M and how his problems cost him a budding career coaching:
“Yeah, I completely enjoyed it, and I was good at it. I coached two quarterbacks while I was here for three years and both of them are playing professionally from a Division II school. So I felt like I knew what I was doing, I was giving them some information that can help them not make the same mistakes that I did and excel at the collegiate level, and hopefully at the professional level. And they’ve done that. They’ve done that, and I’m so proud of them and I love them to death. They know how much I care about them, and they care about me the same way. I do miss that. I miss coaching the kids, I miss the boys and I would like to do it again but I just don’t know if I can because until I can do it on my own terms, I don’t want to open myself up to criticism. It’s just you hear little things and you don’t want to. You know, ‘why would that kid listen to him’ and stuff like that. And it’s not stuff that I need to listen to or really care about, but maybe when I’m ready to step back in and do it, I will because I know I’m good at it and I really truly did enjoy it.”
On how much blame he would put on the culture of the NFL for any type of addiction problem there may be amongst league players, or if he thinks it has more to do with the individual and his own personal set of circumstances and tendencies:
“Well I can totally see it being something about staying in the league because you’re trying to be ready to play each week, and that’s kind of how it went when I was playing. But it really wasn’t a problem for me then, you know, you took it to get by and you weren’t abusing it. But for me, the only thing I ever took in my life, I never took a drink until I was 18, I’ve never even seen a drug. The only thing I ever took for pain in my life was prescription medication. So when I was completely in pain, whether it was physically or emotionally, the only thing I knew that could cure that was prescription medication. So I felt like…I was lucky that for me, I didn’t go to another place. It’s all about the person’s position. When it goes to the football aspect, I really couldn’t answer you truthfully other than to say it does play a part of you getting back week to week.”
On what he remembers of his time at Washington State, particularly the magical 1997 season when he led the Cougars to the Rose Bowl:
“I tell you what, the best part of my life – I’m 33 years old – was those three years there. And that year it’s hard for you to understand it because you’re in the experience. You’re in it, and so you don’t see the effect it’s having on other people. And now that I’m older and not so self involved and feel like I’m entitled at all, I listen to these men and women, Cougar graduates who tell me stories about that year and the experience they had. And it’s so heart warming and it humbles me, and it makes me feel like I did something and I contributed something valuable to their lives. That makes me so happy, and I will continue to embrace that with them and Cougar Nation. I just want them to know that that was my favorite time in the world when I was there. I wouldn’t give it up for anything, and I don’t regret anything we did there. I regret I didn’t stay another year. That’s the biggest regret I have.”
On what he’d like people to think of him moving forward:
Well I stayed quiet for so long. I just thought if I stayed quiet it would just go away. And contrary to what people believe, I loved this game since I was 4 years old and for me to walk away from it at 26 years old was probably the hardest thing I had to do in my life. People don’t understand that. They think it was just easy or something. I had never failed at football and that was going to be the problem in the pros. The Chargers were told, and I was tested, and they said mentally he’s just not ready yet to fail. We had a great game plan going in to be successful and win, but when we lost, I had never lost and I didn’t know how to handle it. I didn’t handle it well. I had never lost at anything and when we started to fail, I proceeded to act like I always had and that was to be defensive and protect myself the only way I knew how. And that was to be as defensive and as strong as possible and do everything myself. And that just doesn’t work at that level. You just can’t. You need help, you need people around you, and I totally failed at that part. I just wasn’t ready to fail and I didn’t know how to do it. It makes you grow up in a hurry. My wrist was done in four years and I couldn’t compete at the level that I could anymore. But I was just so beat up. I was tired of being beat up by everybody that I just wanted to run and hide from it, because I wasn’t going to be able to compete at the level I needed to compete at, and I was just tired of being beat up. I hope people understand that it was very, very hard for me to walk away, and I’m very truthful when I saw I love football, and I love Cougar football. That’s what I’ve always been and what I will always be I think.”