By Chris Kidd, USDR Contributor
Ryan Leaf was once one of the most sought after quarterbacks in the country. He was highly recruited out of high school. It seemed like every college coach in the country wanted him. Then again by the NFL, Leaf and another quarterback named Peyton Manning were the two top pick in the 1998 NFL Draft. Ryan’s NFL career did not last long however and, after being labeled the biggest draft bust ever, he turned to drugs to numb the emotional pain he felt, and quickly became an addict.”
It was January 1, 1994 and Ryan Leaf was watching the Rose Bowl on TV at home when his phone rang. It was Mike Price, the head football coach at Washington State University. Ryan recalls the call from Coach Price: “He asked what I was doing, and I was watching the Rose Bowl, it was Wisconsin and UCLA, and I told him what I was doing. He told me, ‘I’ll make you a promise; if you come here you and I will play in that game together.’ I bought it hook, line, and sinker.” I didn’t do any research, and didn’t realize they hadn’t been there since 1931, but I believed in him and it was one of the best decisions I ever made. “He became like a second father to me,” Ryan says, “And I got to play for a great coach who taught me how to play quarterback. And we got to play for a national championship against Michigan in the Rose Bowl, so college was pretty amazing.”
After playing in the Rose Bowl, being a finalist for the Heisman Trophy, being named first-team All American, and named the Pac-10 Offensive Player of the Year, Leaf opted to forgo his senior year and declare himself eligible for the NFL Draft. Ryan was an assured first round pick, and the only question was would he be the number 1 overall pick, or would he go number 2? The Indianapolis Colts opted to go with Peyton Manning with the first pick in the 1998 NFL Draft, and San Diego followed them by drafting Ryan with the second overall pick.
The new, brighter spotlight of the NFL was more than Ryan was prepared to handle. I had a lot of money and I wasn’t emotionally prepared to deal with it. “I always like to tell people, to kinda preface it, I was a drug addict long before I ever took a drug, just behaviorally, now that I know how addicts behave,” Ryan says. “A lot of times drug addicts and alcoholics just use the substance as medication, as a way to hide things. It’s a symptom of the real problem. My real problem was my behavior; I was a narcissist, I had social anxiety, I had depression. So I had all these things early on in life because I was different. I was placed on a pedestal in this small town in Montana where no one has ever been drafted in the first round — ever in the state of Montana. There’s more first round draft picks in the Manning family than in the whole state of Montana ever.”
Leaf says he burned a lot of bridges because he didn’t know how to deal with his success. “I wasn’t accountable, I blamed others when things didn’t go my way, and I never really had failed at all. So when I got to the highest level, if you don’t have the work ethic or ability to take accountability for your actions, it gets exposed pretty quickly. Your character and your integrity get exposed pretty quickly. Once that happened I got so defensive that I would just back myself into a corner and figured I could fight my way out, but at that level you’er competing against the best defenses in the world and in the media — I was not even closely prepared to what was about to happen. The media spotlight was much brighter after Ryan made the jump to the NFL. News vans parked outside his house in San Diego, and followed him around wherever he went. Leafwatch is what they called it on TV. Leaf’s rookie season started well, as he played well in preseason and led the Chargers to victory in their first two regular-season games, but it was short-lived. After a short four year career, Leaf retired and wanted to do, “Leave, go away, you’re no good, and not only are you a terrible football player, you’re a terrible person.”
A few months after he had retired, Ryan was in Las Vegas for fight and a boxing promoter he had known for years offered him some Vicodin at a party, and he mixed it with alcohol for the first time. “When you go to those fights,” Ryan says, “they announce celebrities in the audience and when they would announce me there the crowd would boo. I remember I had taken those pills that night and even though they announced me and the boos, I didn’t feel it, I was just like bulletproof, I was numb. And that’s exactly what pain killers do they numb you from the physical pain, and now it was numbing my emotional pain and I liked that.
Following the fight, Leaf started going to a bunch of doctors in San Diego shopping for pain killers. “It wasn’t a very hard sell,” says Ryan, “I’d had eight surgeries and I was a professional football player.” He did that for about 7-8 years, while still trying to present to the public that “everything was still ok, that I had the ideals that I thought were important to success: money, power, and prestige.” Ryan says that if we had social media back then, he would have looked a lot like what we saw Johnny Manziel doing over the last year. “I’d spend a lot of money, I’d be on private jets just to make everybody say, what I thought was that important, that I was still famous and that I had money. I did that until it just took me down. I spent indiscriminately and was just gone.”
The doctor shopping and online prescription drug orders were expensive, and it got to a point where Ryan says, “it was easier to go to a friend’s house and pretend I was interested in them, and go through their medicine cabinet, or eventually what I got busted for was going into random people’s homes and stealing from them.” Ryan would look for open house advertisements in the Sunday paper and go pretend he was interested in buying a home. While looking through the house he would check the kitchen and bathroom cabinets in search of pill bottles labeled Hydrocodone/APAP. Ryan recalls, “I’d find them and it was a prescription for like thirty, and it was six months old, and they’d only take two pills, and I’m like ‘What’s wrong with these people? Why aren’t they gone?’ Because in my mind I’d use it in three days.”
Leaf eventually got busted and was arrested for burglary and possession of a controlled-substance charges. While out on probation, he had a brief stint of sobriety in 2010, however following the removal of a brain tumor, the pull of addiction returned. Ryan says, “The doctor offered me pain killers during the radiation process, and I didn’t tell him that I had a problem before.” That was December 1, 2011, and by March 30, 2012 Leaf was in a jail cell. Once again he had been busted for burglary, theft, and drug charges.
Ryan reveals that he viewed himself as a victim in the early years of his prison sentence. His first cellmate was a guy who had killed his parents, and Ryan worried at night if the guy was going to kill him in his sleep. Feeling like a victim, and being antisocial, Ryan didn’t do much, didn’t go outside, and just kept to himself. Although he could have been paroled in six months, Ryan just kept denying himself parole because he thought that was just best for everybody.
Although Ryan had been drug free in prison, he says he was still behaving as an addict. “I had removed the substance, but I was still behaving as an addict. That’s the big thing that people don’t understand is when someone may go get help and the substance is removed, and they’ve spent thirty days in a treatment facility they think that they can just go back into their environment and everything’s better; that’s why treatment needs an extended period of time.” He realizes now that this is why he relapsed after being sober the first time. He says he would ask God for help in the mirror in the morning and on his knees at night and he just didn’t recognize it when the help was offered. Ryan says when he got arrested the last time that it was like God saying, “Alright, this time I’m going to send the Sheriff’s Department to help you.”
It took Ryan a long time to figure out that that’s what had happened, but he says he now knows the Sheriff’s Department saved his life. “It took a while, and it also took a roommate in prison too to shake me out of that apathy. Twenty-six of the thirty-two months I was in there I was self-loathing and still playing the victim and everything like that.” The cellmate who finally helped Ryan turn things around was a combat veteran, who had fought in Afghanistan and Iraq but was in prison because he had driven drunk one night and killed someone.
Rather than playing the victim role though, this roommate had used his time behind bars to better himself and trying to make up for his mistake. One day, Ryan says, “He just jumped me one day and got on me and said, ‘You’ve gotta get your head out of the sand! You don’t understand the value you have for people, not only in here but once you get out, because Ryan you’re going to get out at some point. Come with me, we’re going to go down to the library and we’re going to help guys, who don’t know how to read, to learn how to read.’ It was probably the first time I had ever been a service to anybody in my life unselfishly,” Ryan confessed, “and from that day forward it kinda lit a path for me that I followed.”
Leaf and his roommate came up for parole at the same time, and this time Ryan was ready to turn things around for good. Once he got out, he petitioned his parole officer so he could go to treatment. He realized that although he had been thirty-two months sober, he had done nothing to rehabilitate himself and build a foundation on. While waiting the ninety days that it took for his request to be approved, Ryan moved in with his parents. He describes the humbling experience: “I lived on my parent’s couch. During that time it helped rebuild that relationship, but it was a very difficult time. You’re a 38 year old man, broke, living on Mom & Dad’s couch, having them cook you breakfast in the morning and everything like that.”
Finally his Ryan’s request was approved and he was allowed to go to treatment for ninety days in Malibu, in Los Angeles. Ryan says, “Once you’re ready and you want to accept the help, and surrender, it doesn’t matter where you go — and I was, so it didn’t matter where I went.” Luckily, Leaf’s parole officer believed in him enough to send him there, because while there Ryan accepted a job at a place called Transcend Recovery Community. He started at the bottom, where he was a driver for men who were new to the program and needed to get to meetings, doctors appointments, therapy, and things like that. Ryan says, “I was making $5 million a year and was miserable, and now I was making $15 an hour and the value I felt coming home after the job was pretty amazing — so I stayed in.”
Once he got out of treatment Ryan stayed on at Transcend and also took another job as the live-in night manager at a sober living house. It was great for him, because he was living 24/7 in a recovery-based world. One day Christian De Oliveira and Asher Gottesman at Transcend came to Ryan and said they had an idea and would like him to be an ambassador for Transcend. It wasn’t an easy decision for Ryan, as he says, “I didn’t want to be in the public eye anymore. I thought I could just be normal and go away.” However he talked to his mentors, the guys that he respected, men who live a very public sober life, and they told him, “This is what we do — You find this program, this spiritual awakening, and you cary it to other people who are struggling, and Ryan you have this platform to do that, and you would be remiss if you did not.”
A former narcissist who the world revolved around and only listened to himself, Ryan now follows suggestion from others. He says, “My thinking takes me to prison, where the suggestion of others, who have been there and done well, have led me to right choices.” So Ryan accepted the role as Program Ambassador and the rest is history
Last year at the Super Bowl was Ryan’s first real public outing talking about Transcend and sharing his story publicly. He was back at the Super Bowl again this year sharing his story and bringing a message of hope to others. What has transpired over the past year has been what he calls “amazing growth in every area, not only with Transcend, but with me personally.” Ryan is now engaged! He has started working with other programs such as MVP (Merging Vets and Players), an organization created by Jay Glazer where they have merged former combat vets and former NFL players together.
Leaf says that now for the first time his life is “full and peaceful, and unchaotic.” Now Ryan is able to share his story with others who are struggling with addiction, and they can use his story for hope and inspiration in their own lives. Ryan has been sober now for four years, and now he is an example for others to follow. He says one of the keys to his success is accountability. Leaf says, “I’m around people who hold me accountable for my actions, and if anybody sees old behavior they make me aware of it. I don’t associate myself with yes-men anymore like I did for so long, especially after I retired.”
Early on when Ryan would offer help to someone and they wouldn’t take it, or he would start mentoring someone and they would just disappear he took it personally and was discouraged by it. He was able to overcome those feelings with a new perspective he adopted from his sponsor, “once we find this life and the surrender and acceptance we become like this lighthouse and you don’t see lighthouses running around the harbor looking for boats. It’s the other way around, the boats come to that lighthouse for safe harbor.” Ryan Leaf, who was once known for being a narcissist, an egomaniac, a drug addict, the biggest bust in NFL history, and a felon, is now a beacon of hope — a lighthouse if you will — for others who have lost their way and want to turn their lives around.