Life Of Ryan The Boy Montana Loved To Hate Is Riding High

FRIDAY, DEC. 26, 1997

He was a big baby.

Nine-and-a-quarter pounds, 23 inches. An ornery, noisy infant who refused to nap.

At 7-1/2 months, he walked. By 2, he was catching balls and tossing back any request his parents made.

Marcia Leaf was an experienced nurse and the oldest of five children, but she’d never encountered a head as hard as her son Ryan’s.

He had the strongest will, she said, and when he played ball on the fields and courts of Great Falls, Mont., he was bigger, better and flashier than anybody else.

“Ryan, do you have to slam the ball?” she’d say.

“Mom,” he’d say with exasperation, “that’s just the way I am.”

She talked endlessly to him about his fire, worried aloud to her husband John and kept a copy of “The Strong-willed Child” under her bed, referring to it night after night.

Next week, as Ryan Leaf leads the Washington State University Cougars into the Rose Bowl, his parents and four grandparents will be there cheering. So will his two brothers, nine aunts and uncles and his best friend - if he gets a ticket. And in Highwood, Belt and Fort Benton, Mont., they’ll be cheering, too, piled sky-high on the Ryan Leaf bandwagon.

Unlike almost everyone else, they’ve always been on it. They were on it when Leaf was booed off every playing field in Montana, snubbed by his classmates, the boy people seemed to love to hate.

“Basically, there are a lot of people on the Ryan Leaf bandwagon now who weren’t on the Ryan Leaf bandwagon when he was here,” said Mike McLean, his high school basketball coach. “He was a winner, but a lot of people never would accept who he was.”

“In Great Falls, everyone wants you to be low key, and I was very competitive and very loud about things,” says Leaf, 21. “Here it’s respected because that’s what a leader is supposed to be. Back there, that’s not how you were supposed to be.

“That’s probably why I left the state to play college football.”

The week the Heisman Trophy was awarded, Tennesseans were ready to canonize Peyton Manning, and fans in Michigan cried out for Charles Woodson.

The Great Falls Tribune asked Montanans who should win.

“Anyone but Ryan Leaf …,” wrote one anonymous author. “The Heisman Trophy should go to someone who portrays a true athlete’s attitude on the field or off. Those of us who went to school with Ryan could tell you what he is really like. He may be good at his game of football, but he needs work in his game of life.”

In their one-story gray suburban home in Great Falls, his parents felt the swipe for the hundredth time.

“I keep telling her it’s never going to stop,” John Leaf said quietly. “I can handle it, but with Marcia, it goes right to the heart. It tears her up.”

‘He hates to lose’

The road to the 60,000 residents of Great Falls in north-central Montana unrolls ice blue and lonely, and the wind just whips.

Snow devils swirl over both lanes, scattering for the yellow school buses that pass each other in a blur of headlights and frosted windows, from season opener to state playoffs, going to the game.

This is wheat country and tourism country - Lewis and Clark spent a month here in 1805 - but mostly it is football country.

“At this school, football is life,” says Mark Johnson, a former teammate of Leaf’s at Charles M. Russell High School.

The cross-town match with Great Falls High is one of USA Today’s top 100 prep rivalries. The CMR Rustlers train nearly year-round, hitting a weight room that rivals most college facilities and answering to 15 football coaches.

At their head is Jack Johnson, the Wyoming cowboy who has dominated Montana AA football for 25 years. Johnson has holstered 219 wins to 51 losses, 10 state championships, five second places. And two life-size pieces of chain-saw art.

“The kids give me these things,” Johnson says, eyeing a carved 5-foot statue of a football player with a steer skull, the team mascot.

Johnson has catapulted dozens of CMR players to college teams, all bearing one trait:

“They’ve all got an inordinate amount of confidence and belief in themselves,” says Mick Dennehy, head football coach at the University of Montana. “They’re not cocky - they’re confident, and if you go in with a group of kids who individually and collectively believe in one another, half the battle is won.”

Even among such believers, Leaf stood out. At 6, he told his dad he would play professionally.

“Not everybody can play in the NFL, Ryan,” John Leaf said.

“Then I’ll play in the NBA.”

The toddler grew into such a natural, he made double plays in T-ball. His punishment for misbehaving was being grounded - from the basketball court. Basketball coaches would limit him to three dunks during warm-up to challenge him during the game.

“I’d never seen anything like him in the state,” says Jim Larson, who coached him at the annual Big Sky Games in junior high. “Even when he was a little bit clumsy, he was heads above everyone else.”

Leaf arrived at CMR with the arm and height Johnson dreamed of in a quarterback - and an attitude he’d never seen.

“He hates to lose,” Johnson says. “I don’t care if he’s playing football, pickup basketball or fishing, he wants to catch the biggest and the most.”

It took Leaf until midseason his junior year to start as varsity quarterback when he led the Rustlers to the 1992 state title, the highlight of his high school career.

“I didn’t think I’d be a football player until after that season,” Leaf says.

Leaf had triumphed as a junior on a senior-powered squad - as he has this year at WSU. His high school senior season, though, he hit his hand on a player’s helmet and broke his thumb, missing four games. His prep career fizzled to an end when a touchdown was called back in the playoffs.

The best quarterback Johnson ever coached never was selected by coaches for the all-state team or for Montana’s hallowed East-West Shrine game. There is no Ryan Leaf photo on the CMR football Wall of Fame.

Some called it justice. The competitiveness that drove Leaf to win drove others to distraction.

“Back then, when I wouldn’t let the kid get the ball, I was considered a bad attitude. Now it’s just a great competitiveness. Before it was, ‘This kid won’t let anybody else play,”’ Leaf said in an interview earlier this season.

“He was just a young boy in that big body. He wanted to win so bad it made him look bad,” Larson says.

Leaf was emotional, a talker, a showboat, people say. He was, in other words, no Dave Dickenson.

Dickenson was the 5-foot-11 quarterback who led the Rustlers to two state championships before taking the University of Montana Grizzlies to the NCAA Division I-AA national title in 1995.

He had a 4.0 grade point average, a quiet demeanor and a reputation somewhere between former Sen. Mike Mansfield and God.

“What’s the perfect football player?” the line went. “Dave Dickenson’s head on Ryan Leaf’s body.”

Coaches say Dickenson, now with the Calgary Stampeders, had much of the same competitiveness Leaf did. People overlooked it. But not with Leaf.

“Ryan got slapped in the face in high school. He was a rebel, and people didn’t like it,” says his friend, Lee Larson, of Belt.

“All kids have their moments, but when you’re the best athlete around, you’re under the microscope,” John Leaf says. “Whenever he did something, people knew about it.”

Adults who taught or coached Leaf one-on-one liked him - he still sends his coaches’ children birthday cards. He made and kept close friends in the small neighboring towns where he was a fixture throwing balls to 20 little kids in the end zone as the tiny high schools played eight-man ball.

McLean, his head basketball coach his senior year, helped settle Leaf down after a notorious junior season when his court antics included flipping off the crowd. The first time Leaf imitated an airplane while running down the court after scoring, the coach benched him immediately. Leaf never did it again.

But it was too late.

“He made his own bed his junior year, but he was definitely mistreated his senior year,” McLean says. “He made a very diligent effort, and he was mistreated everywhere we went.”

At one game with Billings Skyview, the crowd was so rabid, school administrators wrote an apology for their fans’ behavior. One man told the Great Falls coach he had come to the game just to yell at Ryan Leaf.

The natural talent that alienated other kids when Leaf was a youngster continued to work against him.

McLean remembers when an assistant coach accused Leaf of being lazy during one game. He had scored 17 points and snatched 15 rebounds with such ease, he didn’t appear to be working.

Leaf ended his final basketball season in triumph - earning spots on all-state and all-conference teams, a most-valuable-player award and a place on the Montana-Wyoming all-stars. His picture went up on the basketball Wall of Fame.

But by then, the most talented player the CMR basketball coach ever had guided had decided to play football - outside Montana. He was 17.

“The sad part of it was: When he left here, he was a very young man,” says Donella Thompson, a longtime family friend. “None of us have really seen him grow into this man. His team and coach and people in Washington have actually seen him and it’s great. They love him over there.”

Leaf left determined to prove detractors wrong. He also left with a remarkable ability to tune out distraction and hostility on the field. “If you allow that stuff in your mind, you’re never going to succeed.” Fans made cutting remarks, and Leaf just played harder.

It was his family who bled all over the floor.

On foreign ground

The family Ryan Leaf was born into loved two things: sports and one another.

The son of a game warden, his dad, John, led the Fort Benton Longhorns to two undefeated seasons before going to Concordia College on a football scholarship.

Marcia Lippert grew up nearby, the daughter of ranchers who’d drive 320 miles on a Friday night to get to a game in Malta. They had no sons - they drove the cheerleaders.

“Sports are the lifeblood of these towns,” says Marcia’s dad, George Lippert. “Without sports, the little towns dry up.”

John Leaf briefly left college, was drafted and spent 14 months in Vietnam. He earned his degree at Montana State University, where he resumed a high school romance with Marcia Lippert, who had earned her nursing degree at Sacred Heart in Spokane. They were married 25 years ago this July.

He went to work in insurance and now handles bonds guaranteeing contractors’ work. Marcia is a labor and delivery nurse. They live in the two-bedroom home in North Great Falls they bought before Ryan was a year old. Money was tight enough that they couldn’t afford a formal portrait for his first birthday - a savings they still regret.

Ryan grew up in a cocoon of security and adoring aunts, serving as an altar boy at St. Luke’s Catholic Church, learning to play piano, his mother sitting next to him during every lesson for five years as required by the Suzuki method. They spent summer weekends at her parents’ place at Holter Lake and every Christmas Eve with the grandparents in Fort Benton - until this year.

They had two more sons, Jeff, now 18, and Brady, 13. Both are athletic - but not at all like Ryan, a child who insisted on wearing golden shoes his final basketball season at CMR.

Looking back, people say it may take that kind of swagger to be a quarterback earning $8 million.

“Call it confidence, leadership, poise, call it being able to handle pressure under fire,” says UM’s Mick Dennehy. “All the great ones have got it, and it’s obvious he’s got it.”

But in Great Falls, his modest, well-liked parents were on foreign ground.

“We tried to teach him humility, the right things to say, but kids are their own person,” his dad says. The senior Leaf concentrated on teaching Ryan that the limelight comes with a price and that everything he did would be scrutinized. To this day, teachers and coaches will remind youngsters not to be “like Ryan Leaf.”

“The bottom line is: In a little town like Great Falls, people misinterpret that confidence,” John Leaf says. “It’s a problem I don’t know how to solve.”

With their son scrutinized and criticized, the couple circled the wagons with family and close friends. They didn’t complain. They stood with Ryan.

After the Cougars lost the Apple Cup in overtime last year, Marcia sent her devastated son the Pittsburgh Steelers jacket he had when he was 5 with a note saying: “Dreams don’t die after one game or one season.”

Ryan’s dad and uncle, Charlie Stortz, made it to every WSU football game. They put 30,000 miles on the van they bought last November, making the 16-hour round trip to Pullman, often after having watched Jeff play cornerback for CMR on a Friday night.

“I wouldn’t be here without their support,” Leaf says.

Finally, in this winning season, the family has company: rabid Washington State fans, longtime friends and what Marcia calls “the silent supporters” who have come forward.

Neighbors decorated their driveway and showered them with roses. Friends made a “personal Apple Cup” trophy for Leaf signed by the entire family. The UM head coach is rooting for him. A special charter flight has sold out to take 140 people from Great Falls to Pasadena, at $1,050 per person, to watch him play.

His Grandma Mary Leaf is asked about Ryan at the Fort Benton pharmacy where she works; Grandpa George Lippert tells everyone within earshot: Yes, that is their Ryan Leaf.

For them, the payoff isn’t about football. It’s about Ryan finding happiness and others who care about him as much as they do.

“I look at other athletes differently now and can appreciate that they all have their own goals and own pain,” says Marcia’s sister, Jackie Lippert. “And behind each athlete, there’s a family sitting in the stands.”

“To the players and the coaches, to you this is a game, just a game,” George Lippert says. “But to us, at this time in our lives, this is precious. Precious.”

, DataTimes ILLUSTRATION: 5 Photos (4 Color)

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