VANCOUVER, British Columbia – The turning point came last November.
Former quarterback Ryan Leaf, the 1998 second-overall NFL draft pick who became a poster boy for poor drafting after four unsuccessful pro seasons, was coaching at West Texas A&M when he finally hit bottom.
“One of my players that I coached asked me for a pill,” said Leaf, who was serving as quarterbacks coach.
“It was a terrible feeling so I resigned from my job, and my brother and my father came down and found a place (rehab facility). It was the best thing that ever happened to me.
“I’m supposed to be their mentor and help them. I felt so ugly.”
The pill was a painkiller, and Leaf admitted that he was addicted. His rehab destination was on Bowen Island, a short ferry ride from Vancouver.
“I thought the rehab center was in Vancouver, Washington,” Leaf told the Canadian Press. “Me and my brother looked online and I thought it was (near) Vancouver, Washington. I didn’t know it was Vancouver, British Columbia. Then we discussed it more and we came to realize that it was in B.C. We just felt good about this place. It was environmentally soothing. My mom had a good vibe from one of the intake people she talked to. At that point I had completely asked for help.”
Leaf spent 42 days in the facility and then opted to stay another month and a half. Meanwhile, brother Brady and one of his friends put him in touch with West Coast Resorts, a Vancouver-based firm that changed its business plan in January to offer corporate retreats and team-building exercises at northern fishing lodges, rather than just vacation packages.
Leaf, living and working in Canada on six-month resident and work permits, is the company’s business development manager. Permission to live and work temporarily in Canada came after he was charged with breaking into a Canyon, Texas, apartment to steal the painkiller Hydrocodone, which had allegedly been prescribed to an injured football player.
The company is standing behind Leaf, who was in B.C. when charges were announced and later formally surrendered in Texas.
Now, with the case still pending, the former San Diego Charger, Tampa Bay Buccaneer and Dallas Cowboy aims to capitalize on his previous ties with corporate America when he received lucrative endorsement deals from the likes of Nike, Pepsi, Sprint and Toyota. He wants to help the recession-hit company reconstruct its business while he rebuilds his own life.
The 33-year-old from Great Falls, Mont. – who lived about a block and a half away from his “hero,” former CFL star quarterback Dave Dickenson – was selected by San Diego after the Indianapolis Colts chose Peyton Manning.
While Manning continues to make his mark in the NFL, Leaf made an unexpectedly quick exit after three seasons with the Chargers, the last a 1-15 campaign, and short stints with Tampa Bay and Dallas. He signed with the Seattle Seahawks in 2002, but opted not to audition to become a third-stringer, effectively ending his career.
While in San Diego, the former Washington State star developed a reputation for churlish behavior with teammates and “fought tooth and nail” with media. He even “butted heads” with then-coach Mike Riley, a former Winnipeg Blue Bombers coach considered one of the all-time nice guys.
According to one report, Leaf was playing golf when he missed practice because of an injury. Leaf, who says he has never given reporters his side of the story, says it’s not true.
“I really don’t understand how people believe this nonsense,” he said. “I’m on a golf course when I’m hurt? Are you kidding me? I’m in the spotlight. I had people parked outside my house. They’d follow me to the grocery store. I mean, I couldn’t do anything. Why would I put myself in a position like that? People are resentful for whatever reasons.”
Leaf, who felt hated in San Diego, admits he was difficult to deal with. He attributed his rude behavior to a $31.25-million rookie contract, which included an $11.25 million signing bonus, and his youthful age of 21. But the defiance was deliberate, the only way he knew to deal with criticism.
“I was always just so competitive – ultracompetitive – that I would just want to beat you on everything, even to a fault,” Leaf said. “I didn’t have any friends, because I would always want to beat them. I couldn’t appreciate playing and then being friends. I was competitive all the time. It was hard for me to differentiate the two. … I’d never failed at anything being that way. So later on, when I did fail, I’d always act the same way. That would get me through it. I’d never accept any help from anybody. At that level, you can’t do that.”
Leaf later found success as a quarterbacks coach. Two of his West Texas A&M proteges, Keith Null of the NFL’s St. Louis Rams, and Dalton Bell of the CFL’s Saskatchewan Roughriders, landed with pro teams. But he was extremely unhappy.
“I would just lie about anything,” Leaf said. “My girlfriend had no idea I was taking pills – and she lived with me. … Those boys (Null and Bell) got the best of me while everybody else got the completely anti-social addicted guy. … I’d go to work at 6:30 (in the morning), come home at 11 (at night) and take the pills to go to sleep. Ultimately, it had the opposite effect where it would keep me up all night almost. I was like a zombie.”
When Leaf resigned from West Texas A&M, his addiction became public knowledge and he had no choice but to face his demons. Leaf began taking painkillers years ago after undergoing surgery in college and the pros. He took pills weekly but, he said, never abused them until the spring of 2008. But he did not take Vicodin for any physical pain.
“I just became completely isolated in my own depression and in need for something,” Leaf said.
He always “justified” taking the painkiller “like candy” because they were prescribed by team doctors, but says painkiller dependence is a much bigger problem than people realize, because the drugs are legal.
Now, as Leaf’s one-year anniversary of being painkiller-free approaches, football appears part of his past.
“I sort of decided I didn’t want to play because, for something I loved for so long, it sure gave me a lot of pain,” Leaf said. “Even when I got out of recovery, the first thing on my mind was to do something football-wise. Maybe do something with the B.C. Lions, because I assumed I couldn’t do anything else. All I knew was football, and then I just thought about it more and more, talked to my counselor and my family, people around me and realized, for something that I loved for so long, it continued to give me pain.”
He talked to Lions community relations director Jamie Taras about a possible role with the CFL club but did not seriously pursue one. (“I was just kind of reaching out on my part. I didn’t have any expectations or anything. I wanted a job.”)
He helped tutor a West Vancouver high school team’s quarterbacks but stopped because he could not make enough of a commitment while working at his new position with West Coast Resorts.
“To be honest with you, I didn’t want to do any of this,” said Leaf, near the end of an hour-long interview in his downtown Vancouver apartment. “I don’t want anybody to know anything about me. I’m scared to talk to reporters, because I never know. I’ve got such trust issues with them. But, if it helps the company that gave me the support, and they were willing to go hire a PR firm (to help me) … I’m putting my faith in a PR firm that does this for a living.”
The former “ego-maniac with a self-esteem problem” says he has “no baggage” and more confidence than he ever felt before. Pending the outcomes of his court case, due to reconvene next spring, and immigration application, he hopes to remain in this country for a long time.
“This summer, I was throwing a football with some friends at the beach and no one recognized me,” Leaf said. “That hasn’t happened to me in 14 years. I can just be myself. Montana’s my home and will always be the most beautiful place in the world to live, and Washington’s my adopted home, because of when I was in college and how they took me in.
“But Vancouver’s been a complete rebirth for me.”