Slumped in a lobby chair big enough to accommodate both Ryan Leafs – before and after – the current version was exploring the challenges of rehabilitating a good life and a good name.
The old addictions, arrogance, demons, fears, mistakes, personal shortcomings – all are fair game in an exchange with the man who quarterbacked Washington State into the national football conversation 14 years ago before failure in the pros turned him into a national punch line. Like a Corleone, he keeps his friends close but those enemies to his better angels closer, having found that owning up is healthier than ignoring them.
Still, he remains suspicious of perceptions.
“I am dumbfounded by the ability of people to take what they’ve read or seen as fact,” Leaf said. “I live by a different code. I don’t judge anybody. I don’t think I’ve had hatred for anybody, and I think for a long time people literally hated me. The emotion behind that…”
At which point, a stranger – a football fan – with a strong antenna strolled by and patted him on the shoulder.
“I don’t hate you,” the man said. “You’re a good man.”
Ryan Leaf insists that people rarely surprise him. His expression during this encounter suggested otherwise. Or maybe it was delight on unearthing an anecdote for another book.
Leaf returned to eastern Washington on Wednesday in advance of Wazzu’s homecoming gala against Stanford on Saturday, but also to launch the tour for his book – the first of three he’s contracted to write for Crimson Oak Publishing of Pullman. If a trilogy seems a tad ambitious – or presumptuous – for a sports figure who won exactly four games as an NFL quarterback, well, it is. On the other hand, no one will ever deny that Leaf has one hell of a tale to tell.
The first volume is “596 Switch,” an account of his WSU years with particular emphasis on the spectacular 1997 season that ended 2 seconds and 26 yards from a victory in the Rose Bowl. The title is the play the Cougars would have run had the officials not ruled that time had expired before Leaf spiked the ball to stop the clock.
Leaf, in the meantime, works earnestly on the play he should have run growing into a life that went from famous to notorious. Not that he’s looking for do-overs.
“The price of my new life is my old life,” he said. “That doesn’t change anything – and I’m not trying to change anybody’s opinion of me.
“I’m just trying to be a better person.”
If you were on campus during the Leaf years, you may recall an unfavorable encounter, or once heard a third-hand one well embellished. The telling rookie tantrum survives on YouTube – right under the reconciling radio moment he had more recently with the target of his rage.
All the stories and stats that point to the No. 2 NFL pick of 1998 being the biggest bust in draft history are available on the Internet, a verdict Leaf will not dispute.
In his book and in conversation, Leaf admits that foregoing his senior year at WSU was a mistake, even though his draft stock would never have been greater.
“I just wasn’t mature enough,” he said. “the thing is, we would have struggled the next year. We lost 28 seniors and we would have lost some games and that would have prepared me for failure a little bit. Also, I think the magnifying glass would have been stronger – I probably would have been the leading candidate for the Heisman and I would have had to deal with that. Either it would have turned me into a bigger egomaniac, or brought me down a size real quick.”
More problematic, of course, was the chronic wrist injury that cut short his career and helped lead to an addiction to painkillers – which eventually led to his biggest fall, the burglary of a player’s home while he coached at West Texas A&M, his subsequent plea to drug charges and his stay in rehab.
Except the last part is also his biggest triumph.
“Before that, I don’t remember spending five hours on myself in an introspective light ever,” he said.
“I’m never going to have anonymity, not only with addiction but anything else. To deal with that, I have to be open and honest publicly – and allow myself to be a part of a helpful process with others. My story’s no different than thousands of others, except in this day and age people listen to someone who has some celebrity. That’s a shame, but that’s the case.”
But not everyone needs to hear about recovery. In his re-entry into the public eye, Leaf has been regaled with stories like that of the two Cougs whose father predicted the glory of 1997 early that season, but died before he could see it. The brothers bought an extra ticket to the Rose Bowl and let the seat go empty in tribute.
“Back in the day, I was too self-involved to hear those stories,” he said. “I was always wondering when it would get around to me.”
Now that his is between hard covers, he can listen like never before.
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