PULLMAN – Amid a sea of Cougars jerseys – some bearing his No. 16 – Ryan Leaf strode across Cougville, next to Martin Stadium, before Saturday’s 59-17 win over Northern Colorado.
He stopped periodically to pose for photos and watched his 23-month-old son – who was wearing a No. 3 Tyler Hilinski jersey – play on an inflatable slide.
“It’s always fun coming back here,” Leaf said of being in Pullman. “Nothing changes. Even though it gets bigger, maybe, and nicer facilities, it’s still the same deal.”
Leaf, along with five other former athletes and administrators, was inducted into the Washington State Athletic Hall of Fame in a ceremony Friday night in Spokane. They were subsequently recognized at halftime of the football game Saturday afternoon.
“It was wonderful,” Leaf said of Friday’s event. “What an honor. … Some really amazing things have happened in my life the last two years, and this is one I’m able to share. I have a son now, my family, everybody’s been able to come over, so I’m really happy for that.”
Leaf said he was last in Pullman in April, in his role as a TV analyst during the Crimson and Gray game. He said he hopes he can return later this season to call another game. After working for the Pac-12 Network last season, Leaf was hired in July as a college football analyst for ESPN.
In his speech Friday, Leaf said he was at first ambivalent about accepting the invitation to be inducted into the program’s Hall of Fame.
Leaf finished third in the 1997 Heisman Trophy voting – he attended the ceremony with then-sports information director Rod Commons, who also was inducted into the Hall of Fame Friday – and the San Diego Chargers drafted him second overall in the subsequent 1998 NFL draft.
But after a four-year career in the NFL, Leaf became addicted to painkillers and eventually served 32 months in prison for burglary and criminal possession. He was released in 2014.
Since then, Leaf started the Focused Intensity Foundation, which according to its mission statement is dedicated to connecting “people who want help, to those who can help.”
“I can only expect there were many years when the athlete maybe deserved to be here, but the man didn’t live up to it,” Leaf said in his speech. “And that’s why I think it’s so much more special today. I’m so glad I’m sober to appreciate what you guys have given me.
“Over the last 21 years since I left Washington State, for a long time I didn’t represent the crimson and gray very well. And because my name was recognized and talked about all the time when I messed up, you guys were drug down into the mud with it, and you didn’t deserve it. It’s an opportunity for me to apologize to all of you for having been that person for so long.”
Leaf was joined at the ceremony by his fiancée, who he said did not know who he was when they first met: not about his football career, or what happened afterward.
“This is something very special to her as well, because she gets to see a version of me that she’s never known,” Leaf said in the speech. “She says we can have one night where we can talk about you. Now tomorrow, it’s back to diapers and helping me, and that’s more than fine.”
In addition to Leaf and Commons, the 2019 WSU Athletic Hall of Fame class consists of Josephat Kapkory, a track and field and cross country athlete from 1991-94; Stephanie Papke (volleyball, 1994-97); Ellannee (Richardson) Rajewsky (track and field, 1999-2003); and Lisa Roman, who rowed for Washington State from 2010-12.
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