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Dave Boling: From No. 2 NFL pick to prison, Ryan Leaf has seen all life has to offer and shares his perspective – don’t be a jerk

By Dave Boling The Spokesman-Review

Choices and consequences.

When Ryan Leaf now speaks of his tumultuous personal experiences, from the athletic successes to his spectacular descent into opioid addiction and incarceration, he focuses on these two interlocking facets of life. 

Choices and consequences. Cause and effect.

Life’s cruel seesaw lifted the 21-year-old Leaf to a $31 million NFL contract only to leave him out of the league in a few short years, a victim of injury, ineffectiveness and attitude.

To the most critical among the sporting public, his name grew synonymous with failure – an outcome he had never faced and for which he was vastly unprepared. An addiction to painkillers pulled him further, to suicidal depths, and ultimately earned him a seven-year prison sentence.

The former Washington State All-American quarterback will share his lessons of addiction and recovery and coping with mental health challenges with students at North Central High School Thursday, with an appearance open to the public at 6:30 p.m. on the WSU-Spokane campus.

Having been the No. 2 player taken in the 1998 NFL draft, details of Leaf’s failures drew national coverage at every stumble along the way, with his police mug shots and pictures from his 32-month prison stay producing a steady travelogue of his journey through penal hell – at times wearing striped prison coveralls and shackles.

Old news by now, so our focus is of more current relevance: The path of Leaf’s survival after hitting bottom, the long climb toward personal redemption, and his expanding media presence as a football broadcaster and commentator.

Now 10 years out of prison and sober, Leaf said his life and career reboot is a function of daily re-enforcement, and understanding the value of accountability and humility.

And, no less important, he arrived at the belated recognition of the enormous importance of simply trying to not be a jerk.

•••

Ryan Leaf, 47, is a regular on “Good Morning Football” (NFL Network), with further exposure broadcasting NFL and college football, and an X following of nearly 100,000.

As such, he doesn’t think his motivational speaking presentations should be used as a negative paradigm.

“A lot of times people assume my speeches are about what not to do,” Leaf said in a phone interview this week. “That couldn’t be further from the truth. I was a kid from Great Falls, Montana, who reached the highest level of sport and was a millionaire when I was 21 years old. That, in itself, is an unbelievable success story.”

Aside from his frequent media appearances, he speaks at 30 to 35 engagements a year.

“I don’t think a lot of people have ever had those human experiences,” he said. “From unbelievable heights (to) the precipitous fall to the bottom.”

Along the way, he also required neurosurgery to remove a nonmalignant brain tumor the size of a golf ball.

The top? Placing third in the voting for the 1997 Heisman Trophy, and following only Peyton Manning in the draft.

The low? Leaf revealed in an episode of his podcast “Bust,” that before his arrest in 2012, he had failed an attempted suicide as the combination of guilt, shame and addiction caused him to feel: “If I couldn’t be high, I wanted to be dead.”

Two important steps he took in prison: When his cellmate convinced him to help other inmates learn to read (“I’d never thought of anybody but myself,” he said) and later when a mentor convinced him to take ownership of his mistakes.

“You are exactly where you are because of what you did,” Leaf recalled of the advice. “I had never been accountable to anybody in my whole life. Once you do that, you can’t blame anybody else.”

Those who so energetically reviled and belittled him on his way down might be served by knowing that the worst they could call him was not as savage as the things he sometimes thought about himself.

He said he was diagnosed as a “classic narcissist with self-esteem issues.”

“I had a sense of entitlement; I felt (I was) better than everybody else because I could play this silly game,” he said. “Clearly, whatever my higher power was, it said, ‘I’m going to humble you and show you you’re not better than anybody else,’ ”

Actually, “humbled” seems like too small a word.

When he was released from prison, he had no idea what he would do. “My parents had a basement, which doesn’t do much for your ego when you’re 38 years old. I was broke, couldn’t rub two pennies together. And nobody wanted to be around me.”

His first morning out of prison, his hometown newspaper, the Great Falls Tribune, ran a notice of Leaf’s release from prison, with a cartoon that advised locals to lock their medicine cabinets, a reference to accounts of his arrest for stealing painkillers from the homes of local residents.

“I thought, ‘Oh, this is how it’s going to be,’ ” he said. He was not convinced that his prison stay had completely quelled his addiction, and his release brought new pressures. He voluntarily sought residence treatment in 2014 and has been sober to this day.

•••

Leaf studied broadcasting at WSU, with the thought that it might be a job after his presumptive NFL career. After leaving prison, he reached out to people he knew in the broadcasting business, among them, former University of Washington and Seahawks quarterback Brock Huard, who does color on NCAA television games, as well as hosting a radio show in Seattle.

“Brock was probably the most influential,” Leaf said. “He was really a mentor to me on the broadcasting side.”

Huard’s advice: “Do everything. Say ‘yes’ to everything for experience … writing, podcast, radio, television, and see what sticks, see where your gift is,” Huard said.

Mike Price, Leaf’s coach at Washington State, enjoys seeing Leaf’s televised commentary. “He’s great,” Price said. “I didn’t know he had that many opinions – maybe I should have listened to him more often.”

Leaf knew that having recently walked out of prison, he might be a hard sell to broadcast producers looking for someone to represent their station.

“None of these people are saying, ‘What we need is somebody who has seven felony convictions and is a recovering drug addict,’ ” Leaf said. “So, I knew I better be good at it, and I better be liked, so I try to be the best possible person to work with.”

Huard sees in Leaf an “obvious joy and passion” in his work. But there’s another element of his commentary that gives him a powerful authenticity: Full ownership of his experiences, good and bad.

“He never shied away from (his background) and to this day that’s one of the lessons that others can learn from his journey,” Huard said. “He’s transparent and honest … and uses it as part of his story and testimony. I think you see (in his work) the benefit of a lot of counsel and treatment, and part of that is the messaging, ‘Own it, don’t be a victim’. I don’t know if he would achieve so much in this second life as he has if he hadn’t done that.”

•••

Having left prison at a seriously unhealthy 325 pounds, Leaf said he’s in much better condition than when he was a 21-year-old rookie. “I may be in the best shape of my life, at 47,” he said. “You can’t go back and change the past, but you can start over where you are and, hopefully, have an incredible future because of it.”

Leaf and his wife Anna, who live in Connecticut, recently welcomed their second child.

Each morning, Leaf looks in the mirror. This is not a metaphor for self-examination, but an actual act, staring at himself. “I like who I see in the mirror now,” he said. “I couldn’t be authentic or transparent or vulnerable if I didn’t like the guy in the mirror now. What other people think of me is none of my business, but I made it my business for a long, long time.”

Price sees a Ryan Leaf who is in a better place than he’s ever been. “I know he’s doing a good job in TV and radio and all that stuff, so he doesn’t have to extend himself (into the public) the way he is. That’s not a money thing, that’s all about giving back, and he feels good about it,” Price said.

“The broadcasting is fine, but what he’s doing on the outside to help young kids and NFL players and former players – he’s got a lot of experiences and a lot of (valuable) stuff to tell people – it’s really helpful, and I love him for it.”

As Leaf wrote in the Players Tribune in 2017, the biggest regret on his jagged path is that he should have treated people better, and if he could advise his 21-year-old self one thing, it would be, “Don’t be a (jerk), man … you’ll be amazed at how much you get back when you just treat other people with dignity and respect.”

This perspective of his past “makes me feel incredibly blessed,” Leaf said. “My world doesn’t spin without the fall, the prison, the addiction. I wouldn’t be here without all those things. … Today, I do the things I’m supposed to do; I lay my head down sober and in a wellness place, and, most likely, I’ll do it again tomorrow.”

The positive consequences of good choices.