Ex-QB Leaf Shares Tale of Downfall, Recovery

“I’m so grateful I spent 32 months in prison. I don’t recommend it, but I’m grateful.”
These were the words from a frank and honest Ryan Leaf, the former star quarterback from Washington State University who flamed out of the NFL after being drafted second overall in 1998 and fell into a spiral of well-documented substance abuse. He was speaking Friday at USC Verdugo Hills Hospital, on behalf of the YMCA of the Foothills, as a man who had to face the music for his drug abuse and knows his work is far from over.
“It’s the strongest thing you can do, is look at another human being and say, ‘I’m struggling. I need help,’ ” Leaf told an audience that included educators, substance abuse medical professionals and law enforcement officers.
Leaf started with his origins in Montana, because the first thing he had to admit was that he had adopted at an early age the mentality that set him on the path to professional and personal failure. He said that whatever warning signs there might have been were probably swept under the rug because he came from an All-American family and played sports.
“I don’t believe you are a product of your environment,” he said. “If you were, I would not have been in a prison cell. I tell people that I was a drug addict before I ever took a drug. Now I know how drug addicts behave. The narcissism. The fear. The judgment. All of it. I developed that ‘better than you’ thing early on because of how people treated me and how I behaved.”
Leaf’s athletic success propelled him to the top of many NFL draft charts in 1998 alongside Peyton Manning, who is widely considered among the best to have played the game. He ended up with the San Diego Chargers and was seen as a franchise savior. He was signed to a $31 million contract.
However, he never recovered from a rocky beginning to his career. He won his first two starts with the Chargers, but an abysmal third game against the Kansas City Chiefs truly derailed him. Leaf developed a reputation for being adversarial with teammates and hostile to the media. At his talk last week, he likened his contract to giving a 13-year-old kid $31 million.
“I had a choice in that moment to take ownership and accountability for my performance, but I got defensive and angry and got upset and blamed others,” Leaf said. “I played for five more years, but I truly believe my career ended that day, with how I behaved.
“I was a caricature of who I really was,” he added.
Leaf ultimately retired from the NFL at 28 after bouncing around among a handful of teams — he caught himself Friday and said, “No one retires at 28. I quit” — in part because he hated the constant physical and mental drain of everything. Ultimately, he reached a breaking point after he was announced among celebrities in attendance at a Las Vegas event one year, and the crowd jeered and booed him instead of cheering as it had for everyone else.
In response, Leaf said, he accepted opioid pain pills when they were offered to him later that night, to go along with the drinks he was having. He’d been prescribed painkillers before after surgeries and other injuries, but getting high for its own sake was a first for him.
“This would be the first time I ever abused them in a setting where I was effectively trying to manage my emotional pain rather than my physical pain,” Leaf said. “I walked in and out of parties all night and felt none of that judgment. That’s what I wanted. I didn’t want to feel any of that. I just disappeared.
“I saw in that moment it worked,” he continued. “It started a six- to eight-year run where I was self-medicating pretty much daily. There were moments of sobriety in there, but I didn’t do the right things.
“I don’t know if I ever really got high ever again. I just felt numb.”
Leaf’s legal troubles caught up with him. He had to sell his fancy San Diego home and move back to Montana. He would drop in on friends with the aim of raiding their medicine cabinets. That turned into breaking into homes when people were out. Leaf ultimately received his prison sentence, at which point a cellmate eventually helped him have his “come-to-Jesus moment.” Leaf went from just hanging out in his cell watching TV to taking his drug rehabilitation and mental health treatment seriously.
When he got out of prison, the first thing he did was find a way to continue that treatment. He came to L.A. to join the Transcend Recovery Community, where he caught on for work starting as a driver. He is now a program ambassador and also runs his own program, Focus Intensity Foundation. Accountability, spirituality and community are his mantra now.
“The choice of what you use to self-medicate can be many things,” Leaf said. “All of those things, they’re just mood-altering substances. Just because you remove that doesn’t mean you change the root of the problem. Once I got out, I knew I needed treatment, not for the drugs, but for the foundational issues.
“I was making $5 million a year and I was miserable with the way I treated people,” he added. “I was now being offered a job at $15 an hour and I felt more valued than I ever have.”

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