From the NFL to prison to recovery: Ryan Leaf shares his story with those who need to hear it most

Former NFL quarterback Ryan Leaf, the second draft pick in the 1998 draft, was considered a bust as a player and ultimately served 32 months in prison before being released in 2014. He now works with people struggling with addiction issues. (Rick Loomis/Los Angeles Times/TNS) 1198816
Former NFL quarterback Ryan Leaf, the second draft pick in the 1998 draft, was considered a bust as a player and ultimately served 32 months in prison before being released in 2014. He now works with people struggling with addiction issues. (Rick Loomis/Los Angeles Times/TNS) 1198816
Published March 14, 2017

LOS ANGELES — People might say there was no debate, but don't believe them.

The football world was deeply divided 19 years ago when the Indianapolis Colts were deciding whether to use the No. 1 draft pick in the NFL draft on Tennessee's Peyton Manning or Washington State's Ryan Leaf. There were respected evaluators on both sides of the argument.

The Colts chose Manning, launching a Hall of Fame-caliber career that included five most-valuable-player awards and Super Bowl victories with Indianapolis and Denver.

Leaf was the No. 2 pick by San Diego — one spot ahead of future Hall of Fame defensive back Charles Woodson — and essentially flamed out in his rookie season, although he lasted four more years in the league.

What followed for Leaf was addiction to painkillers, a suicide attempt, imprisonment and, ultimately, a dramatic change that probably saved his life. He's now the program ambassador for Transcend Recovery Community, a sober-living environment with nine homes in the Los Angeles, New York and Houston areas.

"Ryan's celebrity and reach in the football world has allowed him to reach tons of people," said Christian De Oliveira, Transcend's chief operating officer. "You should hear the phone calls and read the emails, the social media response, and people asking for help because of what Ryan is doing. It's overwhelmingly positive."

Sitting in an office in West Los Angeles on Wednesday, Leaf talked via Skype to students from a high school baseball team in Texas, some of whom had gotten in trouble with drugs and alcohol. He told the students his cautionary tale, just as he has to many other young people around the country. The group was so transfixed and motionless during his half-hour talk, it was as if the laptop screen had frozen.

Leaf, 40, who still has a boyish face but for his beard, lives in Los Angeles with his fiance, Anna Kleinsorge, a former volleyball player at Georgetown. They are expecting their first child in the fall.

Leaf's story, in his words:

There was a joke going around campus when I was at Washington State. It went, "What's the difference between God and Ryan Leaf?" The punchline was, "God doesn't think he's Ryan Leaf."

When I came into the NFL, there were three things that were very important to me: money, power and prestige. I was powerful now because I was a famous athlete. I had prestige because I was doing what everybody wanted to do. And I had a lot of money.

When I'm talking to parents, I tell them an analogy. My emotional level was kind of stunted when I was about 13, so I tell them to try this experiment at home: Give your 13-year-old child $31 million and see how that works out.

So I'm 21, have $31 million, and I wasn't responsible to anyone any more for money or really anything. If anybody said "no" to me, I would discard them from my life. That included my parents at one point. I just had zero perspective on what was important.

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I spend a lot of time now working with young men coming into the NFL, or in college, and my biggest suggestion to them is, just because you're a good football player doesn't mean you're a good person. The ego that goes with being an athlete in this country is huge. We play a game.

But that game was important to me, and to millions of people across the country. I was always successful at that game, and I didn't fail until I got to the highest level, so a lot of my bad behavior was covered up by how I performed. Once my career started to go downhill, those behaviors were given a spotlight on a national level. I think it was my mother's worst fear that her son would be found out that way, on that stage. And I was.

I dealt with the media poorly. I dealt with my teammates poorly. I was now making $5 million a year and was miserable doing something I had wanted to do since I was 4. The third game of my career, we played Kansas City and I played as poorly as I've ever played in my life. I completed one of 15 passes and had two interceptions. I yelled at a reporter in a clip that's now famous, and I can almost narrow it down to a feeling where that was where my NFL career ended. Three games in, 22-year-old kid.

But I bounced around the league until 2002, from the Chargers to Tampa Bay to Dallas to Seattle. Everywhere I went, there was a little bit of a problem, this, that or the other. Until recently, I wasn't able to take accountability for that, and I didn't understand that throughout all that, I was the common denominator. I was the part that didn't change.

You'll notice I'm saying nothing of drugs or alcohol, because they basically didn't exist for me. I didn't drink until my 18th birthday. I had never taken a drug in my life, other than Vicodin after surgeries, but I behaved the same way that addicts do every day. I was manipulative, narcissistic, deceitful, a thief.

When my career ended, I was only 28. I simply walked away from something I had wanted to do since I was 4 because I couldn't put up with it. I was tired of the criticism, tired of getting beat up physically and mentally on a daily basis. I just assumed everything would stay the same because I still had my three ideals: money, power and prestige. So I just walked away from the game.

But now, my life came with a caveat. It came with the media and fans saying I was the biggest bust ever. My identity was wrapped up in not only being a football player but a failed football player, somebody who couldn't cut it. Not only that, I was a bad person.

One night, while I was in Las Vegas to see a fight, a gentleman offered me a couple of painkillers. Now remember, I'd taken them throughout my career because of surgeries, and they alleviated my physical pain every time. This would be the first time I took them for my emotional pain, and it worked. I always felt judged when I walked into a room. That night in Vegas, I'd walk into rooms and didn't feel judgment or fear. I felt numb, and I could just kind of be me — or who I thought was me. That went on for a long time.

Never knew a drug dealer. I could walk into a doctor's office and say, "Doc, give me some painkillers," and get them. I had been beaten up for a living as a quarterback. I always rationalized that those painkillers were something that were owed to me. I deserved them. I was doing the wrong thing the right way.

For a long time, I was able to feel numb from all the feelings I needed to feel. I tried to prove to everybody that everything was fine. If social media had existed back then, all that stuff you've seen from Johnny Manziel the past year — the private planes, the parties, the Cabo vacations — that would have been pretty identical to what my life looked like for the two years after I retired from football. Eventually, though, that money goes away.

It's hard to transition out of football. Even when you're super successful, guys who have played 18 or 20 years and have won four Super Bowls, they still have difficulty with that transition. They believe they're not ever going to do anything that important again. Well, I had it twofold. I thought I was super important because I was a football player, and I also felt I was a disappointment because I didn't live up to expectations and was considered a bust.

So I medicated and medicated. I started coaching young men and taking their pills from them, telling them I needed it. I wasn't a good criminal, and I got caught. I went to treatment and learned a different point of view. But being a drug addict, you learn how to manipulate people. I was good at it. I could say the right things, talk a good game, make people like me.

I guess it wasn't really vital that people like me, but it was essential that people knew me, knew how important I was. Sure enough, that backfires on you as well. You can't live a life where you're the center of all that. There has to be something much bigger.

I never thought I'd be someone sitting in a room and contemplating taking my life. I went into the bathroom, took a knife, and tried to slit my wrist. This was that 4-year-old boy who wanted to be a professional athlete. Now, I was 35, sitting in the bathroom, making the decision that it was better to be dead than alive.

How does that come about? Second pick in the draft. All these accolades that come with that. And it's gone.

It didn't work. I cut my wrist, but couldn't fully follow through with it. I was arrested the next day for going into the homes of friends and other people and taking their pills. Like I said, I never knew a drug dealer, so I had to find inventive ways to get what I needed. I wasn't a good criminal.

They threw me in a Montana jail cell on April 1, 2012. I would spend the next 32 months in prison. Nothing huge changed. My narcissism, my self-loathing existed pretty much through the whole period. I had a cellmate who was a combat veteran who had fought in Afghanistan and Iraq. He had done something terrible. He made a mistake that a lot of us have made ourselves. He drove drunk, and in his case he happened to kill somebody that night.

About 26 months in, he got on me real hard one day about having my head buried in the sand. He said I didn't understand the value I had, not only to the guys in there but when I would get out. "Because Ryan," he told me, "you're going to get out at some point." So he told me that day that we were going to go down to the prison library and teach some other inmates how to read.

So I went. It was the first time in my life that I had ever been of service to anybody but myself. Ever. These men were vulnerable enough to ask for help at 40, 50, 60 years old, and they didn't know how to read.

I started doing that and eventually a light came on for me. I don't know why it was something that simple, but it was. The self-loathing started to dissipate, and I knew that once I got out I had to make a 180-degree lifestyle change. I didn't know what it was going to look like, and I was going to need a lot of help from people I had probably hurt in my life.

Luckily for me, I had people in my life that unconditionally supported and loved me. When I walked out of that prison cell on Dec. 12, 2014, I was 32 months sober — for some reason, I chose not to use drugs in prison even though they were readily available — but it wasn't like I was cured. Just because I had removed the substance didn't mean those old behaviors didn't exist.

I knew I had to build a foundation. I went and sought treatment immediately when I got out. I was there for 90 days. Being in treatment when I was three years sober and living with people who were just detoxing was difficult. It taught me patience and a different perspective. I knew what was out there for me if I chose to continue my destructive behavior.

Most important, I knew being of service was going to be key. That's when I got hired as a driver for Transcend Recovery Community. Christian, their chief operating officer, told me, "Normally, we start people out at 10 bucks an hour, but we'll start you out at 15." I don't remember doing this, but he said I gave him the biggest bear hug you can imagine. To think I was making $5 million a year and was miserable, and then I was making $15 an hour and was super grateful for that. I'd never felt as valued as I did then.

That job ultimately became what I'm doing now, working as a program ambassador for a recovery community that's based in Los Angeles, Houston and New York, traveling around and simply telling young men and women my story. What they do with that is up to them.

My three ideals now are accountability, community and spirituality. It's like that old joke at Washington State. I once thought I was a god, but now I realize that I'm just a small part in all of this.

Sometimes, I wish I could carry somebody who's struggling 18 months down the line to see what a different perspective and a changed life is going to look like. But the daily struggle is what's going to make you stronger.

I was at the scouting combine in Indianapolis last week with a group the league calls "NFL Legends," and we were there to help players by talking to them. During introductions, the league starts rattling off the years that people played: Mark Brunell, 17 years. Tony Richardson, 16 years … Ryan Leaf, five years." Any time I do anything around the NFL, it kind of slams the ego back in place.

What you're doing is being of service to people, not being paraded around like you are this great thing. I was walking down the hall of the hotel and thinking, "I'm a tough SOB. I just keep getting back up, getting back up. That's what it's about."

It's simply progress and not perfection. You're not going to be perfect. I was a certain way for 38 years. It's not going to change overnight. Hell, I might not figure it out until I'm 76. But one day I will.

My best thinking in my lifetime took me to a prison cell. So now I have what's essentially a board of directors, five guys that I go with to help me make significant decisions in my life. I'm the chairman, and I ultimately make the decision, but I generally go with what they say. And it has served me well, because every day I struggle with ego, narcissism, all those behaviors that existed long before the drug addiction.

These days, I do things completely different. I go to meetings. I meditate. I pray. I see a therapist every other week. I'm coming up on five years since I went to prison, and it doesn't matter. It's just about today.

Thursdays are my favorite days. I get up at 6, I'm in the gym at 7, and I'm in the office from about 9 until 1 p.m. Then, I'm back to the gym for a program that works with former combat vets. I'm home around 5 p.m. with my fiance and our little dog. You know, that's a boring life. And boring is not a bad word anymore.