Former NFL QB Ryan Leaf speaks of 'what is,' not 'what if' during La Crosse visit

Ryan Leaf felt he had found everything he ever wanted when he became an NFL quarterback. But after flaming out of the NFL, Leaf battled drug addiction and landed in a prison cell. He’s in La Crosse today telling his story of recovery.

Ryan Leaf is not a motivational speaker.

He doesn't travel to schools, community centers, rehabilitation facilities, prisons, and events across the country to preach, or tell someone how to live his or her life.

He does speak to these groups, but his words are about his story. It's one of the highest of highs — periods in which Leaf had everything he, and many young people, ever dream of.

It's also a story of the lowest of lows — failure as an NFL quarterback started a downward spiral that manifested into years of drug addiction, shame and self-loathing. Even to the point where he wasn't sure his life was worth living.

So when Leaf speaks to a crowd tonight at the Inspiration Dinner, a fundraising event put on by the La Crosse Area Family YMCA in the Cargill Room at The Waterfront Restaurant in La Crosse, he’ll stick to what he knows: himself. His life in his words.

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Former NFL QB Ryan Leaf speaks of 'what is,' not 'what if' during La Crosse visit

Washington State University quarterback Ryan Leaf throws a pass against Stanford in December of 1997. Leaf and Peyton Manning were considered a lock at quarterback in the 1998 NFL draft.

“I just tell my story and explain to them what struggles I had to go through to find this peaceful life I have now,” Leaf said earlier this month. “My hope is they’ll hear it and it will open their mind or their perspective so when things become difficult for them, they’ll understand we’re all flawed human beings, and we need help at times.”

Leaf’s life has been dissected ad nauseam for the past 19 years by people wondering, “What happened?” But the basics are these: Leaf was star athlete from a good family in Great Falls, Montana, a place roughly identical in size and population as La Crosse. He earned a scholarship to play quarterback at Washington State University, and led the Cougars to their first Rose Bowl in more than 60 years. Leaf was a finalist for the Heisman Trophy that season, finishing third behind winner Charles Woodson (Michigan) and Peyton Manning (Tennessee), and ahead of Randy Moss (Marshall).

Manning and Leaf were considered the top two quarterbacks in the draft, and it was an intense debate on which of the two the Indianapolis Colts, owners of the top pick, would take. They chose Manning, and Leaf went second to the San Diego Chargers.

“I used to think three things made you a better person: money, power, prestige. I had all that as an NFL quarterback, but I didn’t know who Ryan was,” he said. “You can have all of it in the world, that’s not what makes you happy or makes life life.

“I was blessed with everything I ever dreamed of, but I found out in a real hurry that that isn’t it.”

Leaf never realized the lofty expectations heaped upon him, and flamed out of the NFL after five seasons. He suffered injuries during his career that required multiple orthoscopic surgeries, and recovering from those surgeries set off an addiction to opioid painkillers. He managed to hide his addiction and his declining mental health for years, even working as an assistant coach at West Texas A&M for a few seasons.

But Leaf’s addiction was worsening, and he resorted to asking a player who’d recently undergone surgery for pills, and later stealing prescription pills from friends’ homes. He was eventually caught and arrested multiple times, landing in prison on a nearly three-year sentence.

He said in an interview on ESPN’s Mike and Mike that rock bottom came when he woke up in a prison cell, wearing a restraining smock, after failing in his attempts to take his own life.

Leaf’s life was on tragic trajectory. He hated himself. He saw no value in his life. There was no path out of that place, he thought.

But a wake-up call came in the form of his cellmate, an Iraq and Afghanistan war veteran named Joshua Pol. Twenty-six months into Leaf’s prison sentence, Pol essentially forced him to quit wallowing in his own misery and start doing things for others, starting with teaching other inmates how to read.

The feeling of selflessness started Leaf’s road back to a healthy life.

“It’s a foundation of my recovery; it was, and is, a huge part of it. I don’t think I was of service at all, my whole life. I started doing things to help others in prison, selflessly,” Leaf said.

Leaf now works an ambassador for Transcend Recovery Community, and runs the Focused Intensity Foundation, a non-profit that gives grants to people seeking treatment but cannot afford it — a situation Leaf would have been in had it not been for his NFL pension.

He knows when he steps in front of an audience, which he’ll also do at Onalaska and Central high schools today, there’s likely some snark directed toward him.

“A lot of times you see a convicted felon, drug addict walk into that auditorium, there’s rushing to judgement, like, ‘Why would I listen to this guy? He failed miserably,’” Leaf said. “But it’s a story and everybody has one.”

Leaf can withstand being the butt of a joke. There’s a bite to his deep self-understanding at this point. But he also knows he can potentially show people how he has gotten to where he is now, such a far cry from where he was. It’s why he agreed to come back into the public eye after his release from prison, even after reluctance to do so.

“When a lot of people came forward initially, I said no. I went and talked to who I called my board of directors, some people that had the type of life I wanted and are willing to help guide me,” Leaf said. “They said when you’ve have the enlightenment I’ve had as a person, it’s your job to take this and share it, otherwise you’re going to repeat things.”

So much of Leaf’s life now is structured toward not falling back into the behaviors of his old self. He’s said in multiple interviews that he exhibited addict behavior long before painkillers came into his life — the narcissism, the entitlement. The anger in his voice when he speaks of how he used to act simmers below the words themselves.

But it also goes back a pillar of his story. Leaf believes in choice. He knows his and others’ addictions are a disease, and he fights the stigma that addiction is somehow a lack of control. But he subscribes to the idea that after admitting you need help and getting treatment, people can make better choices.

“The idea you’re a product of your environment doesn’t hold much water to me,” Leaf said. “If it were true, I wouldn’t have wound up in a prison cell. I came from a loving family, a caring community.

“You have a choice, and you have the ability to be accountable.”

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Colten Bartholomew is a reporter and columnist for River Valley Media Group. Colten is the college sports coordinator for the La Crosse Tribune.

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