For too long, football was who Ryan Leaf was.
After a dazzling career at Washington State University where he led the Cougars to the Rose Bowl, Leaf was drafted No. 2 overall in the 1998 NFL draft. A short, unsuccessful career and multiple surgeries later, Leaf found himself addicted to opioid painkillers and on a path to nowhere.
It took him years, but Leaf has turned his life around and now uses his story as an example of how fellow addicts and all people can make positive choices after seeking and accepting help.
It’s an unfair reality of Leaf’s story that his failures as a professional football player is for which he’s most known. He travels across the country now as an ambassador for a rehabilitation community and his own nonprofit foundation, advocating for people suffering from addiction, but his inability to pan out as an NFL quarterback will always follow him.
Leaf has every reason to hate football. Shame and ridicule from his career, along with a culture of painkiller abuse in the NFL, undoubtedly factored into the poor choices Leaf made after he retired. But he could only use that as a crutch for so long, he says, and he still has passion for the game that he says gave him his life.
“I love football. It’s an amazing game,” Leaf said. “And I really disliked it for a long time. I wasn’t taking accountability for my choices and blaming it for things I did.
“It brings people together to be teammates, and turns people into leaders.”
Leaf’s career was destined to be compared to his draft classmate, Peyton Manning, from the moment the two finished their collegiate careers and started the NFL draft process. While Manning went on to become one of the best quarterbacks in NFL history, Leaf suffered personal and legal struggles.
Now, Leaf’s name is synonymous with “bust” — a hyped player who didn’t meet expectations. For a long time, that label hurt Leaf. Despite many quarterbacks and other players being drafted high and never finding success after him, Leaf is still the benchmark.
He understands why.
“One, who I was drafted with, Peyton Manning, possibly the best to ever to do it, and it was between me and him that whole draft season. I think people who made that choice took their victory lap when I struggled,” Leaf said.
“Second, it was the birth of the internet and quarterback is most important position in any sport. So every April when the draft comes around, analysts have to make comparisons, my name is a bit of a poster child.”
All these years later, though, Leaf has said in multiple interviews he doesn’t believe he was meant to be an NFL quarterback. He believes where he is now, with a loving wife and newborn son, is where he’s meant to be.
“My identity was wrapped around that I was a football player, and then a failed football player. I didn’t know who Ryan was. But going to prison, and struggling like did, and the work I do now, I’ve been able to figure out my identity,” Leaf said.
“Now, with my little boy, he’s doesn’t care at all that I was in the NFL. I’m just the big guy that carries him around.”