Ryan Leaf spent most of his time in prison alone and angry until a military veteran persuaded the former No. 2 overall NFL draft pick to stop self-loathing long enough to help fellow inmates learn to read.
Now the once-star college quarterback who is widely considered the biggest bust in league history is helping former players adapt to retirement and trying to make sure they cope far better than he did.
Leaf’s personal life spiraled out of control after his pro career and his addiction to painkillers led him to spend 32 months in prison after an arrest in 2012. His dramatic turnaround began with a challenge from his prison cellmate who had served in Afghanistan and Iraq.
“He got on me one day about how I didn’t understand the value that I had, not only to the men in there but for when I got out and he confronted me on it,” Leaf told The Associated Press. “He suggested we go down to the prison library and help prisoners who didn’t know how to read. Many times somebody tried to help me be constructive and I just pushed them away. I don’t know why in this moment I chose to go. It was begrudgingly. I still envision myself walking down the hallway complaining about it.”
But Leaf, wearing his red prison jumpsuit, went anyway. He had no idea helping other men would benefit him more.
“Watching men in a place where you’re not supposed to show vulnerability be vulnerable and ask for help because they couldn’t read, I was blown away by it and it affected me,” he said. “I realized I was being of service to another human being for the first time in my life and I knew that was going to have to be the foundation of who I was when I got out or nothing was going to change.”
So when league executive Tracy Perlman reached out to Leaf this spring with an offer to become an NFL Legends Community coordinator, his career came full circle.
“The NFL Legends Community is the epitome of service,” Leaf said. “This isn’t about promoting you anymore. It’s about promoting something bigger than you. And that’s exactly what that young veteran and prison afforded me when I needed it most.”
Troy Vincent, the league’s executive vice president of football operations and a five-time Pro Bowl cornerback from 1999-2003, and Perlman were instrumental in launching the NFL Legends Community in 2013 to help every former player stay connected with their teams and to offer them assistance in many areas, from making sure they get health checks to life after football.
Leaf’s first exposure to the Legends came during the week leading up to Super Bowl 50 in 2016 in San Francisco. Each year at the Super Bowl, the group hosts several events and welcomes all former players to take part and learn about the programs available to them.
“I didn’t consider myself a legend. I felt like a failure,” Leaf said. “So I was a little hesitant but I went and I walked into the lounge with my wife and immediately I saw three of my former teammates. I saw Donnie Edwards and Chad Pennington, who were both Legends coordinators, and they came right up to me and put their arms around me and made it very clear that I was part of that group.”
Leaf was later invited to speak to quarterbacks at the 2017 NFL combine. His group included Patrick Mahomes, Deshaun Watson, Mitchell Trubisky, Nathan Peterman and Davis Webb.
“When I left, I thought: ‘Wow, this is really great. I hope I get more of an opportunity to work with the Legends,’” he said. “Sure enough, this spring I got an email from Tracy (about) a coordinator position. What an honor, what a grateful blessing that turned out to be because now essentially what I was doing in the recovery world, helping others, I now get to do it at the level that I played. The NFL is really trying to step up by putting this program in place, and I’m really happy to be a part of it.”
Perlman praised Leaf for being “transparent” and willing to talk about his mistakes.
“He is a really good person and everything he went through made him who he is now and he came out on the other side,” said Perlman, the NFL’s senior vice president of football communications and marketing. “He really wants to help other people and the Legends Community was built specifically to serve players. He’s there to help you. If telling his story helps or if just talking to you on the phone for five minutes, he’s willing to do it.”
Leaf finished third in Heisman Trophy voting in 1997 and led Washington State to the Rose Bowl. He was drafted by the San Diego Chargers after Peyton Manning went No. 1 to the Indianapolis Colts in 1998, but he was only 4-14 as a starter in three seasons. He was 0-3 with the Dallas Cowboys in 2001 and finished his four-year career with 14 touchdown passes and 36 interceptions.
His arrested in 2012 for breaking into a home in Montana to steal prescription drugs and violating his Texas probation led to prison.
“I was an ego maniac with a self-esteem problem and that’s what most addicts are like,” Leaf said. “I was a drug addict long before I ever took a drug. I think it was just exacerbated by the fame and the fortune of it all. I was so scared of everybody that I worked so hard to try to be better than everybody else. It didn’t work out. And it’s a humbling thing when you finally have an understanding of who you are.”
Leaf got a chance to do something long overdue On Oct. 1, 2017. He had a face-to-face conversation with Chargers owner Alex Spanos. NFL Commissioner Roger Goodell invited him to a suite to watch the Chargers play in their third home game after moving from San Diego to Los Angeles.
“I was super anxious,” Leaf said. “I was in a suite, so I wasn’t around hecklers who yell out: ‘Loser or bust.’ Donnie Edwards was there guiding me through it and then unknown to me — and I don’t know if this was planned — but Mr. Spanos walked in to say hi to Mr. Goodell. I think he was pretty taken aback when he saw me and I didn’t know I would ever be afforded the opportunity to make amends to Mr. Spanos for my part in my time in San Diego. The opportunity presented itself and I did exactly that. I made my amends to him.
“I remember I looked over at Mr. Goodell after I was done and he was just really pleased with how I handled it. You always want to feel part of something and when you’re part of the Legends Community, you feel a part of something and I do believe that relationship (with Spanos) will again come around.”
In July, Leaf was hired by ESPN to be a football analyst. He’ll be paired with play-by-play announcer Clay Matvick and will mostly call games on ESPN2 and ESPNU. Leaf worked for the Pac-12 Network last season and has been co-hosting a show on SiriusXM’s Pac-12 channel.