KRAVITZ: Once an NFL draft bust, sober Leaf is now giving back and embracing a new life

In this July 27, 2010, file photo, former NFL quarterback Ryan Leaf is shown in Holter Lake, Mont. (AP Photo/Mike Albans)
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Bob Kravitz

INDIANAPOLIS (WTHR) - This is a story of arrogance and narcissism. This is a story of a man’s meteoric rise and rapid fall into the abyss of addiction and incarceration. This is a story of Ryan Leaf’s resurrection, the way the former No. 2 pick in the 1998 Draft, the man who was taken by the Chargers right after the Colts established their franchise by taking Peyton Manning, has bounced back from the hardest fall imaginable.

Just six years ago, Leaf was in a Montana jail cell, doing some time in solitary confinement, in fact, after breaking into homes and stealing opioids to satiate a habit that had sent his life careening off the rails.

To his great credit, though, he has become determined to alter the narrative – draft bust, bad guy, inmate – and create an entirely different second act for his life.

“Now, karmically, I’m in the media,’’ he said with a laugh as he sat in an Indianapolis hotel lobby the day of the NFL Draft.

It’s true. Leaf, the guy who used to see media people as lower life forms, has begun doing work for the Pac-12 network and does an XM radio show out of his home in Los Angeles. More important, though, he does what he is doing this evening, speaking to a crowd of roughly 700 at the Fairbanks Circle of Hope dinner at the downtown Marriott.

"What I say is somewhat dependent on the audience," he said. "This will be more recovery based, more about experience, strength and hope. It’s about choice and understanding we’re all flawed human beings who try to do better every day. Probably the three ideals that strengthen my life now are accountability, spirituality and community....An audience can relate to me. I’m flawed. A Brady or a Manning, they’re NFL quarterbacks and I share that commonality with them, but I don’t feel like I can relate to them at all because they’re almost like perfect beings. They’re iconic."

Before Leaf developed a life-altering drug problem after his retirement from the NFL, he had a very different kind of problem: He had a Ryan Leaf problem. He was, by his own admission, an arrogant narcissist who was put on a pedestal at a very young age, a person who believed he was fully deserving of that stature. It’s why, when I asked him if he thought there was a chance he could have succeeded had he been drafted by the Colts rather than the San Diego Chargers, he quickly shook his head.

"No, I was the problem, and it wouldn’t have mattered where I was drafted," he said. "I was the problem. I wouldn’t have been able to lead the league in interceptions as a rookie like Peyton did and come out the other side. See, Peyton saw it as an opportunity to take failure and see it as an opportunity, whereas I saw it as a referendum on me as a person and a player. I would have struggled badly with that."

It’s something Leaf tells audiences, and especially audiences like other athletes, as he did two years ago when he spoke to potential draftees at the NFL Combine in Indianapolis. "Just because you’re a great athlete," he told them, "it doesn’t necessarily mean you’re a good person."

In this Sept. 13, 1998, file photo, San Diego Chargers quarterback Ryan Leaf looks to hand the ball off as teammate Raleigh McKenzie blocks during a 13-7 win over the Tennessee Oilers in Nashville, Tenn. (AP Photo/Mark Humphrey)

It is worth noting, though, that some of the things that have been written about Leaf’s pre-draft dalliance with the Colts are not true, at least according to Leaf. Yes, he missed a meeting with Jim Mora, but that’s because the Chicago Bears had asked him to get an MRI on his thumb. But no, he said, he did not turn down a date to meet with the Colts brass because he had previously arranged a buddies’ golf trip to Vegas. "[Bill] Polian said that in his book," Leaf said. "Same guy who said he had a first-round grade on Tom Brady, right? Look, going to Vegas instead of meeting with them sounds like something I might do, but it’s not." And no, he said again, it’s not true that he and his agent at the time, Leigh Steinberg, were trying to steer the former Washington State star away from Indy and toward San Diego. Leaf acknowledges he preferred San Diego over Indianapolis – "They had [Marvin] Harrison, they had [Marshall] Faulk, but I wasn't thinking about the right things at the time," he said – but there was never a mandate to Steinberg to get him to San Diego.

In the months before that 1998 draft, Manning, who comes from the NFL's version of the Kennedy family, was cast as the golden child while Leaf was the swaggering badass with the big arm.

"Pre-draft, they put Peyton in the white hat and me in the black hat, and instead of stopping that and saying, 'Hey, that’s not me, I’m just a hick from Montana who's going to live a dream,' instead I wore the smokers jacket in the ESPN article and referred to Peyton as the 'golden boy.' I started doing what Dennis Rodman did when he became The Worm. Just as long as people were talking about me..." he said.

"I needed to be humbled as a narcissist. True humility is the understanding of who you really are, regardless of what anybody else says or thinks or knows and I was never Ryan."

Over the years, Leaf has come to terms with the fact that as a younger man, pre-incarceration, pre-humiliation, he just wasn't a very nice person. The world owed him because he was special. And then, when the failure came on the football field and the criticism and questions about him began, he fell to pieces and imploded.

"The bad behavior really started when I was 13; that's when I realized I could get away with more," he said. "That’s when people started putting me on a pedestal. Understand, I'm the only first-round pick from Montana. There are more first-rounders in the Manning family than the whole state of Montana. I thought I was pretty special. Even if I did mess up with people, I could always correct that on a Friday night playing basketball, baseball or football.

“...I’d like to blame my poor play on being an addict, but I didn't start using until after I was done. It was about me. I developed this idea that success was all about money, power and prestige. I don't know why. It wasn't taught to me by my family. My father is a high-integrity person. But I learned it somewhere. The higher and higher I got on the pedestal, the more important I thought I was, and you were beneath me, no matter who you were.

"Especially with the media, thinking you guys are peons, I don't have to do anything for you and I can be the worst possible person....So for me, it was totally a behavior thing. I was an egomaniac with a self-esteem problem. What other people thought of me was truly important. It didn't matter if they disliked me, as long as they were thinking of me."

When the money and prestige came – not the success, so much – it only emboldened Leaf. He was untouchable. The problem was, he wasn't playing well. For as long as people talk about him, they will run that unfortunate video of him freaking out when a San Diego reporter, Jay Posner, sat next to him in the locker room to ask him some questions. It's Leaf's version of Jim Mora's “Playoffs! Playoffs??!’’ Leaf lasted just four seasons in the NFL, at which point, it all fell completely apart.

"I was a drug addict long before I ever took a drug, and competition was my drug," he said. "I had my first drink at 18. The only drug I'd ever used was Vicodin. I looked at those people who drank and used, I saw them as morally bankrupt. I was better than you. Competition was everything. I had to win at everything. It was all black and white. I was a success at everything in my life until I failed at the highest level and then I imploded. It was all about how I dealt with life and failure."

After four unhappy and unproductive seasons in the NFL, Leaf walked away from the game that was his life-long identity. Now he needed something to fill the void, the emotional emptiness he felt from having reached the apex of his life, only to fail spectacularly. Then a friend offered him Vicodin – which he’d used before, but only within the realm of dealing with football-related pain -- and his life took an ugly turn.

"The physical and emotional pain I had, it worked for me. I didn't feel better. I just felt nothing."

It all bottomed out on April 1, 2012.

He was on probation for having broken into a friend’s house and stealing some pain-killing drugs two days earlier. Now he had no drugs and he was contemplating ways in which he could commit suicide. Those plans never came to fruition, but he did find another house, another opioid fix, and within hours, the sheriff’s department showed up and threw him in jail. He did 32 months for burglary and drug crimes, detoxed in prison, did some time in solitary confinement.

Even there, Leaf didn't quite get it. The humbling was not quite complete. He had his issues in prison. But then he started listening to, and actually hearing, the words of a cellmate who was a military veteran. He painstakingly talked Leaf into going to the library and helping inmates learn to read. And something clicked -- finally. He was doing something for somebody else. It wasn't all about him. He was giving back, and now sober through those 32 months, it felt every bit as good as any opioid.

"After I started being of service to other human beings, things changed," Leaf said. "I credit my [prison cell] roommate and his ability to get my head out of my ass. Some people have to be humbled in a different way, and I had to be stripped clean of it all, I guess."

He is six years sober now.

He finished his degree at Washington State and is embarking (ironically) on a media career.

Heisman Trophy candidates, from left to right, Charles Woodson, Peyton Manning, Randy Moss and Ryan Leaf pose in the lobby of New York's Downtown Athletic Club with the Heisman trophy prior to the start of the ceremony Dec. 13, 1997. (AP Photo/Adam Nadel)

He is speaking to groups around the country, telling them his story.

"What would you tell your younger self?" I wondered.

"I’d tell him it's going to hurt like hell, but you're going to be OK. Twenty years since the [1998 Draft], I can talk to all three guys in the [1997] Heisman class [Manning, Charles Woodson and Randy Moss], see their lives are pretty peaceful now and they're in a happy place, and no matter the ups and downs, I can safely say I'm in a similar spot. No matter what happens, you can always recover if you choose to do the next right thing that moment.

"Twenty years later, we're in the same spot."

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