There was a time I wouldn't have cared about Ryan Leaf, what he's up to or even that he was diagnosed with a brain tumor, outside of the typical human empathy that comes along with such news. Watching Leaf evolve, struggle and eventually grow as a person has been a rollercoaster, with tiring ups and downs all along the way, and it eventually got to be too much to bother paying attention to. From the highest of highs, leading WSU to the Rose Bowl at the conclusion of the 1997 season, to the lowest of lows, Leaf has crammed more into 35 years than most will in a lifetime.
This is my own story about following the life and times of Ryan Leaf. As I've grown up and evolved as a person myself, my view of him has changed dramatically, shifting with the ebbs and flows of his trials and tribulations.
Some of my first memories of WSU football involved Leaf -- save for the Snow Bowl, which will live-on forever in my own mind, and the minds of many Cougar fans. Back then, I was a young kid who looked up to Leaf. He was busy leading the Cougars to the Rose Bowl, providing fans with plenty of thrills along the way. He was untouchable, in my mind, and one of the first sports "heroes" I had, among the likes of Ken Griffey Jr. and Randy Johnson.
We later found out Leaf was all smoke and mirrors, with his talent and performance on the field masking serious issues under the surface. He was immature, to put it nicely, and prone to embarrassing outbursts. While his issues were kept away from the public eye in Pullman, they would soon manifest themselves in the NFL, where there's no place to hide from the media.
As a 13-year-old, I sat in a car, waiting to see who would draft Leaf. It was the first time I remember caring about the NFL Draft. In the run-up to draft day, all the talk centered on Leaf and Peyton Manning, with analysts hotly debating which player would be the No. 1 overall pick. As a young sports fan, it was exciting to see the name of a Cougar great bandied about as a potential top-pick in the NFL Draft.
In what's become a defining moment for both franchises, the Indianapolis Colts made Manning the No. 1 pick, with the San Diego Chargers settling for Leaf at No. 2. Leaf earned a hefty signing bonus -- the largest for a rookie at that time -- as a consolation prize. One player went on to become one of the greatest quarterbacks in NFL history while the other is now labeled as one of the biggest busts in draft history. Indianapolis thrived with Manning at the helm; San Diego floundered around, crippled by its miscalculation of Leaf.
My view of Leaf changed as his attitude revealed itself in San Diego. The maturity issues were there all along, masked by his talent on the field and the relative media obscurity that comes with playing in Pullman. He'd go out, throw the ball all over the field and pile up wins at Washington State, winning over Cougar fans along the way.
I met Mr. Leaf while I was in college at Washington State, as he was in the midst of his downward spiral. Leaf came to Pullman around the time his brother, Brady, was playing for Oregon. The timing of the encounter escapes me now, but I do remember the interaction. The fraternity I was in at the time had rented out the party room in the house for a sorority date function, and Leaf was expected to attend.
"Did you hear? Ryan Leaf will be here tonight. He's coming as one of the girl's dates. How will he look? I wonder what he'll act like."
The whispers continued throughout the day and into the evening, with everyone wondering if the Washington State star and NFL bust would show. Everyone wanted a glimpse of the former all-everything quarterback. It was like hosting our own celebrity, even after his high-profile NFL failures.
Leaf did show -- it was easy to spot the tall guy with the backwards hat -- and I talked to him on a few occasions throughout the night. It was about how you'd expect it to go: He had what he called a "bodyguard" following him around and showed a general lack of respect for everything and everyone around him, save for the "bodyguard." Even after an NFL career one would expect would humble him, he was still cocky and immature.
He came through like a tornado, partying into the night and leaving a giant wad of chewing tobacco in a drinking fountain as a souvenir. Later that night, after he had left the function and headed to the bars, I was told someone ran up and clocked him as the bar was closing. I still have no idea if it's true, but even the rumor says a lot about how far he'd fallen in the eyes of Washington State fans.
The carnival ride that was Leaf's life finally bottomed out in 2008 and 2009, after he accepted an assistant coaching position with West Texas A&M. His problems with prescription drugs cost him his job, along with his dignity. Leaf reportedly asked for a pill from one of his players and was later indicted on burglary charges after allegedly breaking into a player's home to steal narcotics.
About the time Leaf hit the end of his rope, I stopped caring. I figured he would disappear from the spotlight, forever to be known as a cautionary tale. I expected his downward spiral to continue and was convinced Leaf would never get past his maturity issues and addictions.
I was wrong.
After hitting rock-bottom, Leaf finally got the help he so desperately needed. It was about 10 years too late, in a way, but it took him kicked in the face by life and his struggles for him to seek treatment, both for his underlying issues and the drug problem he'd been unable to break.
Leaf emerged from rehab and seemed like a new man, yet I still didn't buy it. After years of being conditioned to believe the brash and immature man that emerged in San Diego was the real Leaf -- a person who couldn't be fixed -- I was skeptical he'd actually changed. Like many others, I approached his transformation with cautious optimism.
Maybe this is the time he finally figures it out. Maybe a stint in rehab, away from football and the public eye, changed him. Maybe, hopefully, the light bulb turned on.
As the months passed since Leaf emerged on the other side of addiction and rehab, he truly looked like a changed person. He was humble, more mature and showed a different side of himself -- a new and improved Ryan Leaf. He continued to rehabilitate himself and his image in a slow and methodical process, taking steps in the right direction along the way. He opened up to Cougar fans and began to become more involved in WSU athletics, as well.
Perhaps the WSU family helped his recovery as he clawed back from his deep personal struggles.
Leaf quietly went in for surgery on a brain tumor near the end of May -- the tumor was benign and all has been well since. The outpouring of support from Cougs is something I'm not sure we would've seen had he been diagnosed a few years earlier. Then again, Washington State fans are a loyal bunch, as I've seen demonstrated throughout my relationship with the university and its athletic programs over the years.
The 180 Leaf has done over the course of the past decade has been one of the better tales of redemption and a publisher, apparently, agrees. Leaf will write about his life -- three books, in fact -- and share his story with the world. And, again, if this were just a few years ago, I probably wouldn't have cared. He'd have been writing from the wrong place, still hiding behind the persona built by lying to himself about who he truly is.
The Ryan Leaf we see today is nowhere near a finished product, but it's a better Ryan Leaf than before. Watching from afar, he's harder on himself than others are. We're willing to forgive his mistakes, but I'm not so sure he's willing to forgive himself yet. He's getting there, but the fact that he's gotten this far already is both impressive and unexpected.
The Ryan Leaf story is still being written and who knows how it will turn out as time passes. I've always appreciated Leaf as a player for what he did on the field at Washington State. But now I appreciate him as a person and am proud of what he's done, and is continuing to do, with his life.
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