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On Ryan Leaf, ESPN’s E:60 feature, and recovery

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WSU football’s most famous player is firmly back in the public eye. We’re hopeful it will end better this time.

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ESPN

So, ESPN took a spotlight to Ryan Leaf — WSU’s most famous quarterback, for all the best and worst reasons — with an E:60 special creatively titled “Leaf,” which featured extensive interviews with him and a whole bunch of people who crossed paths with him over the years.

I’m not 100 percent positive, but I think this is the first thing I’ve written about about Ryan Leaf since his release from prison two and a half years ago. It doesn’t seem like it’s been that long. Heck, it doesn’t seem like it’s been that long since Leaf’s first redemption tour, back in 2010 and 2011, during which I was writing about how proud I was to call Leaf a Coug, and Brian Floyd was writing about how Leaf had evolved through his rollercoaster life.

Of course, a lot has happened since then.

I haven’t actively avoided writing about Leaf since he walked out of that correctional facility in 2014, per se. It’s more just like, I dunno ... we’ve kind of seen this before, right? I wasn’t really sure what I could add to the conversation that hadn’t already been said from the 1000-foot view the last time around. I don’t know Leaf personally, so all I’ve really got is “Leaf hits rock bottom ... he’s now clean and sober ... he’s trying to make amends ... this is good.”

I hope that doesn’t sound cynical, because I really hope it works out this time, for everyone’s sake. But since I’m not his friend, I just didn’t think there was much more to say from this vantage point, so I didn’t see a whole lot of reason to say something just to say something.

But I was highly intrigued by the prospect of ESPN’s production, which would focus on his life and recovery from addiction (if you have access to WatchESPN and didn’t DVR it, you can stream all 65 minutes here) precisely because I was curious to see if there would be anything new added to the story for those of us who have followed him closely for the past 20 years.

The answer to that largely was no — outside of revealing, for the first time that I remember, that Leaf attempted suicide, the video generally covered a lot of well-worn ground (albeit in that special, Tom Rinaldi way). That doesn’t mean it was bad; it was very well done, and I really enjoyed it. But for us, it wasn’t groundbreaking.

It also glossed over a few things, decisions that I found curious. There was no mention of the DUI arrest before spring ball in 1996, which preceded his first season as a starter; no mention at all of Leaf’s previous media tour after his first stint in rehab, which included him writing a book (which I liked quite a bit!); no mention of how, when he was sentenced in 2012, he was first put in a low-security rehab facility but got kicked out after six months for bad behavior, which is what finally landed him in real-deal prison.

All of these things would seem relevant to me in terms of telling a complete story about Leaf, but for whatever reason, Rinaldi left them out. It’s actually possible Rinaldi didn’t even know about the DUI (I’ll admit, even I had forgotten about it until P.J. Kendall reminded me yesterday). However, I suspect the latter two were omitted because they might undermine the feel-good narrative of Leaf’s current redemption, which really is the focus of the piece — it might have been a tough sell, even for an excellent storyteller such as Rinaldi, to say “well, we’ve been here before ... but this time is different, we swear!”

That said, after watching it all, I continue to have hope for Leaf’s continued recovery.

Near the end of Redemption Tour 1, Leaf had a little media dust up during which he called Mike Riley — who coached him briefly with the San Diego Chargers — “an idiot.” It broke character from the things he’d been saying publicly for nearly two years, during which he’d been relentlessly owning up to his past behaviors and addiction. Some took it as a chance to fire off what I thought was a cheap shot at Leaf, saying, “SEE? Still Ryan Leaf! Mike Riley’s one of the good guys.” I was annoyed at that (of course, I didn’t know at the time that he was using again), and I wrote this:

In fact, during the media tour surrounding the release of his book, I privately wondered to friends if he wasn't taking the self flagellation a little too far. I mean, how many times should a guy have to apologize for the biggest mistakes of his life? In public, no less?

Looking back, it felt like there was a self-loathing tone to his interviews — as if going around and subjecting himself to all the interviews and jokes at his expense (and there were a lot of jokes at his expense, right to his face) was some sort of penance for his past sins. I don’t know much about the psychological nuances of addiction, but that sure seems like the sort of thing that could continue to feed into a hatred for one’s self that could fuel a substance problem.

Although Leaf’s saying a lot of similar things this time around, I don’t sense that same vibe in the tone with which he says them. Which I think, in my completely non-professional opinion, is good.

However, I’ll admit I’m having a hard time putting my finger on how to describe the current tone. I’m resisting the urge to try and make grand proclamations about maturity or humility or whatever, because I feel like it’s still important to note that Leaf is, and always has been, a really good talker — minutes after being a complete asshole to the lowly football writer for The Daily Evergreen (me), he could turn around and spin a good yarn for Sports Illustrated; the last time he was using, he was able to fool a lot of people in the media for a while; and his ability to speak also is the reason why he’s in his current job, as an ambassador for Transcend Recovery Community. (E:60 shows a lot of great footage from his speaking engagements. Unsurprisingly, he’s a natural.) But he does seem more ... comfortable with himself? At peace? Like I said, it’s hard to describe.

Additionally, it really looks like he’s doing all the right things to have long term success. Continuing to be surrounded by a clean-and-sober environment cannot possibly be a bad idea (Rinaldi says Leaf still attends therapy twice a week), and Leaf speaks as someone who has an intellectual understanding of the root of his addiction problems, saying he was an addict before he ever took any drugs — a reference to the self-centered, narcissistic behaviors that he believes led him to use substances.

He also seems more cautious of the media attention this time around; it feels like he’s eschewing the spotlight for the most part, picking and choosing his spots. This is from an extended interview on Wednesday with Chuck Powell and Jason Puckett on 950-AM in Seattle:

“Because of this (E:60 piece), I have to be kept in check too,” Leaf said. “One of my biggest issues was my ego — and it’s important to understand that when something like this airs, it really has nothing to do with me. This isn’t about changing people’s opinion of me. It’s not like, ‘Hey everybody, come see how great Ryan is!’ This is about telling my story, and then somebody who’s struggling like I was, at some point can reach out or see it or feel relatable in some way — that’s what this is all about.”

He also said he wasn’t entirely pleased with the final product.

“My hope was that this E:60 piece would have been more recovery based,” he said. “They delve more into the football side of things, which I think could have been told in a relatively smaller part, and really affected the people with the recovery side about human behavior and being a human being. But ... the response has been amazing, we’re helping a lot of people, and we hope to be able to continue to do so.”

This is pretty indicative of Leaf’s overall message, both throughout the piece and in various interviews: Looking back can serve as a cautionary tale for others, and he’s perfectly willing to do that in pursuit of that purpose if it helps. But in his own life? He’s focused on looking ahead, working daily on managing his shortcomings, rather than trying to prove to people that he’s “changed,” a constant theme last time around.

“This is just service work. I wasn’t a servant to anyone in my life,” Leaf said “This is a lot of making up to do for the guy that I was for so long when I had so much but didn’t give back to the people who really appreciated what I did. It’s a daily up-and-down thing, just like everybody else. I’m happy with where I’m at. It’s a peaceful and unchaotic life, because I really created a lot of chaos for a long time.”

Maybe that also sounds like penance this time around, but it seems to me that doing penance by legitimately helping others on behalf of an organization that aids people in getting and staying sober is different than the Redemption Tour 1 template of beating yourself up under the guise of “sharing my story.” Maybe not. I guess we’ll see.

Whether Leaf truly believes these things or he’s parroting them from his therapist ... I mean, I obviously have no actual insight. It sounds like he believes it. His mom says in the video that she believes it. Rinaldi told The Spokesman-Review’s Jacob Thorpe that he believes it.

“I’ll give you his answer, which is we only know about today. That’s his answer,” Rinaldi said. “There’s no great pledge that he will never backslide toward addiction, and he’s the first voice in the piece to address and enunciate that. It’s something he has to address every single day. And he feels he’s built a structure in his life to address why those relapses happened in the past.”

Throughout the last 20 years, I always said that I liked Ryan, that even in college I merely found him to be a tremendously insecure person who lacked the ability to cope with those insecurities, and that I hoped he would find peace someday.

I had hope that it had happened five years ago, and I hold out hope that it is happening now. But even if it’s not? At the bare minimum, he’s currently doing what appears to be a sizable amount of good for others.

And that’s something we can continue to be proud of no matter what when it comes to a fellow Coug — one of us — who brought us all so much joy during a magical season two decades ago. That part of our history will never change, and I refuse to pretend it didn’t, or be embarrassed as a fan by what came after.

After all, this is a man’s life we’re talking about. And I’ll continue to root for him, even if (when?) he remains highly imperfect moving forward.