LOS ANGELES — Last week Ryan Leaf was discussing plans to attend the event linked to his unofficial title: Biggest NFL Draft Bust Ever.
Yes, the retired quarterback will be at the NFL draft Thursday for the first time since the San Diego Chargers selected Leaf in 1998 with the No. 2 overall pick out of Washington State University — right after the Indianapolis Colts had selected Peyton Manning with the No. 1 pick.
Leaf, 40, will be providing analysis for ESPN and figures to turn heads if he sticks to his usual script.
“I tell people I have the life of my dreams right now,’’ he told USA TODAY Sports. “And some of the snarky comments that come back are that, no, Peyton Manning has the life of Ryan’s dreams.”
In defense of the snarky: Manning has two Super Bowl rings, hundreds of millions of dollars and a spot in the Hall of Fame all but reserved.
Leaf, by contrast, has spent almost as much time in prison (32 months) as he did in the NFL (three seasons), battled a painkiller addiction that led to the prison sentence and, according to Leaf, left him virtually bankrupt.
So, maybe Manning is living Leaf’s dreams, after all?
“I had to think about it for a minute. But it’s not true,” Leaf said.
"When I got to San Diego, I made a speech about how my hope was to play a 15-year career and have a couple celebration parades in downtown San Diego, so essentially what I would be is a 40-year-old ass---- with two Super Bowl rings."
He may offer details of “dream life” during his appearance Thursday on ESPN, which next month is scheduled to air a 30 for 30 documentary about Leaf. But he will express no regrets about his NFL career, during which he threw 14 touchdowns, threw 36 interceptions and threw blame on just about anyone but himself.
“I don’t believe I was meant to be a professional quarterback,’’ he said. “I was meant to have these life experiences and be an impact on others who’ve struggled.
“The fact that I played football tends to get our foot in the door to maybe some closed-minded people who wouldn’t necessarily take a look at getting help. Or they can relate maybe more to a guy who had everything, seemingly had everything, wasted it all, and has found this peaceful life.’’
If only the Chargers were so lucky. Leaf noted that the team never appeared to recover after it spent its prized No. 2 pick on Leaf. He also said he thought the Chargers might have been able to avoid the agony tied to Leaf.
Leaf said more probing might have revealed that his refusal to take responsibility for losses flared up during his sophomore year at Washington State, and he said he heard the Chargers had diagnostic tests showing Leaf’s mental makeup was inferior to Manning’s.
“My talent must have made them overwhelmingly ignorant to science,’’ Leaf said of the Chargers.
But Leaf said he blames no one for his struggles on and off the field.
“I was the problem,’’ he said.
Now he is he is presented as hope.
Last week, he spoke while sitting on a couch at the offices of Transcend, a recovery community with nine homes in the Los Angeles, New York and Houston areas. He is Transcend’s “ambassador,’’ telling his story, their story and how they came together.
Ryan Leaf, from draft bust to recovering addict, still winging it downfield all these years later. pic.twitter.com/TiqAtMOiHM— Josh Peter (@joshlpeter11) April 24, 2017
'Bolt of lightning struck'
In March 2015, Transcend received a resume from a job applicant who was completing rehab in nearby Malibu and whose previous work experience included “Quarterback for the San Diego Chargers.’’
Asher Gottesman, chief executive officer at Transcend, soon met Leaf and learned about the quarterback’s troubled past and addiction to painkillers.
In retrospect, Leaf said, he needed help long before he swallowed his first Vicodin. The isolation that contributed to his addiction grew when he was a high school football star in Montana, according to Leaf.
“Some of the most successful and talented people are some of the loneliest because they isolate so much,’’ he said, “and I certainly did the same.’’
His addiction to painkillers can be traced back to what he was prescribed after several orthopedic surgeries during his NFL career, according to Leaf. But he said the addiction took hold only after he retired in 2002, and he recalled a night of drinking in Las Vegas when a boxing promoter offered him Vicodin.
“It affected me in a way where I didn’t feel judged when I was in a room,’’ Leaf said. “I was uninhibited. And I didn’t have to feel anything — the failure, the pain, the anxiety, the depression, all of it.
“That night started about an eight-year run of off-and-on Opioid abuse that took my life to the very bottom.’’
He said he attempted to slit his left wrist, but the knife was too dull to do the job. Shortly thereafter, he was sentenced to seven years in prison after being convicted of burglarizing homes and stealing prescription medication.
Leaf said he would still be in prison now if not for his cellmate, an Iraqi war veteran who encouraged him to help other inmates learn to read.
“It was the first time I was of service to anybody that didn’t serve my interests,’’ Leaf said. “I can look back at it now and see that’s where the bolt of lightning struck.’’
He kept working with the inmates and, granted parole in December 2014, left prison with new purpose. Checking himself into rehab after cashing an insurance policy that helped cover the cost, Leaf heard about Transcend and their willingness to hire addicts in early recovery.
Eventually Leaf sent a resume, scored an interview and the quarterback who as an NFL rookie signed a four-year contract worth $31 million, got a job offer: $15 an hour to drive people suffering from addiction, mental illness or substance abuse.
He gave chief operating officer Christian De Oliveira a bear hug and got to work.
“To us, his recovery is about humility,’’ Gottesman said. “We wanted to make sure that it was true humility and not false humility.
“He literally passed everything with flying colors.’’
Leaf was rewarded with a raise and a title, program ambassador, and a job description that now allows him simply to tell his story at schools, at town halls, even on The Ellen Degeneres Show — despite the risks.
“Do I think Ryan will relapse?’’ Gottesman said. “The answer is I have no idea. I’m not God.’’
Which brought to mind a joke Leaf recalls hearing when he was the star quarterback at Washington State.
“What was the difference between God and Ryan Leaf? God doesn’t think he’s Ryan Leaf.’’
These days it’s OK to laugh at Leaf in Leaf’s presence, and other changes are evident.
Without complaint, he shares an office with three other people. He makes no unilateral decisions, instead consulting a five-person “board of directors” that includes his fiancee, Anna Kleinsorge, a former volleyball player at Georgetown.
“Because my best thinking takes me to a prison cell,’’ Leaf explained. “I don’t make the right choices. I never have.’’
In addition to starting a non-profit called Focused Intensity Foundation for people who can't afford recovery services, he is preparing to become a father, with Kleinsorge due to deliver a boy Oct. 1. And Leaf said bringing a child into the world with his last name was unthinkable two years ago.
“That’s still how shameful I was of the things I went through,’’ he said of the struggles he now speaks about regularly as Transcend’s ambassador. “The more and more I talk about it, I think it takes that power away of shame and guilt.’’
Almost two decades after the last NFL draft he attended, Leaf said, he still has fond memories of ’98, when he became the first player from Montana to be picked in the first round. But now he said he is far more focused on today’s prospects than he is on himself.
At the NFL’s invitation, he spoke to quarterback prospects in February at the NFL Combine.
He said he stresses that being a good football player does not make you a good person — something Leaf has learned after a tumultuous NFL career followed by addiction.
“I wish I would have treated people better,’’ he said. “Definitely, that’s the biggest regret I have. But it allowed me to be humble where I could go back and make amends to those people and try to be better.
“I’m only 40 years old, and I’ve got such an amazing opportunity ahead of me."