Former NFL quarterback Ryan Leaf speaks about his struggle with substance abuse
Ryan Leaf, a former NFL quarterback spoke about his personal experiences with substance abuse at a Touchstone Ranch Recovery event held at Cowboy Church of Erath County. Leaf explains how his behavior as a teenager fed into his drug addiction, eventually ending his professional career.
Leaf’s career as an NFL quarterback took place from 1998 to 2002 playing for the San Diego Chargers, Tampa Bay Buccaneers, Dallas Cowboys and Seattle Seahawks.
Leaf grew up in Great Falls, Montana where he says he was placed on a pedestal at an early age. “I was very good at sports… in a small town if you’re good at something that people admire, you’re placed on a pedestal pretty early and in my case I was head and shoulders above everybody else and that made me stand out.” Leaf said that this contributed to his self-esteem at the time. “…it made me feel different, it made me feel better because I could play a silly game.”
When Leaf looks back on his life, he said he was an addict before he started to consume drugs. “I was a drug addict long before I took the drug because of how I behaved. I was told I was better than [others], so I treated people and made choices like I was better than [others] and because I was good enough at what I did, there were never any consequences,” Leaf said.
Leaf said that during his early life, the opinion of others was incredibly important. Leaf’s parents were aware of how much attention their son was receiving and would often avoid punishing Leaf out of the fear that he might create a scene and draw negative attention to himself.
At Washington State University, Leaf was awarded the Heisman Trophy and said he noticed the arrogant attitude he had, which continued to be prevalent during his drug addiction.
“I can see a huge shift in my behavior when I look back at the interviews leading up to the draft. The Heisman Trophy presentation, Rose Bowl interviews, things like that, you can really see the arrogance and the manipulation and the judgment [and] fear that go along with being an addict in my behavior in those interviews when I look back at them now.” Leaf added, “Of course I didn’t see then, because I thought I was better than everybody else.”
Leaf was the second pick in the 1998 NFL draft, following newly retired NFL quarterback, Peyton Manning, who was the first pick. “Whenever I was about thirteen, fourteen-years-old when I was told how good I was at something- football. I think that’s where my emotionality or my emotional maturity ended. I was in arrested development. So if you ever want to try an experiment, give a 13-year-old kid $31 million dollars and see how that works out for him- it doesn’t at all. I was 21-years-old actually, had never failed at anything. Now everybody was telling me I was the best player on the planet and they’re going to give me $31 million dollars…” Leaf said.
It was shortly after his draft in the NFL that Leaf said his experience with drugs had begun. “So I was at a fight in Vegas. A boxing promoter I knew was going out partying with us that night. He offered me a couple pills which was Hydrocodone at the time and I mixed them with the alcohol… and when I walked in the room I didn’t feel any judgment from one person. I felt like I was numb to it all. It didn’t matter I could just have no inhibitions and that was fine and for me the substance has never been the problem, its been the guy doing it…”
Leaf also mentioned one of the first incidents that brought him into the public spotlight was his angry outburst at a news reporter during a post-game locker room interview. “I mean I look back on it and I think my career ended that day not because of how I played but how I dealt with it. I immediately in the locker room got defensive when criticized, acted out and ultimately the next day yelled at a reporter that was then pretty much used on national TV for the rest of my career.”
After four years of playing in the NFL, Leaf ended his career as a professional football player in 2002. “I had a dream since I was 4-years-old and now at 27, I just said… ‘I quit.’ I told people I retired but I quit, and when you quit something like that and you don’t take anytime to process it. The transition is non-existent because there was this identity, that’s who I was. I was Ryan Leaf the football player. Now I was Ryan Leaf the bust, Ryan Leaf the failure.”
Immediately after retiring, Leaf said he turned to constant partying in order to portray to others that he was living in what seemed to be an exciting life. He compared himself to former Texas A&M University football star and Cleveland Browns quarterback, Johnny Manziel. “I just flew to Vegas a lot, partied, made everybody think everything was cool, spent a lot of money at the blackjack table… If Instagram and Twitter and all that stuff existed back then, what you’ve seen in the last year from Johnny Manziel. That was me.”
Leaf’s drug addiction began to spiral out of control after his retirement from The NFL. “I spent [time] in my 6,000-square foot San Diego mansion overlooking the beach and the golf course with the drapes drawn with the west wing and Dawson’s creek playing on a loop on television while I took Vicodin every single day for a year. I don’t know how I was able to hide it. People just didn’t care where I was at what I was doing,” Leaf said.
He tried to make a change in his life by finishing his college career at Washington State University receiving his Bachelor of Arts degree in Humanities. However, after spending much of his money on Vicodin pills, he was in need of a paying job. He accepted a position as a quarterback coach at West Texas A&M University.
Leaf explained that the athletes he coached admired, trusted and respected him. He said that this would eventually be abused when he started to ask the injured athletes for their pain medication pills.
After a while, the athletes knew when to expect to be approached by Leaf and one injured athlete decided that he was not going to hand over his medication. Leaf said that one day he walked into the injured athlete’s home and stole medication pills from a medicine cabinet.
“… when you’re a 19-year-old boy who had just been injured doing something you love…. You call your mom. He called his mom and he was confused and his mom did the right thing. His mom called our athletic director who was my boss and made him aware of it. She then also sent an anonymous email to ESPN so it was on the banner the next day”
Leaf said that he could now no longer hide the fact that he was a drug addict. “Now my truth’s out there. Not only am I a failed bust of a football player but I am also a horrible person, a drug addict and I’m a felon, liar.”
Leaf moved back to Montana to live with his parents and finally began to receive treatment. “[Treatment] is the most safe environment you can be in. You are in a secure safe space with therapists and people with relatable problems and solutions. But once those 60 days or 30 days are up, if you don’t transition into a place…where there’s some kind of transitional sober living or there’s some kind of program in place, you’re just going to go back to all those same stressors with the people that you have been with before, whom haven’t been getting the help for the 60 days and your default setting is going to be whatever that drug of choice was, or however you cope…”
There is another tribulation Leaf said he usually does not disclose when speaking about his experiences- he was diagnosed with a brain tumor. “…Why don’t I look at my life and look how grateful I am that I didn’t just die from a brain tumor? But instead it was ‘ooh let’s use this and sell more books and show everybody how tough I am’…,” Leaf said.
On March 30, 2012, Leaf was arrested for drug charges, burglary and theft. Leaf said that he would go out and pretend to be interested in buying homes by looking at open houses. “You know, everybody has pain medication in their house from the time they went to the dentist, since they had surgery, anything like that… I finally just started driving on the outskirts of my town, Great Falls, and seeing ranch houses that looked like no one was around. People wouldn’t lock their doors, I would just knock and if no one was home, I’d walk in and I’d find pills. I wouldn’t go around 30 or 40 houses and try to collect as many pills as I could. [If] the second house I went to had pills in it, boom! I was home…”
Leaf said that after posting his bond and getting out of jail, he either wanted to be high or die. “It’s not that I wanted to die, I just didn’t want to live like this anymore. I looked up 10 ways how to kill yourself on google,” Leaf said he went to his bathtub and slit both of his wrists, but was not committed to following through with suicide.
Just two days later, Leaf was arrested again after going back to steal more pills from a house that appeared to be vacant. “…The cops showed up again and arrested me for the second time in 48 hours, in my hometown… and that’s the last thing I remember was kind of pulling up to the intake place. Next thing I know it’s like two days later, April 1, 2012. I’m in a suicide smock in a clear wall jail cell with everybody kind of being able to look at me…”
The former NFL quarterback was sentenced to seven years in prison for burglary and possession of Vicodin. He spent 32 months in prison and said that he was miserable and self-loathing the majority of the time.
His roommate, an Iraqi-Afghan war vet inspired Leaf after he was in prison for killing a person after driving drunk. Leaf said that one day his roommate ‘let him have it’ and explained to him just how important it was for him to change his ways. “… it was impactful and for the first time, I don’t know, it flipped a switch. While I was in there (prison), I started helping guys learn how to read. I started being a T.A (Teaching Assistant) for a substance abuse counselor… I had never been a service to anybody in my life,” Leaf said.
He also described another major transformation that occurred before he was released from prison- the ability to take accountability for his actions. “Also the ability to look in the mirror and go ‘I’m in here for what I did’…. I did all these things, I’m the common denominator.”
After being released from prison, Leaf continued to receive treatment at a facility and also credits his progress to continuous prayer, meditation and exercise. Leaf’s therapist gave him an affirmation that Leaf now says he repeats every morning which is “What other people think of me is none of my business.” Leaf’s temper is another issue he still struggles with. He expressed that when he loses his temper and feels discouraged, he reminds himself “I’m a flawed human being and this is progress, not prevention.”
Leaf said he believes that drug and alcohol addiction is a huge problem in the lives of professional athletes and is also major influence for those that watch professional sports. “I think that it’s a coping mechanism for stress, injuries, identity crisis and its plastered all over the TV on every Sunday. The league sponsors are beer companies- the king of beers: Budwiser, Bud Light. Alcohol kills, as we found out today, four people every hour and its being promoted on Sundays with a sport that everybody in the world watches.”
To the college athlete struggling with addiction, Leaf said, “I want to look him in the eye and ask him why he’s doing it. Why he or she is doing it. Is it because they feel uncomfortable with who they are or who they’re around? … either they’re doing it to fit in or they’re doing it to be a part of a group or to distance themselves from something… tell me why you need to do this. Is it just to blow off some steam and hang out because some people can do that but if it’s a problem when it starts affecting your livelihood, your relationships, your personal life, things like that then you have to take a real look at it and a lot of times you can’t see that. You need somebody else to hold a mirror up to you.”