When Ryan Leaf was leading Washington State to the Rose Bowl nearly 20 years ago, Montanans were proud to call him their own.
Not long after the big game, though, Leaf started showing the personality that led him to the label “biggest bust in NFL history.”
Less than four years after being selected by the San Diego Chargers with the second pick of the 1998 NFL Draft, Leaf was out of the league forever.
During his fall, he supposedly came out and said he considered Pullman, Washington, to be his hometown instead of his native Great Falls. The people of Pullman said, “Um, no, Ryan. You’re from Montana.”
From then on, Montana and Pullman had a no-he-belongs-to-you argument over the quarterback with a million-dollar arm and a five-cent head.
That probably changed forever last week when Leaf wrote a letter to his younger self that was published in The Players’ Tribune.
The piece was powerful and unbelievably honest as Leaf described how he developed the attitude that led him to be one of the most hated men in sports. He wrote about his failures in football and life.
Leaf wrote about how and why he ended up with an addiction to Vicodin, and how that nightmare led to a botched suicide attempt and, eventually, him serving 32 months in the Montana State Prison in Deer Lodge.
Leaf’s letter should be required reading for every high school student, and not just athletes. Not only does the piece give insight into Leaf’s troubled life, it can help people avoid falling into the same pitfalls as the former CM Russell Rustler.
It might help people already falling into those traps pull themselves up.
Since his release from prison on Dec. 3, 2014, Leaf has made himself a better person by helping others. The man who was notoriously selfish and immature has done a complete 180.
Leaf is a program ambassador for the Transcend Recover Community, where he works to help young adults manage the stress and difficulty of high school, college and becoming an adult.
He gives presentations at schools, and he speaks directly to students in classrooms.
Is there a better example for young people than a guy like Leaf, who had it all and lost it? He is a living example of what not to do for those who think they have it all. He’s also a role model for troubled souls who don’t think they have a way out.
After you read his letter in The Players’ Tribune, go listen to his latest appearance on the Dan Patrick Show podcast. Then set your DVR for the special on ESPN about Leaf that premiers May 21.
ESPN followed Leaf around for a year to document how he really is working to help others.
As soon as we saw the self-absorbed Leaf berate a reporter early in his rookie season with the Chargers, nobody ever thought that would be possible.
Leaf was a perfect villain, and everyone seemed to cheer his failures. We laughed each time he was cut. We chuckled when a heckler at practice serenaded him with the song “Lonesome Loser.”
The quarterback seemed to fit that Little River Band song to a tee, too — a lonesome loser, beaten by the queen of hearts every time.
We even smirked when he was arrested and sent to Prison.
Yes, even in the slammer — where nothing is funny — Leaf was a national laughingstock.
Making Leaf even easier to hate was that he was forever tied to Peyton Manning because they entered the draft at the same time. The Indianapolis Colts had the first pick, it took them months to decide which quarterback they’d pick.
The Colts even had jerseys made up for both players at the draft. When the Colts picked Manning, a future Hall of Famer, the Chargers grabbed Leaf.
There is no way you can think of Leaf without thinking of Manning, and vice versa.
Leaf will always be the yang to the yin of Manning, who brushed his teeth and said a prayer between plays.
Being tied to a goody two-shoes like Manning made Leaf look even worse than he was. It made him look more selfish. It highlighted his immaturity, helping the NFL Network show Top 10 rank Leaf as the biggest draft bust in league history.
That label seems a bit unfair. Apparently the show’s producers never paid attention to just about every draft pick by the Chicago Bears and Cleveland Browns over the past three decades. The NFL Draft is full of busts. Leaf was just so easy to hate.
While the football nation mocked the quarterback, it seemed like the ridicule was worse and more biting from people in Montana. Leaf is, after all, the only Montana native ever drafted in the first round of the NFL Draft, and he made us all look bad.
Leaf also graduated from the same high school as Treasure State hero Dave Dickenson.
While Dickenson didn’t get the good look by NFL teams that he deserved, Super Dave won an NCAA Division I-AA national title for the Montana Grizzlies.
So not only was Leaf forever tied to Manning, he also had an unbreakable link to Dickenson, who probably really did brush his teeth and say a prayer after every play.
Amazingly, once Leaf found rock bottom, he bounced up in a big way. He has owned up to his shortcomings. He has not only shed the label as the biggest jerk in sports, he has, amazingly, emerged as a very likable character.
Leaf and his wife are expecting a boy in the fall. They’re going to name him MacGyver.
During his appearance with Dan Patrick, Leaf said the name for a boy was his wife’s. Apparently, Leaf has found himself a fantastic woman.
Leaf closed his piece in The Players’ Tribune with the following piece of advice to his 21-year-old version of himself:
“So if I have just one piece of advice to leave you with, it would be … don’t be a dick, man. You’ll be amazed at how much you get back when you just treat other people with dignity and respect. And it feels pretty damn good.”
Every person on the planet should read that passage before leaving the house in the morning.
Leaf will probably never outgrow the horrible shadow cast by his disastrous flame out in the NFL, but has once again become a guy Montanans should be proud to call our own.
Nearly two decades after his life started to publicly unravel, Leaf has definitely found himself in a much better place. A peaceful place. A likeable place.
That place, by the way, is not Pullman.
— Bill Foley, who wishes he would have named his son MacGyver, writes a column that appears Tuesday on ButteSports.com. Email him at email@example.com. Follow him at twitter.com/Foles74.