A Misguided Leaf Blowing Through The Seasons

Ryan Leaf playing for the Los Angeles (San Diego) Chargers

I’ve said it before, and I’ll say it again. Sometimes I wish I was old enough to remember when some of the athletes played in the pros, or I at least wish I was at an age where I cared about sports. But I wasn’t, and it’s a total bummer. Oh well, that’s the way the football deflates I suppose.

When you hear the name Peyton Manning what do you think of? One of the best quarterbacks to come from the University of Tennessee? As well as one of the best quarterbacks to ever play the game of football. If you are younger than I am or don’t pay attention to football you might know him because of his hilarious personality and commercials. Now, what do you think of when you hear the name Ryan Leaf? *Crickets chirping*. Yeah, same here. Well, at the 1998 NFL draft those two were supposed to be a set of superstar quarterbacks, but only one fulfilled the prophecy.

Ryan David Leaf was born in Great Falls, Montana on May 15, 1976. Out of all my research that was the only thing I could find out about his childhood. So, uh, there’s that. I think the amazing and hilarious “Crime in Sports” podcast hosted by James Pietragalloa and Jimmie Whisma goes into more detail about it but my chronically dumb ass forgot to take notes. I guess I was too busy laughing myself to tears. If you get a chance, I highly recommend checking that podcast out. 

After taking Charles M. Russell High School to the 1992 Montana state title, he was told that his athletic build and skills were good for the position of tight end or linebacker by the University of Miami head coach (at the time), Dennis Erickson. He didn’t listen to the guy and chose to play quarterback for the Washington State Cougars instead, after head coach Mike Price, who coached longtime New England Patriots quarterback Drew Bledsoe, called him on the phone while Leaf was watching the Rose Bowl. He played in 32 games for Washington State, starting in 24 of them. During his junior year, Leaf averaged 330.6 passing yards per game and threw for a Pacific-10 Conference (Pac-10) record 33 touchdowns. That record has since been broken. Leaf was a finalist in balloting for the 1997 Heisman Trophy and finished third behind winner, defensive back Charles Woodson of Michigan, and quarterback Peyton Manning on Tennessee. However, he was named Pac-10 Offensive Player of the Year, first-team All-American, and finished second in the nation in passer rating. Leaf decided to opt-out of his senior year at Washington State to enter the 1998 NFL Draft.

As stated, before both Peyton Manning and Ryan Leaf were considered to be the two best players available in the 1998 NFL Drats and scouts and analysts debated who should be selected first. Many teams favored Leaf’s stronger arm and greater potential, while others found Manning to be the more mature player and the safer pick. Overall, most people believed that it would not matter which of the two quarterbacks got drafted first since either would greatly benefit their team. The Indianapolis Colts had the first draft pick that year. The team scouts preferred favored Leaf, but Colts president Bill Polian and the coaching staff preferred Manning after discovering during the individual workouts that he could throw harder than Leaf. Manning also impressed during his interview with the team, while Leaf missed his. Leaf’s draft prospect profile described him as “self-confident to the point where some people view him as being arrogant and almost obnoxious”. Leaf also gained roughly 20 pounds between the end of his junior season and the NFL Combine in February, which one of six experts Sport Illustrated consulted about the choice, described as “a negative signal” about the player’s self-discipline. Together, all six experts thought Peyton Manning to be the better choice.

Manning was drafted first by the Indianapolis Colts. and Leaf second by the San Diego (now Los Angeles) Chargers, who held the third overall draft pick. After being drafted Leaf said, “I’m looking forward to a 15-year career, a couple of trips to the Super Bowl, and a parade through downtown San Diego.” The night after the draft, Leaf flew to Las Vegas, Nevada on a private jet owned by San Diego Chargers owner Alex Spanos and partied all night. The next day Leaf yawned during his first news conference. Sorry, Ryan, are we boring you? The Chargers high hopes for Leaf were soon dashed as his rookie season was riddled with poor behavior. It started with him skipping the final day of the symposium mandatory for all NFL draftees. He was slapped with a $10,000 fine. Damn, for missing a meeting!? He performed well during the preseason and START of the regular season. The Chargers won their season opener on September 6, 1998, against the Buffalo Bills despite mistakes made by Leaf. He fumbled his first snap and threw 2 interceptions. Buffalo penalties voided 2 additional interceptions thrown by Leaf. He performed better in their second game against the Tennessee Oilers (Titans) which they won as well.

3 days before the Chargers were set to play the Kansas City Chiefs on September 20th, Ryan Leaf was hospitalized for a viral infection he claimed was due to an improperly treated artificial-turf burn. He started the game but completed only 1 of 15 passes, threw 2 interceptions, and had 4 fumbles. Yeah, the Chargers lost that game. The following day, Leaf was caught on camera shouting at San Diego Union-Tribune reporter Jay Posner to “knock it off” during a locker room interview. He was led away by teammate Junior Seau (R.I.P) and a team executive. As he was being taken away, he called Posner a “f bitch”. But it’s okay guys because he later called Jay Posner and apologized. During week 4 of the 1998 season Leaf was benched by coach Kevin Gilbride in favor of backup quarterback Craig Whelihan. On October 4th, he started against Peyton Manning and the Indianapolis Colts. Both quarterbacks played well but Manning played just slightly better and the Colts won. During the end of the game, Leaf threw, an incomplete two-point conversion pass to Webster Slaughter (which would have won the game for them), and following a poor performance against the Denver Broncos was bench indefinitely.

Leaf related poorly to both the media and his teammates. He would often blame others for his poor performances on the field and developed a reputation for a poor work ethic. Leaf would often enjoy his time playing golf while other quarterbacks were studying films. Bobby Beathard, the general manager of the San Diego Chargers stated, “Guys can be jerks, but I’ve never seen a guy that worked harder at alienating his teammate. Junior Seau, Rodney Harrison, they came to me and said, ‘Bobby, this guy is killing me.’” During the offseason, Seau called on management to sign a veteran quarterback and “get a guy in here not to babysit, but to win.” On July 23, 1999. Leaf suffered an injury to his throwing shoulder during training camp. A month later a fan heckled Leaf by comparing him to failed NFL quarterback Heath Shuler. Leaf along with a coach and security guards, went to confront the fan but was restrained by two other coaches, while another Charger employee yelled, “No, don’t do it, Ryan. Don’t do it.” Leaf underwent surgery to fix a labral tear in his shoulder and missed the entire 1999 season.

Leaf was placed on injured reserve but managed to make headlines in early November when he got into a shouting match with Beathard and a coach. He was given a fine and suspended without pay. Leaf apologized for the incident approximately 4 weeks later. During his suspension, he was filmed playing flag football at a San Diego Park, a violation of his contract according to team management. Ryan Leaf appeared on the cover of the September 4, 2000 issue of Sports Illustrated. The headline read “Back from the Brink” and the story covered his comeback after being sidelined by his injury. Leaf started the first 2 regular seasons game but after a piss poor performances coach Mike Riley planned to start backup quarterback Moses Moreno. In week 3. But after he suffered a shoulder injury coach Riley was forced to start Leaf. The next week, Leaf suffered a sprained wrist and missed the next 5 games.

Ryan Leaf and Peyton Manning

That November, Leaf publicly speculated that the Chargers would release him at the end of the season. On December 3, 2000, Leaf gave another poor performance against the San Francisco 49ers and again against the Baltimore Ravens on December 10th. After a horrific 1-15 record, the Chargers released Leaf on February 28, 2001.

On March 2, 2001, Leaf was picked up by the Tampa Bay Buccaneers but was released on September 3rd after mediocre preseason performances. The Dallas Cowboys, signed Leaf after the Buccaneers dropped him but that was short-lived. After he failed his first physical the Cowboys let him go on September 5th. After their regular-season starter Quincy Carter suffered an injury, the Cowboys signed Leaf again on October 12, 2001. The Cowboys never were the best at making good decisions. He was released in May 2002 after playing in only 4 games. Days later the Seattle Seahawks signed Leaf to a one-year contract. He attended the team’s spring minicamps and seemed happy about his new team. Leaf abruptly retired at the age of 26. During his brief stint in the NFL, Ryan Leaf appeared in 25 games and made 21 starts. He completed 317 of 655 passes for 3,666 yards. He had 14 touchdowns and 36 interceptions. One of Leaf’s most outspoken critics on the Chargers said of his retirement, “He took the money and ran. Personally, I could never rest good at night knowing my career ended like that. Normally in this game, you get back what you put into it, and he pretty much got back what he put into it.”

Sports giant ESPN put Leaf first on its list of 25 biggest flops between 1979 and 2004. NBC Sports commentator Michael Ventre called him “the biggest bust in the history of professional sports.” Since his retirement, sportswriters and commentators have characterized subsequent drafted potential NFL quarterback flops as “the next Ryan Leaf”. In 2010, NFL Network listed Leaf as the number 1 NFL quarterback bust of all time. In 2016 Ryan Leaf compared the problems of Cleveland Browns quarterback Johnny Manziel to his own, saying it was like “looking in a mirror” and that the only difference was that Leaf’s substance abuse problems happened after he retired. Leaf went to express that he hoped Manziel would be able to get the help he needed.

After retiring from professional football, Leaf returned to San Diego and became a financial consultant. In 2004, Leaf returned to Washington State University and in May 2005 he graduated with a Bachelor’s degree in humanities. In 2006, he joined Don Carthel’s West Texas A&M University staff as a volunteer quarterbacks coach. That same year he admitted that he was unprepared for the NFL when he was drafted in 1998 and stated, “When playing football became a job, it lost its luster for me. I kind of got out of the spotlight, and life’s never been this good.” But in November 2008, Leaf was put on indefinite leave and resigned from his Texas A&M coaching position after allegedly asking one of his players for a pill to help him deal with pain in his wrist from a past injury.

Ryan Leaf’s usage of painkillers dates back to 2002 when he took Vicodin from a boxing promoter after attending a match in Las Vegas. He described the event as what “started about an eight-year run of off-and-on opioid abuse that took my life to the very bottom.” In May 2009, Leaf was indicted on burglary and controlled substance charges in Texas. He was enrolled in a drug-rehabilitation program in British Columbia, Canada at the time of the indictment, and was arrested by customs agents at the border on his return to the United States. In his defense, he was flying back to Texas to surrender. His attorney Jeffrey A. Lustick successfully blocked the fugitive warrant extradition process and Leaf was allowed to go to Texas on his own. Lustick later got the Washington fugitive action against Leaf dismissed with prejudice. On June 17, he posted a $45,000 bond in Washington state for the criminal charges in Texas. In April 2010, Leaf plead guilty in Amarillo, Texas to 7 counts of obtaining a controlled substance by fraud and one count of delivery of a simulated controlled substance. All of which were felonies. State District Judge John B. Board sentenced Leaf to 10 years of probation and fined him $20,000.

In October 2010, Leaf started working in Vancouver, British Columbia as a business development manager for a travel agency. In September 2010, he started writing a column about Washington State University football for the website Cougfan.com. He wrote 9 columns that season and his work gained a strong following among Washington State fans. In December 2010, Leaf signed a contract with Crimson Oak Publishing to write no fewer than 3 memoirs. Those should be fascinating to read. Leaf’s first book 596 Switch: The Improbably Journey from the Palouse to Pasadena was released in October 2011. This book focuses on the 1997 Washington State football team and the 1998 Rose Bowl.

On March 30, 2012, Ryan Leaf was arrested on burglary, theft, and drug charges in his hometown of Great Falls, Montana. He was arrested AGAIN on burglary, theft, and two counts of criminal possession of dangerous drugs 4 days later. In late April 2012, Texas authorities issued 2 arrest warrants and set Leaf’s bond at $126,000. As part of a plea deal, he plead guilty to 1 count of felony burglary and 1 count of criminal possession of a dangerous drug on May 8, 2012. On June 19, 2012, Leaf was sentenced to 7 years in prison, with 2 years suspended if he abided by the conditions imposed by District Judge Kenneth Neil. He was set to spend the first 9 months of his sentence in a lockdown addiction treatment facility. But on January 17, 2013, Leaf was taken to Montana State Prison in Deep Lodge after being found guilty of “behavior that violated conditions of his drug treatment placement.” He was also accused of threatening a program staff member. In May 2014, Ryan Leaf was incarcerated at Crossroads Correctional Facility in Shelby, Montana. On September 9, 2014, a Texas judge sentenced Leaf to 5 years imprisonment, giving credit for time served in Montana. On December 3, 2014, he was released from prison and placed under the supervision of Great Falls Probation and Parole.

As of April 2018, Leaf was working as a Program Ambassador for Transcend Recovery Community after staying sober for the past 6 years. During an interview with Ellen DeGeneres, he stated, “I started a foundation called Focus Intensity Foundation, what I do is I raise money for scholarships for people who can’t afford treatment, mental health treatment.” He also had a radio show and works as a college football analyst for the Pac-12 Network. On July 14, 2019, Leaf was hired by ESPN as an analyst for the 2019-2020 college football season for games aired on ESPN2 and ESPNU. He has also appeared as an analyst in the show NFL overtime on Sky Sports in the UK. On May 22, 2020, Leaf was arrested for misdemeanor domestic battery in Palm Desert, California. Nearly 5 months later, he admitted to the charge in a plea deal. He was sentenced to 3 years of probation and a 12-month class on domestic violence.

Welp, that’s the scoop on Ryan Leaf. He didn’t do much in the NFL but it seemed like he sure was busy after he retired. I wonder if the Chargers wished they Drafted Manning instead. Who am I kidding? Of they do!


“Ryan Leaf” – Wikipedia

“Ryan Leaf’s Demise” – New York Post

“Leaf Didn’t Fall Far From The Tree.” – ESPN

“The Arrogance Of Ryan Leaf”- Crime In Sports Podcast


1 Comment

  1. Awesome story about this loser. Boy he had a great journey to be a good NFL quarterback, but he messed up back. I remember the day these two quarterbacks were drafted.
    Great article. Enjoyed reading you story.

    Liked by 1 person

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