Ryan Leaf lies in a prison cell. It’s been months since he’s stepped foot outdoors, months since sunlight has touched any part of his 6’5” frame. He looks nothing like the person you’d meet now, and especially nothing like the person the nation knew then. His skin is pale, and his hair looks as if it hasn’t been groomed in months; the scruffy beard doesn’t quite suit his face. You can barely tell that the athlete who captured the nation’s attention in 1998 is in there, his once-toned muscle now replaced with a chunkier build. Depressed, he just lies there.
With his dad and brothers by his side, Ryan Leaf stands at the 12th hole of Augusta National GC. His hair has returned to the tight crew cut you remember from the 1998 NFL Draft, and his face is clean-shaven. He looks handsome, and years younger than he had less than two years earlier. It’s as if a thousand pounds has been lifted from his broad shoulders. The Masters isn’t a crazy place for a passionate golfer to be, but for Ryan Leaf to be there seems practically unbelievable. Just 16 months earlier he had been in a prison, the culmination of a decade’s worth of poor decisions, deep depression and substance abuse issues.
JUST A SMALL-TOWN BOY
Ryan was born in Great Falls, MT, a small town with a population of less than 60,000. He grew up playing football in the fall, basketball in the winter, baseball in the spring and golf in the summer. The latter was his dad’s influence.
“Golf was really just something we did May through September,” says Ryan. “My dad had a set of clubs, and I think he started me hittin’ em around 8 years old.”
He never had formal lessons, but he was athletic enough to figure it out. Ryan had the old wooden Jack Nicklaus Golden Bear clubs, and at first, he gripped them like a baseball bat. But his parents sent him to a three-day golf clinic, where he learned how to properly grip and swing a golf club, and soon enough, his baseball swing actually started resembling his golf swing. Ryan always stood out, his athletic prowess putting him head and shoulders, sometimes literally, above all the other kids in town. His mom would say the spotlight was on him beginning around age 8.
“I was placed on a pedestal at a pretty early age, and that didn’t help me developmentally,” Ryan says. “I made assumptions that I was better than others because of my athletic ability.”
He excelled in high school at a variety of sports, feeling most passionate about basketball. But after accepting a scholarship to Washington State to play football, a professional path started to map itself out.
“I always thought I would play basketball; it was my favorite sport as a kid,” he says. “When I went to college I actually had a deal with my coach that I could play basketball as well, and I walked onto the team my freshman year.”
But the head coach of the football team wasn’t in love with the idea of his star quarterback playing two sports.
“My coach quickly reminded me that if I wanted to have the possibility of playing football professionally, I might want to focus on it, so that’s what I did.”
Still, golf remained a passionate hobby. During the summers, Ryan and his receivers would work out together, lift weights and throw in the morning, and then jump right across the border into Montana to play a little public golf course that was nearby.
“We’d go around 10 or 11 in the morning and play until dark, and up there in Montana it really doesn’t get dark until after 10 p.m.,” he says.
THE SPOTLIGHT GROWS
Things changed his junior year of college. His team, the Washington State Cougars, won its first Pac-10 Championship in school history. In 1998, Ryan threw for a then-Pac-10 record 33 touchdowns, and averaged 330 passing yards per game. He was a finalist for the Heisman Trophy, finishing third behind winner Charles Woodson and fellow quarterback Peyton Manning, and his team would eventually be defeated by Michigan in the Rose Bowl game. But it was clear Ryan was one of the top collegiate players in the country.
“The friends I made, the coaches I had, the relationship I had with my family, I really found my place,” Ryan says of his college experience. “But the spotlight intensified for me after that. It really built my ego up.”
Ryan and Manning were widely considered the two best players available in the 1998 draft. There was debate over who should be selected first, and the media attention was proportionally bigger than in previous draft years.
“I don’t know if it’s something that would have been easier for a kid to handle who had been from a bigger city, but for me, I was the first person ever to be drafted in the first round of the NFL draft from the state of Montana,” he says. “There have been more first round quarterbacks drafted from the Manning family than there have been from my home state. So it was definitely overwhelming. Even though it was a lifelong dream, it was overwhelming to the point where I couldn’t deal with it in a positive way.”
Back then, there wasn’t much support for a kid going through that kind of transition. Nowadays, that’s a role a coach, and even an agent, takes on, managing the off-the-field issues and trying to relieve outside pressures. But in 1998, that support didn’t exist.
“I thought I could handle it all on my own, so when things got difficult, I didn’t ask people for help,” Ryan says. “There wasn’t much available, but to be honest, I don’t know that I would have been accepting of it even if it had been.”
Ryan was picked second in the draft by the San Diego Chargers; Manning went first to the Indianapolis Colts. Ryan signed a four-year, $31.25 million contract that included a guaranteed $11.25 million signing bonus, the largest ever paid to a rookie.
But his rookie season was marred with behavioral issues and poor play on the field. He would play in just 10 games and throw only two touchdowns.
“I was battling the best defenses every Sunday, and then the media all week long,” he says. “Instead of looking at my failure as an opportunity to get better, I looked at it like I wasn’t good enough. Or I blamed other people. I had a lot of negative self-talk.”
He’d miss his second season due to a shoulder injury, and in 2000 would stumble with the Chargers to a 1-15 record. He was released Feb. 28, 2001.
“There was a lot of money back then, a lot of fame,” he remembers. “A lot of ‘yes’ when I should have said ‘no.’”
He would bounce around to three other teams between 2001 and 2002. But after receiving a chance to play for the Seattle Seahawks on a one-year contract, he abruptly retired.
“Essentially, I quit,” Ryan says. “I retired, yes, and I had some injuries, sure. But I quit something that I had wanted to do since I was four years old.”
He didn’t speak with anyone about his decision. Looking back, he realizes he should have (his father comes to his mind first), but at that time all his major choices in life were made without consulting those who cared about him.
“I was so narcissistic,” he says of his time in the NFL. “I thought everything revolved around me. All the guys in that locker room are just doing their job, trying to put food on the table for their families. I know now that they were probably looking at me wondering why I was taking it all for granted. I know now that it is a privilege, not a right, to play in that league.”
The transition out of the game was a bumpy one. Football defined so much of Ryan’s identity that he was lost without it. And the media scrutiny, the feeling that he had let himself and the fans of San Diego down, that he wasn’t good enough, only worsened during the time immediately after his early retirement.
He couldn’t escape the exact thing he had been trying to run away from. He recalls walking into rooms of people and being convinced everyone was staring at him and talking about him, something he realizes now was probably in his head.
“The money, the fame, it changed it all for me,” he says. “I’m not saying it was easy in high school or college, but I just went out and did it and relied somewhat on my natural ability. I worked hard, but I didn’t have to have this insane focused intensity that is needed in the NFL.”
He was lost. An average first-round NFL draft pick spends 9.3 years playing, and now just three years after being regarded as one of the best quarterbacks in the country, Ryan was without a job, without a plan.
Since so much of his identity was football, he figured he might as well coach, which he did briefly.
The transition out of playing is difficult, and unless you talk to someone to help you through it, which I didn’t, it’s nearly impossible. I never dealt with the feelings of failure, the depression.
“In reality, I should have been as far away from football as I could have been,” he says. “The transition out of playing is difficult, and unless you talk to someone to help you through it, which I didn’t, it’s nearly impossible. I never dealt with the feelings of failure, the depression.”
Those feelings are not uncommon for athletes. In fact, Ryan was recently at a Former Players Convention, where he heard dozens of accounts of similar feelings of failure, of wishing you had done more in the sport you loved.
“It’s rare to find a player who leaves the game without thinking there wasn’t more out there for them to accomplish, even if they won five Super Bowls,” he says.
His depression took a turn for the worse a couple of years after retirement, when he was in Las Vegas to watch a boxing match. He was out with some boxing promoters, drinking and having a good time, when he was offered pills.
“I had taken pain medication my whole life from orthopedic surgeries and injuries, and I knew how they took away my physical pain,” he says. “I felt euphoric that night, didn’t feel any of the negativity I usually did. I was in a room where people recognized me, and I wasn’t feeling judged.”
The pills took away Ryan’s pain, and he became hooked.
“I continued down a bad path to the point where I was morally bankrupt,” he says. “I would walk into people’s homes and take their pills. I was ashamed, but as soon as the pills were in my hands the ends justified the means.”
On March 30, 2012, Ryan Leaf was arrested on burglary, theft and drug charges in his home town of Great Falls, MT. In June, he was sentenced to seven years in custody.
“Going to prison humbled me, and I needed to be humbled,” he says. “Whatever rock bottom people need, it has to be their own, and for me that was it. Sometimes it just clicks for people, and hopefully it’s before they die.”
The first few months in prison didn’t make things any easier, as Ryan was battling severe depression and self-loathing. Feeling like he had control over nothing else, he decided to control the only thing he could, whether or not he went outside.
“The one time I went outdoors the guys asked me to throw a football around with them and it was a spectacle, so I just stopped going outside,” he says. “Later on, one guy told me that that day had been his birthday and throwing a football with me had been the coolest thing. I realized I was so caught up in myself.”
Months passed, and Ryan remained depressed and unmotivated. Then one day, his roommate, a war vet who had been in jail for eight years for a fatal drunk driving incident, said something that changed his outlook.
“One day he sat me down and said, ‘You just sit in here with your head in the sand, Ryan.’ He showed me I wasn’t doing anything to better myself or my family. He was in there taking his ACTs and continuing to better himself.”
That was the moment Ryan realized that he was indeed of value.
Ryan denied going up for parole multiple times. By his estimation, he thinks he could have been out of prison after nine months; instead he stayed 32. But after his conversation with his roommate, he began TA-ing for the substance abuse counselor who worked with inmates and taking other steps towards securing a better future. He went up for parole shortly after, and in December of 2014 was heading home
By choice, he entered an in-patient facility for 90 days after being released, despite being three years sober. It set him up to pursue the path he’s on now, one of helping others with substance abuse problems and mental illness, which he now refers to as his purpose.
He began working for Michael Lee, a substance abuse counselor also in recovery. A big part of their work together takes place on a golf course.
“Golf therapy is a huge part of our program,” Lee says. “It provides the opportunity for people to be seen on a stage, making mistakes and getting embarrassed, but it being OK. We talk about high risk vs. high reward. We have the temptation of the cart girl coming around with beverages every few holes. It becomes an opportunity to do an intervention with a client constantly.”
When Ryan first began working with Lee as the night manager for a sober-living facility, he had no idea the two shared such a love for the game. The experience has been life changing.
“Golf has been a huge part of my recovery,” Ryan says. “I look at it like a four-hour meditation. I was in a prison cell, went outside twice in 32 months, and now golf provides this amazing opportunity to be outdoors. For me, my drug use was such an isolation. I would disappear by myself. To be outdoors, playing golf and being social, it’s been hugely beneficial.”
Starting with his time assisting the substance-abuse counselor in prison, Ryan began training to help others. He became Lee’s go-to guy, and the two would each lead weekly golf therapy foursomes. These days, Ryan, who boasts a 6.1 Handicap Index with the SCGA through Mountaingate CC, plays golf about four times a week.
“I love it, but it is no doubt part of my recovery program. If it wasn’t, my girlfriend wouldn’t allow me to play so often!” he says with a smile.
Recently entering a relationship has been another step in his recovery journey, one Lee has watched with great admiration.
“To see him build up these rungs on a ladder, climb one and stay there, and not fall back down, is exciting to watch,” Lee says. “The newest one has been his relationship, and navigating that. I’m excited to see what’s next for him.”
For the past year, Ryan has also been working with Transcend, a recovery community that offers sober housing, extended care, drug testing and specialized sober companioning. He loves the opportunity to help people, but the job helps him as well. “I’ve inundated myself with recovery, which has been such a blessing for me,” he says.
For the first time in his adult life, he feels secure in a professional setting, not worried about letting people down or getting cut due to bad performance.
“I’ve always been a free agent, someone who could be cut tomorrow,” he says. “Even the first four months working with Transcend I kept waiting for them to say, ‘Alright, you’ve worn out your welcome; we’ve used you for what you’re good for.’ Now I sit in an office, talk with my peers. It’s been tremendously freeing for me.”
As Ryan continued to get comfortable helping people, he understood he had the unique opportunity to spread his message publicly. But his re-entrance into the public eye has been filled with trepidation. His family was adamantly opposed to it at first, not understanding why he “couldn’t just exist in the background.” Their weariness is not surprising, given Ryan’s history with the media. But despite nervousness, he knew what he wanted to do.
Perfect transparency is perfect protection. You don’t hide.
It was a mantra he learned during recovery.
“Before I went on the Dan Patrick show [his first public interview since leaving prison], a guy in a meeting I go to simply said to me, ‘If your intention is to help somebody, then tell your story. If you’re rigorously honest,’ which I hope I am, ‘then it doesn’t matter anymore because you tell everybody all the crap you did, and the crap that happened, and then nobody can write about it or say something first.’”
With a bit more confidence and his nerves subsiding, he went on the Dan Patrick show in February, not actually deciding to go through with it until the night before. His first big interview in years, and it was two days before Super Bowl 50.
Ryan received the affirmation he needed just days later. A man with whom he had played basketball with growing up in Montana reached out to his family, saying that after hearing Ryan on the show he had decided to seek treatment for his own addictions.
“That’s exactly what it’s about, helping people,” Ryan says. “It’s not about me anymore. And hearing things like that, and I have a few times, it’s the perfect validation. That is what can happen if I speak out. And that’s the answer I can go back to my family with.”
But he knows that keeping his ego in check won’t always be easy. For someone who has been in the public eye most of his life, and was admittedly self-centered for years, he’s nervous those old habits could come back.
“As long as I understand that it’s about the message and not me, I’ll be fine,” he says. “But it can be a struggle. I have guys that I’ve asked to hold me accountable, to keep me in check if any of my old behaviors pop up. I may be defensive at first, but I’ve asked for that.”
The Dan Patrick interview spiraled into a number of opportunities, including a knock on the door from ESPN, asking him to participate in a “30-for-30” movie about his journey. Ryan spent two days in April filming for the documentary, which will likely come out next year around the time of the NFL Draft.
This year, a brief Twitter search on draft day revealed that Ryan’s name was tweeted once every two minutes. He was mentioned more than 1,700 times, including by ESPN’s Darren Rovel, the “Bleacher Report” and the popular Twitter account The Fake ESPN. Ryan is still widely considered one of the biggest busts in NFL history, and the tweets mentioning him are certainly more often than not unkind.
But he knows that’s part of the journey, and he doesn’t Google himself like he used to.
“That was damaging,” he says. “But not anymore. The best affirmation I was given is ‘What other people think of me is none of my business.’ I say it every day. It’s starting to feed my soul. The people I care about, they see this imperfect man trying to be better. There is unconditional care behind that.”
And this year was certainly a test, with Peyton Manning receiving an astonishing amount of media coverage around his retirement. With the two forever linked, people often compare the stark differences in the two men’s careers.
“I always paid attention to how he was doing. I could easily be resentful of what he has, but he’s such a good person, and I’m really proud of him,” Ryan says. “He just worked harder than me. You really can’t be resentful of someone who is willing to sacrifice and be the best he can be. I just wasn’t ready to be that person. It took me 38 years to learn this, but being the better man, regardless of what I do athletically or publicly, is what is important for me.”
A BRIGHTER FUTURE
It was a perfect day at Augusta as Ryan Leaf stood at Amen Corner, his father and brothers by his side. He spent the first three days of the tournament there, leaving before Sunday’s final round, something he says he’s glad of because he “wouldn’t wanted to have seen Jordan Spieth’s memorable collapse in person.”
It’s not surprising that Ryan wouldn’t want to watch another athlete stumble. His name has come up often recently as another high-profile quarterback, Johnny Manziel, publicly deals with behavioral and substance abuse issues.
“It’s kind of like holding a mirror up,” says Ryan, who has tried to reach out to Manziel. “I didn’t abuse drugs when I played, though I’d like to use that as an excuse as to why I played poorly, but afterwards for sure, and I understand how alone he feels. And it’s sad. But all I can do, or anybody can do, is to reach out. Show him there’s a way. And that you can recover from anything.”
If anyone can show him that, it’s Ryan Leaf.
If you or anyone you know is struggling with alcohol, drugs or mental health issues, visit Transcend’s website for help.