MOUNTAIN BROOK — Former NFL quarterback and 1997 Heisman Trophy finalist Ryan Leaf spoke at the Grand Bohemian Hotel on Thursday about his struggle with opioid addiction.
Leaf’s speech was part of the “Stop Judging; Start Healing” summit put on by VitAL, which aims to help friends, family and medical professionals speak more effectively about people with mental illnesses and substance use disorders.
After a successful run at Washington State, the San Diego Chargers selected Leaf in the first round of the NFL Draft. He played five seasons in the NFL for several teams, including the Chargers, the Dallas Cowboys, Tampa Bay Buccaneers and the Seattle Seahawks.
After his career ended, Leaf became addicted to opioids, lost all his money and even resorted to raiding houses for pills.
But Leaf said he became an addict long before he ever took drugs recreationally.
“Everybody wants to be a professional athlete when they’re young,” Leaf said. “… but I wanted it. I was a drug addict, and I was a drug addict long before I took a drug. The only difference was that my first drug of choice was competition.”
Leaf’s ego blew out of proportion when he became Washington State’s starting quarterback. There, he contended for a National Championship and finished in third place for the Heisman Trophy, losing only to eventual Hall-of-Famers Charles Woodson and Peyton Manning.
“Probably should’ve gone back to college,” Leaf said. “I had a year left. Our team would’ve been decimated. We lost 26 seniors. We went three and eight the next year. It would’ve been a real opportunity to deal with failure and deal with adversity.”
Nevertheless, he made the decision to become a professional athlete and signed a $31 million contract with the Chargers. He also signed deals with Rolex, Nike, Pepsi, Toyota and more.
In his first two games as a starting quarterback, Leaf led the Chargers to victory. However, he suffered a staph infection before his third game but still chose to play.
“I played the worse football game in my life,” Leaf said. “I was so humiliated and embarrassed when I walked off that field. … My career ended after that third game … not because of how I played but how I dealt with it.”
In his next game, Leaf threw four interceptions and was benched in the third quarter as fans booed him off the field. He continued to tarnish his reputation through several run-ins with reporters. In one instance, he was caught on camera attempting to intimidate a journalist in the locker room.
After he left the NFL, Leaf couldn’t be forgotten.
“Every draft time, every April, my name gets brought up: don’t draft another Ryan Leaf,” Leaf said.
He said he wanted everyone to know that he was still rich and famous, even if he wasn’t playing football anymore. So he started spending all the money he had left on extravagance.
The first time he took recreational drugs, an acquaintance offered him Vicodin. He’d taken opioids before when he had surgery and knew that the drugs worked to treat his physical pain, so he thought they might also help treat his emotional pain.
This only escalated Leaf’s downward spiral. At first, he got opioids from doctors. When that was no longer possible, he said he would go to friends’ houses. While there, he would go into the bathroom and rummage through their medicine cabinets for pills. He said he would also go to open houses and do the same.
But eventually, Leaf resorted to burglary. He said he would break into houses outside of town and rummage through medicine cabinets to score pills. He was also ordering pills online from pill mills in Florida.
This activity landed him in legal trouble. Eventually, he was arrested and wrote a bad check to post bail. He then began looking on the internet for ways he could kill himself.
“I can’t believe that I thought at that moment the only answer was to not be here anymore,” Leaf said.
According to Leaf, he intended to go to his parent’s house when they were away and park his car in their garage, where he would leave it running and die from carbon monoxide poisoning. Fortunately, when he went to execute his plan, his parents were home.
Leaf said that, looking back, this was a sign from a higher power.
Nevertheless, Leaf didn’t change his ways. He was arrested again within 48 hours after robbing another house for pills. He said he took all the pills at once when he was in the cop car with the intent to kill himself. He woke up two days later in solitary confinement, where he remained for 83 days.
Leaf was later sentenced to prison. At that time, he let himself go completely.
“I was as mentally ill as you could get, and I was doing nothing about it,” Leaf said. “You can’t get better in prison. You just can’t. … The substance was removed, and I got worse. I got angrier.”
After over 20 months in jail, prison officials placed him in a cell with a war veteran who had driven while drinking and accidentally killed someone. His new cellmate took a different approach to his sentence.
“He tried to better himself every single day while he was in the worst possible place,” Leaf said.
Leaf’s cellmate convinced him to go to the prison library with him to help teach other prisoners how to read. As Leaf started helping other prisoners, he noticed that he was more personable. He was sleeping better, and he talked to his family more often.
After three years in prison, Leaf applied for parole, and it was granted. He left prison on December 3, 2014. Though he said he’d been clean while he was in prison, it was still hard to fight his addiction while he was in the real world. He sought treatment but was initially delayed by his parole officer, who refused to sign off on the documentation necessary for him to travel. Leaf said he experienced severe clinical depression at the time.
Finally, he decided to work at a soup kitchen and donated some of his old clothes to a homeless shelter.
In March 2015, his parole officer signed a travel permit for him to go to treatment in Southern California. He remained at the treatment facility for 90 days. Doctors diagnosed him with clinical depression, anxiety and narcissistic personality disorder, which he said helped him address his issues.
“You overcome adversity no matter who you are,” Leaf said. “And you’re just as important. I’m not any more important or less important. … It’s just how it is. That’s the true acceptance of it all.”
Though he’s not a part of any established religion, Leaf said that he knows a higher power exists. He said his developing spirituality has helped him battle addiction.
When he left the treatment facility, he got a job driving and providing support for people who were recovering from addictions.
Leaf now calls college football games for ESPN, which he joined in 2019. He also speaks to teams about his experiences. He said he’s even spoken to the University of Alabama football team after Nick Saban asked him to come.
Leaf currently has a wife and a five-year-old son. He attends therapy both individually and with his wife.
But Leaf’s story isn’t over. He warned that it is “not a redemption story.”
“It’s life,” he said. “I’m living life on life’s terms. Period. Sometime’s that’s hard.”
In 2020, Leaf even admitted to a domestic violence charge, according to reports. A judge ordered him to complete a one-year domestic violence class and sentenced him to three years of informal probation.
“When you have a mental illness, it doesn’t go away,” Leaf said. “… It’s treated. It’s always treated. I still have mental health episodes. I’m probably living with CTE. These are things that are all true.”
Leaf criticized the stigmatism around mental health and addiction.
“We still see people really stigmatize mental health and mental illness,” Leaf said. “We’re moving forward in a good direction with it. But then it just rears its ugly head. … There are so many of my former teammates that are no longer here because of the stigma that exists.”
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