Remember Ryan Leaf? A useful cautionary tale, says new Leaf

by | CBSSports.com National NFL Insider
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Leaf (second from left) was the second pick in the '98 draft after Peyton Manning went No. 1. (Getty Images)  
Leaf (second from left) was the second pick in the '98 draft after Peyton Manning went No. 1. (Getty Images)  

This is Ryan Leaf.

No, not that one. Not the horse's ass. Not the selfish one. Not the painkiller addict who needed rehab. Not the guy arrested for burglary. Not the bully. Not the "knock it off" guy.

This, this is him.

"I let myself get caught up in all of the trappings of being an NFL quarterback," he said in a phone interview. "I became a bad guy. When it was Peyton [Manning] picked first and then me, it was presented as 'Peyton was the good guy and I was the black sheep,' and I went with it.

"What happened to my career and my life was no one else's fault but mine. When you're an NFL quarterback, you think the world revolves around you. Everyone tells you how great you are. Some guys handle it well and some guys don't. I didn't handle it well.

"After my last year in college, I was attending banquets, getting pats on the back, and my close friends were telling me, 'You're changing.' But I didn't listen. I became arrogant and started to believe all the great things people were telling me."

In two weeks, Leaf begins radiation treatments for a benign brain tumor. He's also writing books about his life experiences, and he's started to speak out.

And what he's saying now is rare -- and I mean, lottery-winner rare. It's nearly inconceivable to hear a former professional athlete be that honest about his failures.

This is why Leaf is important. The league is beginning to see a large, new crop of talented young throwers storm the NFL, from Cam Newton to Christian Ponder to Andy Dalton to Blaine Gabbert. Some of them will become great, and statistically it's certain some of them will turn into busts.

How they act when the tough times hit -- and they will hit -- will determine what happens to their careers and in some ways their lives. Leaf is their example of how not to handle success and failure.

"What I want to do now," he says, "is to prevent another me. Last thing I want to happen is for someone to replace me as a cautionary tale."

In the annals of NFL history, there are few bigger such tales than Leaf. He's quite possibly the biggest bust the league has ever seen, particularly considering he was taken second overall, behind Manning. At the time, there was actually a terrific debate about which of these quarterbacks was better. The answer would eventually resound across football history.

Leaf, of course, would lose 14 of his first 18 games, lash out teammates as well as writers, lose his football career and later, as a hardened drug addict, lose his dignity. The depths to which he sank were stunning. He'd steal pain meds from friends and cover up his theft by replacing the stolen pills with medication for treating gout, according to a story in HuffingtonPost.com. Leaf eventually broke into a home to steal pain pills, and a police investigation determined he had taken almost 1,000 pain pills from local pharmacies.

Leaf was indicted in 2009 and, in a deal with prosecutors, pleaded guilty to eight felony drug charges and received 10 years of probation.

"I hit bottom," he says.

This is where the story gets interesting. It seems Ryan Leaf is no longer Ryan Leaf. Not that one, anyway.

You never know for certain. Leaf could be pulling off the greatest acting of all time, but it doesn't seem that way. Leaf is his harshest critic and pulls no punches with himself. I've never heard an athlete speak that way about his failures. Ever. Which lends credibility to the sincerity of his rebirth.

Leaf spends time now speaking to college players about the traps of the sport, offering his life story as a roadmap for what not to do. (He's spoken to the Oklahoma Sooners football team among many others.) It takes courage to say, Here's my life story -- I was a screw-up. Judge as you wish. Just don't make the same mistakes I did.

His main message, Leaf jokes, is the world doesn't need another Leaf.

But maybe we do. Maybe we need this newly turned Ryan Leaf.

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