Ryan Leaf, the second overall pick in the 1998 NFL Draft, arrives at a five-story walkup building on West 71st Street, a sober living home that stands two doors down from a dead end, as night falls over Manhattan. There are street signs emblazoned with “QUIET ZONE,” and his laugh is audible above the city’s din. He unfolds his 6-foot-5 frame, hops out of a black Camry — an Uber X — that he took from the InterContinental in midtown. A black Fitbit wraps his left wrist over a scar where he once slit open a vein, and counts each footfall. Inside, he takes a measure of the framed serenity prayer that sits above the fireplace, the drawn blinds and an exposed brick wall. It is his space as he readies to address a den of 10 addicts and alcoholics at Transcend, a recovery community that he has worked with for a year.
“What do you think, Ry?” says Christian De Oliveira, the company’s COO. “Stand up here like a comedy club?”
Leaf smiles, but levity leaves the room as chairs are re-arranged. For the next hour, Leaf unveils vulnerability. He details his descent from the heights of his days jetting to Las Vegas from San Diego, renting planes for $5,000 an hour to watch Oscar De La Hoya’s incandescent pugilism and enjoy a dark debauch that unfailingly followed. He informs the audience about his unrealized promise, boorish behavior and unbridled narcissism that led him to flame out of the NFL with 14 touchdowns in a four-year career split between the Chargers and Cowboys. Floorboards groan in the hallway as residents traffic past an open door and look in briefly. Leaf notes that he never drank alcohol until he was 18, and tells about the bottle of rum he later imbibed while crying in a movie theatre balcony back in his hometown of Great Falls, Mont., a place where he no longer considers himself to be welcome. He tracks his plunge to April Fool’s Day in 2012. Members of the Central Montana Drug Task Force closed in on Leaf then, tracking his Cash On Delivery payments to pain killers he ordered over the internet from New York and Florida. He was already on probation for stealing his injured players’ pills while serving as an assistant football coach at West Texas A&M in Canyon, Texas. Leaf finally felt cornered.
“I was looking up ways to kill myself on Google,” he says. “I tried with a dull knife. There was blood. Selfish, selfish thing to do. I couldn’t do it. I thought about pulling into my parents’ garage and let (the engine) run so that my loving mother and loving father would find me. That would have been the end-all, be-all.”
He considers his failures, from football to suicide. Two weeks away from turning 40, he remains on parole in Montana some 17 months after serving 32 months in prison for his felony offenses of breaking into homes in order to secure oxycodone and Vicodin from friends and strangers’ medicine cabinets. He is also still on probation in Texas, yet lives in the Hollywood Hills, still afloat with funds from endorsement deals and the $31 million contract that he largely plowed through with a divorce, taxes and “silly spending.” He hikes up a hill each morning before sunrise with his miniature dachshund, Oscar, and distances himself from the game that allowed him to first garner attention as a 12-year-old. He reflects on a tantrum he threw in San Diego’s locker room, the brain tumor doctors could not fully remove, the pills he stole and a recent visit to The Masters, where he took in Friday’s second-round action from Amen Corner. He is a six handicap on the golf course, and considers his time chasing dimpled balls around the links to be most liberating.
“It is fellowship with three other gentlemen for four or five hours in nature,” he says. “I don’t think about anything else. I focus on that time and being grateful.”
Leaf exhausts his inventory of embarrassing moments. He closes by noting that he once made nearly $5 million per season as a player and initially took a driver job with Transcend that paid him $15 an hour. He takes questions from another addict who has sought inpatient care nine times. Leaf implores them to probe deep. He refers to a nocturnal comfort he possesses.
“I sleep like I’m dead,” he says. “I don’t know what’s going to happen tomorrow.”
“There’s life always going on here,” Leaf says, sitting on a white leather couch in the lobby of the Essex House along Central Park South. He is referring to the city’s verve, a vibe he has not revisited since 2011. He recalls his first trek east, as a Heisman Trophy finalist in December of 1997, and the subsequent return trip as a draft prospect at the Theater at Madison Square Garden five months later on April 18. The most vivid image of the day he was selected No. 2 behind Peyton Manning, then a 22-year-old from the University of Tennessee, is of his grandfather, George. “He was always so proud of me. He used to wear a hat that said, ‘I’m Ryan Leaf’s Grandpa.'”
Yellowed headlines still hail Leaf as San Diego’s savior, but there is little to revel in when reviewing Leaf’s time in the NFL. Fresh off leading Washington State to its first Rose Bowl in 67 years, Leaf declared for the draft following his junior year. Deemed a possible competitor to Manning, the Indianapolis Colts considered both as top-pick material. When Bill Polian took over the Colts’ football operations, he requested that the eight scouts he inherited tell him each of their thoughts on the quarterback conundrum of Manning vs. Leaf. The scouts voted and split 4-4; Polian probed deeper. He detected immaturity from Leaf, and Leaf, represented by agent Leigh Steinberg, did not show for his scheduled interview with the Colts at the combine.
“In retrospect, it seems absurd that it was that close,” Steinberg says.
The contrast did not appear quite as stark in the immediate aftermath. Leaf outplayed Manning in a preseason game that the Chargers won, 33-3, that summer. Leaf’s honeymoon continued into the regular season as he won his first two NFL games. Leaf, a brassy quarterback, played on and completed a bootleg pass for four yards on his first throw against the Chiefs in Kansas City in Week 3. Regression followed. Leaf failed to complete his next 14 passes. He finished 1 of 15 in a 23-7 loss. He also surrendered three fumbles and two interceptions on his first seven series. Hits followed in the locker room, as well. He maintains that a cameraman’s battery hit him in the head, and Leaf shouted at him. A reporter noted it in print, and Leaf, frustrated with the coverage, was caught on tape screaming at the reporter in the locker room the next afternoon. The video played on endless loop.
“Don’t talk to me, alright?” Leaf yelled. “Knock it off!”
Chargers elder Junior Seau grabbed Leaf by the arm and led him away. Two team employees tended to the reporter. The train was off the tracks. Manning’s Colts exacted revenge in a 17-12 win two weeks later, the first victory of Manning’s career, and the Chargers finished 5-11. Leaf withdrew from supporters. Steinberg remembers calls going unreturned. He knocked on Leaf’s door; Leaf did not answer.
“He was out of control and rude 24/7 (was Leaf’s public image),” says Steinberg, who eventually threw away his sports empire due to his own alcoholism. “We tried to get him every sort of help, including psychiatric. He withdrew further and further. I can’t stop recidivism.”
San Diego went 1-15 during Leaf’s final season with the team. He changed agents and expresses regret about his blowups, but his troubles only mounted outside of football. He insists that the only drug he has ever taken is Vicodin, and traces his first taste of it to his freshman season at Washington State when his left shoulder was popping out. He underwent an operation then, and later hurt his wrist with the Chargers. He did not abuse painkillers while playing, but by 2004, he was retired. He says that he was handed Vicodin during another Las Vegas fight that he attended. He took the pills and mixed it with alcohol, a new combination for him.
“It made me feel numb to all the feelings of failure,” he says. “I went unnoticed in Vegas. I’d go back to my hometown. Everybody looked at me with disdain or that’s how I envisioned it. People probably didn’t look at all.”
His drug dependence evolved as he regularly abused drugs. By 2008, he was an assistant coach with West Texas A&M for $500 a month. Leaf suffered another wrist injury, and successfully manipulated a doctor into writing a prescription good for 90 pills and five refills. Over the next eight months, Leaf went doctor shopping and pill seeking in pursuit of a familiar high. Randall County investigators linked Leaf to more than 900 pills over an eight-month period. He was given probation.
“Everyone on the team, including players he didn’t coach, knew if you got injured you’d get a visit from Ryan Leaf,” Randall County District Attorney James Farren says. “And when Leaf left he had half their pain medication.”
He underwent treatment in Vancouver for 14 months, authored a book about his Washington State glory, went on a tour touting his sobriety soon after, but relapsed again following diagnosis with a golf ball-size tumor on his brain. He used again and describes himself as “a total fraud” at that time. By 2012, Leaf was back home in Montana. Growing desperate, he schemed to acquire drugs. He invited himself over to friends’ houses, dropped off copies of his book and asked to use the bathroom. Once inside, he searched through the medicine cabinet and took any Vicodin or oxycodone he could find. Dressed nicely, he knocked on doors at local houses, and touched knobs to see if they were locked. If no one appeared home, he sauntered in.
“Now in Montana, that’s risky, most people have guns,” he says. “I’m pretty damn lucky that no one shot me.”
Law enforcement soon caught up with Leaf. In the back of the police car that took him into custody, he carried a bottle of pills in his jacket. It was April of 2012, a week after Manning, a Super Bowl champion and four-time league MVP by then, signed with Denver following three neck surgeries in 15 months. Leaf eyed the pills and managed to shove them in his mouth. His senses went wild. He maintains that police later informed him that when his fingerprints were taken, he acted as if he was giving a speech at a podium. Officials outfitted him in an anti-suicide smock.
“Thanks for having me,” he said.
Leaf awoke on a jail-cell floor. He was guilty. Locked down for 32 months, he only went outdoors twice. If he remembers correctly, Manning’s mother, Olivia, reached out to his mother, Marcia, in a show of support. He waived parole multiple times, and played flag football once inside. Another time, he looked out at the Rocky Mountains in the distance. Razor wire atop the prison fence interrupted his view.
“Now I can sit on a park bench and be still,” he says. “My brain isn’t freaking going crazy. I can take in everything that is going on around me. In my head, I was manufacturing chaos. There’s freedom in being rigorously honest. I lied all my life.”
He insists he is at peace. He periodically undergoes M.R.I. testing to make sure that his brain tumor is not growing again, and all reports have come back clean. He returned to Montana last month to remember his grandmother, Mary, who died. He refers to Great Falls as “Mediocre Falls,” but marvels at the seven inches of snow that fell in April while he was home.
“Grandma always did like to talk about the weather,” he says.
There are two reminders of past abuses that Leaf keeps at the ready. They are stored as saved images in his iPhone. One is the parole mug shot that was taken when he was first released from Montana’s state prison. In it, he has long hair and a pallid complexion. It is actually an improvement from how he looked with a beard down to his chest and hair even longer. A friend of his mother gave him a trim.
“I look like a hobo,” he says, staring at his phone.
The second photo is from after treatment. He was Vitamin D deficient, and a doctor prescribed him supplements to improve his color. He looks tan and revived.
“If you look like a ghost, you feel like a ghost,” he says.
Steinberg could be forgiven for confusing Leaf with an apparition from drafts past. The two ran into each other at the Super Bowl in San Francisco in February. Leaf was in town for a free medical checkup provided for former NFL players. Steinberg, back in the representation game, could not believe that Leaf was on site.
“Last thing that I knew, he was incarcerated,” Steinberg says. “Looked great.”
On March 10, Steinberg took in Leaf’s second act. Leaf addressed students and a small group from the local community at Corona Del Mar High School in Newport Beach, Calif., where Steinberg’s sons went. Steinberg sat in a chair in a classroom and listened to Leaf’s travails. He found Leaf to be painfully transparent.
“He clearly spent an enormous amount of time in self analysis,” Steinberg says. “It was a different Ryan Leaf.”