Former NFL quarterback Ryan Leaf speaks to Tullahoma athletes
By ZACH BIRDSONG
High school and middle school athletes were part of a special assembly on Thursday as former NFL quarterback and Heisman Trophy finalist Ryan Leaf spoke at Tullahoma High School.
Leaf, who was brought to THS by the Tennessee Dental Society, spoke to the student-athletes about his playing career and the impact off-the-field choices had on his life. The former football player spent six years in the NFL, before landing himself in a prison cell and finding his way to sobriety.
As quarterback at Washington State University, Leaf finished third for the Heisman Trophy during the 1997 season. Michigan cornerback Charles Woodson took home the Heisman Trophy that year, while Tennessee quarterback Peyton Manning finished as runner-up.
From that point, Manning’s and Leaf’s names were synonymous with each other as both players got set to enter the 1998 NFL Draft. Manning was selected first overall by the Indianapolis Colts while Leaf went second to the San Diego Chargers.
To this day, Leaf is the only football player from Montana to be selected in the first round of the NFL Draft. While lofty expectations were held for Leaf, he fell way short of that goal. In fact, many in the media have dubbed him — which he acknowledged during his speech at THS – “the biggest bust in NFL history.”
“I developed this idea about what success was,” Leaf said. “I thought success was money, I thought success was power and I thought success was prestige. At this moment, [when I was drafted] I had all this money, which made me powerful and I had this prestige of being a starting NFL quarterback.
“This is everything that I wanted and what any peers wanted. I was living the life that I thought I wanted to live. In doing so, I thought I was better than everyone as a person because I played this silly game.”
That attitude got the best of Leaf, as he struggled to maintain his work ethic and stay focused. After leaving San Diego in 2000, Leaf signed to play for the Dallas Cowboys in 2001 and signed with the Seattle Seahawks in the spring of 2002, before abruptly retiring.
“My NFL career just crashed and burned with the way I behaved and how I pushed people away, got defensive,” Leaf said. “I surrounded myself by people who always told me yes and how great I was rather than holding a mirror up to me and telling me what I was doing was wrong and how to correct it.”
After his career was over, things turned worse for Leaf when he was introduced to Vicodin.
“I’ve never had a drug in my life except for Vicodin, which took me to a prison cell,” he said. “I found out immediately what that did… It did its job. It killed my pain and I would go on for the next eight years, numbing that pain.”
According to Leaf, he would specifically head to friends’ houses to search for those pain killers to help him cope with life. He said he later starting going to open houses in hopes of finding pills in the medicine cabinets of houses up for sale.
“Nine times out of 10, I’d find them,” Leaf said. “As soon as they were in my hand – and this shows the psychological effects—that they weren’t even in my system yet, but those withdrawals and that anxiety of what I was feeling in that moment was gone.”
That addiction continued for Leaf and on March 30, 2012, he was arrested and subsequently sentenced to 32 months in prison on burglary and drug charges. According to Leaf, although he no longer took pills in prison, being without the drugs did nothing to improve his attitude and his outlook on his life during the majority of his sentence.
“I didn’t know how to deal with life the right way,” he said. “I developed depression and developed all these other issues, because I wasn’t able to talk about it with anybody or express how I was actually feeling.”
However, a trip to the library to help other prisoners learn to read that changed Leaf’s life. By continually doing something that he enjoyed, he was able to occupy his mind and feel at ease.
“Before I knew it, it was a month, two months and three months and I was the substance abuse counselor for the DA [district attorney],” Leaf said. “What I had come to realize is that I was actually being of service for the first time in my life.”
After his release from prison in 2014, Leaf continued to seek treatment. He was able to land a job with Transcend Recovery Community as a driver, escorting people to the facility. This past year, Leaf was able to attend the NFL’s Scouting Combine, addressing the quarterbacks.
Earlier this year, Leaf married Anna Kleinsorge, a former Georgetown volleyball player. The couple had their first child in early October.
“The life that I have now because of the decision to make different choice is huge,” Leaf said. “I’m so grateful for having to spend 32 months in prison. I don’t recommend it, but I’m grateful for it. I have to be humble for that. I had to beaten over the head enough to figure things out. My hope is that you guys will hear this and not go to that level, but have a different perspective and more self-awareness.”