He was a star quarterback at Washington State University, a second-round pick in the NFL 1998 draft, an instant millionaire with a future so bright he thought it would be full of “Super Bowl wins and Old Spice commercials.”
And then one day, after five miserable seasons in the NFL marked by poor play on the field and embarrassing incidents off the field, two suicide attempts, radiation treatment for a brain mass, opiate addiction and a felony burglary conviction, Ryan Leaf woke up on the cold, concrete floor of a prison cell where he would spend the next 32 months.
It was the lowest point in a life full of promise.
But something happened in prison. Leaf’s cellmate, an Iraq war veteran serving a sentence for a fatal drunken driving conviction, encouraged him to be of service to others by teaching fellow inmates to read. It took a while for him to realize it, but the humbling experience turned out to be the turning point in Leaf’s life.
Now 43, Leaf is a supremely contented man in recovery who proudly shows off pictures of his 2-year-old son with strangers while recounting his remarkable journey from despair to redemption with audiences around the country through the Transcend Recovery Community. Leaf served as the keynote speaker at the Penn Foundation’s Autumn Event at Pennridge High School last week.
In addition to serving as the organization’s major annual fundraiser, Leaf’s appearance was designed to raise awareness of the mental health and drug addiction services available to people in the local community who need them, said Penn Foundation President and CEO Wayne Murgrauer.
Between ticket sales and a silent auction, Penn Foundation raised about $150,000 to help provide services like the ones Leaf received to uninsured and underinsured residents of the local community.
“To have someone like Ryan, who is in recovery and has a positive story to tell, will help inspire to better understand what we do and to seek treatment if they need help,” he said. “Ryan shows it is possible. We think he’s perfect for that.”
Before speaking to about 500 people at Pennridge, Leaf spent time touring Penn Foundation’s facility in West Rockhill and learning more about its programs. He also did research on the group to make sure its values aligned with his before accepting the speaking engagement, he said.
“Whenever there is a group of people willing to do the right thing, it’s special,” he said in a brief interview before taking the stage for his 90-minute talk. “They offer hope, which is one of the biggest things I was in search of. People dealing with the same types of things I did are just looking for hope.”
Growing up in Montana as a star athlete, Leaf said he was put on a pedestal above others. The adulation continued in college, leading Leaf to believe he could do no wrong. It got so bad that a cruel but telling joke become poplar: “What’s the difference between God and Ryan Leaf? God doesn’t think he’s Ryan Leaf.”
After losing his NFL career, Leaf became addicted to painkillers that helped him cope with knowing he was looked at as the NFL’s all-time bust. His addiction eventually led to twice trying to take his life and a burglary conviction for breaking into a house to steal drugs.
It was not until he surrendered his ego while in prison and accepted that he needed help that Leaf took the first step on the road to recovery. The turning point came when he accepted his cellmate’s invitation to help illiterate inmates read in the prison library.
For the first time in his life, it wasn’t all about living up to the larger-than-life persona that was Ryan Leaf.
“I did it begrudgingly,” he recalled. “But I went and I went back the next day and the next day. Before I knew it, I was sleeping better, I was talking to my family, I was more personable. The key was that I was being of service to another human being for the first time in my life.”
Since then, Leaf has received treatment for his drug addiction as well as his mental health issues, both services that are readily available at the Penn Foundation. ESPN recently hired Leaf to serve as a college football analyst.
Leaf’s message to the Penn Foundation audience was that “we are all flawed human beings, trying to be better every day.” He challenged listeners to be of service on a daily basis.
“You will have the best night’s sleep imaginable,” he said.
Leaf offered the same advice in a long piece he wrote for The Players Tribune in 2017 titled “Letter to My Younger Self.” After recounting in excruciating detail the struggles 21-year-old Ryan Leaf would encounter over the next decade, he ended with this piece of advice: “You’ll be amazed at how much you get back when you just treat other people with dignity and respect. And it feels pretty damn good.”