Former Washington State star Ryan Leaf eased the pain of his NFL failure by abusing pain medication. He says his celebrity status kept him from possibly killing himself.
BELLEVUE — The Vicodin was prescribed for the pain in the wrist that Ryan Leaf reinjured in March 2008. That pain was real and the medication mercifully wrapped itself around the ache, as soothing as a hot towel on a sore muscle.
Eventually, the physical pain subsided, but Leaf’s need for comfort didn’t.
He found he still wanted something to numb the pain in his life, the pain he’d never truly addressed. He needed to anesthetize himself from the knowledge he had let down so many people. He needed to escape his life.
“I was completely in denial that I had a problem,” Leaf said, sitting in a restaurant Thursday morning at The Golf Club at Newcastle.
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Ryan Leaf is addicted to drugs. The former Washington State quarterback admits it today as easily as he owns up to his golf handicap. He knows it because he has done the hard work it takes to understand dependency.
He believes his arrest on drug and burglary charges in 2009 was one of the best things that happened to him. It might have saved his life.
“When it happens to you it’s a shock to your system,” Leaf said. “You know, ‘No way. How did this happen?’ That’s how an addict’s mind thinks. I was shocked and completely embarrassed.
“When you’re in your addiction, you’re constantly lying and constantly dishonest. It was a small enough town that there were people there who knew I had a problem with painkillers, but I was in such denial, I thought that no one else knew.”
Leaf, who was the quarterbacks and golf coach at Division II West Texas A&M, went from doctor to doctor, giving them incomplete drug histories so he could obtain more and more Vicodin.
“I told myself this was OK,” he said. “It wasn’t like I was going to somebody on the corner to get this stuff.”
Leaf thought he was using the system to deal with his pain, doing the wrong thing the right way. He thought it was no big deal. But the system he was using finally caught up with him.
“The day after the news of my arrest broke, I remember telling my athletic director, ‘No, no, I don’t have a prescription drug problem,’ ” he said. “Oh yeah, that’s how completely deep in denial I was.”
Leaf said his life had become unmanageable.
“Yes, I was insane,” he said. “How was I insane? Insanity is doing the same thing over and over and over, expecting a different result.
“The only drug I’ve ever taken in my life is pain medication after surgeries. But I had this 10-year shield, this ability to push all the pain down. So when the pain in my wrist left, all this emotional pain started coming out of me. And the only avenue I’d ever taken to deal with any kind of pain in my life had been medication.”
After his arrest, which his family heard about on television, Leaf’s father and brother flew to Canyon, Texas. When they walked through his doorway, Leaf asked them, “What do I do now?”
He calls that his rock-bottom moment.
“For the longest time I’d always resented my notoriety,” he said. “All these years after my NFL career and I wondered why I was still news.
“But ultimately, if I wasn’t this celebrity, this name, this whole thing might have gotten pushed off to the side and I might have eventually killed myself. I think my notoriety, it was front-page news, forced me to look in the mirror and forced me to ask for help.”
In April he pleaded guilty in Randall County, Texas, to eight felony drug charges. He was given 10 years probation and fined $20,000.
But before his arrest, Leaf voluntarily spent six months in a rehabilitation facility in Canada.
On Sunday, the day after his 34th birthday, Leaf will celebrate 18 months of sobriety.
“I’m so glad I went through that,” he said. “If I hadn’t, then I don’t think I would have had the tools to deal with it positively. I would have resorted to old behavior. When I got arrested I might have reacted emotionally. Now, I look at these last 18 months as a complete rebirth.”
After leading WSU to the Rose Bowl, Leaf was the second pick in the 1998 NFL draft, a can’t-miss quarterback San Diego traded three draft picks to acquire. He signed a four-year contract that included an $11.25 million signing bonus.
But his career went up in flames. He won only four of the 18 games he started for the Chargers, and the pain from that disappointment nagged at him for a decade.
“I never got over it,” he said. “I tried to make people think it didn’t matter, but I think all that did was make people think I didn’t care. To not make it in a sport I’d loved since I was 4 years old, it was very hard, very disappointing. I was 21, 22 years old, but emotionally, I was probably like 16.
“The way I look at it now, I was always so intense and competitive that people would always say that I would get mine some day. That I will come up against somebody who is bigger, badder, better. But from 6 years old until 21, I never did.”
The Chargers won the first two games Leaf started, but after spending several days in the hospital with a staph infection, Leaf played his third game in Kansas City and was horrible. That started his rapid decline.
“I’d always succeeded and I didn’t know how to deal with that (failure) at all,” he said. “I didn’t know how to deal with failure at that level, in front of everybody and to be criticized like I was. My answer to everything had always been to throw a football and make everybody ooh and aah. And now I wasn’t doing that.”
Leaf, who is a business-development manager for Vancouver, B.C.-based West Coast Resorts, always gave the impression that he didn’t want to be around people he didn’t know. He seemed distrustful, suspicious of people’s motives.
But the Ryan Leaf who sat in the restaurant at Newcastle on Thursday, wearing a crimson Washington State sports shirt, looked at peace. He was relaxed and genuinely happy.
“When you have nothing to hide anymore, it’s kind of freeing in a way,” he said. “I don’t mind if people are skeptical of what my motives are. But my one and only motive is, that if people are still going to treat me like a celebrity and keep my name in the paper, then why can’t I put a positive face on something that’s a huge problem in this country. I need a mission. I want to tell my story.
“My story is about this individual who had every opportunity to be this amazing success and had always been an amazing success. Then he failed at that highest level and went into a downward spiral where he wondered if he’d ever come out of it. But here’s a different end to the story.
“My story has a positive ending to a negative experience. That’s where I am now.”
Steve Kelley: 206-464-2176 or firstname.lastname@example.org