Quarterback had been working hard to become a better person
When we talked almost two years ago, Ryan Leaf had been sober for 18 months and he seemed as relaxed and happy and prepared for the rest of his life as a man who had fought so many demons could be.
It was one of those sunny days in May that fools us into believing that this spring will be different. That it will be warm and bright and full of optimism.
It was practically a metaphor for Leaf’s life.
As we sat in a restaurant at The Golf Club at Newcastle, Leaf, a former Washington State quarterback and No. 2 NFL draft choice, told me, “I look at these last 18 months as a complete rebirth.”
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And honestly, I believed him, because it was obvious Leaf believed it himself.
We talked for more than an hour, and several times during the conversation tears welled in his eyes as he told the story of his long spiral into drug addiction.
In 2009, Leaf had been arrested in Texas on drug and burglary charges. He was hooked on painkillers. A month before we met for lunch, he pleaded guilty to eight felony drug counts. He was sentenced to 10 years probation and fined $20,000.
He told me the arrest was the best thing that could have happened to him. He said it might have saved his life.
Maybe the news Friday that Leaf had been arrested again on burglary, theft and drug charges shouldn’t have been shocking. I’ve talked to enough athletes over the years who were fighting drug and alcohol addiction, to know that their addictions follow them the rest of their lives. There is no such thing as a cured addict.
But this news was profoundly saddening because Leaf, now 35, seemed to have his life together. He seemed to have a strong support system and a solid self-awareness.
“It’s a sad thing to see him backslide,” said former Washington State all-American quarterback Jack Thompson, one of Leaf’s mentors. “I feel sad for Ryan and for his family. His folks have been through a lot. They’re good people and he’s caused tremendous heartache on the family. It’s very, very sad.”
When we talked two years ago, Leaf said he understood the warning signs of backsliding. But he also acknowledged that “when you’re in your addiction, you’re constantly lying and constantly dishonest. I was insane. How was I insane? Insanity is doing the same thing over and over and over, expecting a different result.”
A year ago, Leaf was faced with a new challenge. He needed surgery to remove a benign tumor on his brain stem. I saw him briefly just before the surgery and he was upbeat and optimistic. But Thompson said the postsurgery treatments had been draining.
He saw Leaf at a Cougar function in Portland about a month ago.
“He looked frail,” Thompson said Sunday, “and I worried if this challenge would really complicate his other challenges. I do know that the treatments had thrown him for a loop. It’s a bear and you compound that with his addiction, that’s a lot to handle.”
Thompson, however, wasn’t looking to make excuses for his friend.
“Look, we all have our challenges,” Thompson said. “But he’s faced two tremendous challenges one after the other. Still, at the end of the day, there are consequences and reality is going to settle in on him real soon if it hasn’t already.”
After Leaf’s arrest in Montana on Friday, the district attorney in West Texas said he would file a motion to revoke Leaf’s 10-year probation. Thompson said he hopes the authorities treat the person as well as the alleged crime.
“I don’t want to throw pillows down for Ryan to land on,” Thompson said, “but things like his tumor should be taken under consideration. The reality is that he needs help. While the courts are ruling on the consequences of his action, I hope that in that judgment they also find out what they can do for him.”
In the past couple of years, I’ve bumped into Leaf at various fundraisers. We’ve exchanged emails a few times. Whatever traces of arrogance that once lingered from his days as the Big Man on Campus in Pullman are gone. I don’t think he was faking his happiness.
Neither does Thompson.
“Yeah, he backslid and he has to deal with the consequences,” Thompson said. “But he’s a better person now. Some people become better people and don’t backslide. Some do backslide. Ryan backslid big time, but he’s not the same person he was.”
At the end of our lunch, Leaf told me, “I don’t mind if people are skeptical of what my motives are. But my one and only motive is … why can’t I put a positive face on something that’s a huge problem in the country.
“My story has a positive ending to a negative experience. That’s where I am now.”
But there is another chapter now, a heartbreaking chapter where another positive ending is clouded by serious questions.