Time and perspective have helped Leaf come to grips with his tumultuous past, and he now empathizes with what embattled Cleveland Browns quarterback Johnny Manziel is going through
Former Washington State quarterback Ryan Leaf might never shake the label of “biggest draft bust in NFL history” but he now finds himself with company.
After a police report emerged this week depicting Cleveland Browns quarterback Johnny Manziel’s alleged physical abuse of his girlfriend, the Brown’s first round draft pack (22nd overall) in the 2014 NFL Draft will likely be released by Cleveland this March, and the former Texas A&M star has already been labeled by some as the greatest draft bust since Leaf.
According to this story by Kevin Acee of the San Diego Union-Tribune, Leaf now works as a program ambassador for a “recovery community” in Los Angeles. Leaf is in San Francisco this week sharing his story with the Super Bowl 50 media camped out on radio row.
Time and perspective have helped Leaf come to grips with his tumultuous past, and he now empathizes with what the embattled Manziel, 23, is going through.
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“It feels like I’m holding up a mirror,” Leaf said Friday in an interview with Dan Patrick on NBC’s Dan Patrick Show. “When I hear stories come out (about Manziel), I go, ‘Oh my God, I did that. That’s how I behaved.”
Manziel’s troubles over the last two years have distressed even his parents. His father, Paul Manziel, told the Dallas Morning News this week that if his son doesn’t get help, “I truly believe he will not live to see his 24th birthday.”
Leaf, who was selected No. 2 overall by the San Diego Chargers, never lived up to his promise, and quickly acquired a bad boy reputation in the NFL. He and Manziel faced different off-the-field issues early in their NFL careers, but there are similarities to be drawn between their career arcs.
Like Leaf, Manziel has had a rough time in his first two years in the NFL and much of his troubles appear to have been self-inflicted.
Manziel made headlines this week after a police report emerged depicting Manziel’s alleged physical abuse of his girlfriend on Jan. 29. According to the woman, Coleen Crowley, Manziel hit her repeatedly while they were at a hotel in Dallas, Texas, and while he was driving her home.
This comes just months after Manziel was pulled over by a cop in Cleveland in the fall when a fellow motorist observed the couple arguing intensely enough that Manziel’s girlfriend at the time, Colleen Crowley, tried to get out of the car while it was in motion.
Manziel has also established a reputation as a partier. He was demoted to third string in November after a video of him partying went viral online, and his party-boy tendencies again came to light when he was sighted at a Las Vegas casino the night before the Browns’ last regular season game.
Prior to this season, Manziel checked himself into an alcohol abuse rehab facility in February 2014, and stayed for more than 10 weeks before re-emerging to join the Browns in their offseason workouts.
Leaf’s troubles seemed to stem more from his poor play, and resulting antagonistic relationship with Chargers management, his teammates and the media.
Looking back now, he regrets the way things unfolded and says he should have sought help.
“When things started to go bad, I started fighting with the media and then my teammates and I was like, ‘I’m a big, strong football player, there’s no vulnerability in me, I can figure this out. Leave me alone,’” Leaf said. “You just can’t win that fight. You’re playing the best defenses every weekend and fighting the media all week long. It’s just exhausting.
“Your central nervous system is on tilt every day for about 20 hours.”
Leaf has also battled substance abuse, but unlike Manziel, he struggled more with opiate painkiller addiction than with alcohol, and his substance abuse issues only came to light after his playing career was over.
“I’d like to say that my substance abuse was the reason I played poorly, but I didn’t start using drugs until after I retired,” Leaf told Patrick. “So I can’t blame it on that. I just didn’t play well, so it’s a different dynamic that I don’t know about.”
Leaf was arrested twice in 2012 and charged with burglary and theft of prescription drugs.
Both instances involved Leaf breaking into homes and stealing oxycodone and hydrocodone pills. Leaf served two years in prison in Montana and was released in December 2014.
Since then, Leaf has kept a low profile. Until this week, his last known public statement came on Twitter in May 2015, when he commented on the way the NFL handled the New England Patriots scandal that has become known as “Deflategate,” versus how it dealt with former Baltimore Ravens running back Ray Rice’s abuse of his fiancé.
“2 (sic) games for beating your fiancé unconscious, 4 games for deflating a silly football, get your priorities straight, NFL,” Leaf tweeted then.
In his interview with Patrick on Friday, Leaf showed his introspective side, wondering how things might have turned out differently for him if he’d sought help for some of his issues early on.
“What happened last year, I thought it was the greatest thing,” Leaf said, referring to how Manziel checked himself into a rehab facility.
“Imagine if I would have done that – just go get behavioral counseling when I was in my second year and things were falling off the rails,” Leaf said. “Sometimes, things just spiral for maybe about a year. You’ve gotta be out of football for a year. You’ve gotta get your stuff right.”
Leaf lasted only three seasons with the Chargers before the team gave up on him after multiple incidents of bad behavior. He gained a reputation for having a poor work ethic, and he quickly lost the support of his coaches and teammates.
After his release from San Diego in 2001, Leaf caught on with Tampa Bay and Dallas, but never stuck. By May 2002, Leaf was out of the NFL. His career quarterback rating is 50.0 and he threw 14 touchdowns to 36 interceptions.
It’s not lost on Leaf that the guy who was drafted one spot above him went on to have a storybook career and will play what might be the final game of his career this Sunday, against the Carolina Panthers in Super Bowl 50.
Coming out of college in 1998, Leaf and current Denver Broncos quarterback Peyton Manning were regarded as two sure-bet NFL starters. But their career paths couldn’t have taken on more diametrically opposite trajectories as Manning flourished and Leaf floundered in the NFL spotlight.
Manning became an All-Pro and a future Hall-of-Famer who is playing this weekend for a second Super Bowl ring. Leaf, meanwhile, has realized that football fame and fortune is guaranteed to no one, even those with the sort of talent he flashed coming out of WSU in 1998.
“Though this is a great game and it’s an institution in this country, it’s fleeting,” Leaf told Patrick. “It’s gone in a second. Everybody is not like Peyton Manning and can play 18 seasons.”