Former WSU quarterback Ryan Leaf appeared on The Ellen DeGeneres Show on Tuesday and told DeGeneres that her show helped him find his humanity while he was serving a prison sentence for burglary

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Former Washington State and San Diego Chargers quarterback Ryan Leaf appeared on The Ellen DeGeneres Show Tuesday afternoon to share the story of his road from being an entitled athlete who believed that his football prowess “made me better than you,” to his opiate addiction and subsequent arrest and prison sentence.

Leaf appears to have turned things around since his release from prison in December 2014. He detailed his road to recovery in this story by Sam Farmer of the Los Angeles Times last week, and on Tuesday, told DeGeneres that watching her show on the 13-inch television in his cell gave him solace during his prison sentence.

“You live this public life, and had a platform of service on a daily basis, and it made me feel something. I felt like a human being again. It gave me my humanity back, it really did. An hour a day,” Leaf told DeGeneres. “When I didn’t have it. I went and found it because I saw your face. … My roommate would come in and he’d see me either bawling or laughing uncontrollably watching your show.”

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At the end of the segment, DeGeneres presented Leaf with a $10,000 check from show sponsor Shutterfly for his nonprofit, the Focused Intensity Foundation.


Here’s a full transcript of Leaf’s interview with DeGeneres:

Ellen DeGeneres: Well, you can tell you played football – you’re a big, strong man. So it was Peyton Manning, and then you were (drafted) No. 2 right?

Ryan Leaf: Yeah. It was…. If anybody knows who Peyton Manning is? It was between us. So it’s funny to look back on it now.

EG: So your whole life was football? So you played for four years, right?

RL: I grew up in Montana and played football my whole life. I wanted to be a professional athlete. Young men and women from Montana don’t make it to the professional level that often. And I always believed that because I was a great football player that made me better than you. And that’s not the case at all. We’re all flawed human beings trying to be a better person on a daily basis and I didn’t figure that out for a long, long time.

ED: Well, I think as you know now, that happens to a lot of people. They go straight from high school to college to pro. So you played four years professionally, and then you went back to Montana?

RL: I did. I didn’t know who I was. The identity was, I was this football player – A—and now I was this failed football player – B – and I couldn’t rationalize that or justify that in any way. So, I’d been introduced to Vicodin while playing because of all my orthopedic surgeries, and I used it to mask those physical pains, and now I was taking it to mask the emotional ones, of not being able to live up to those expectations, the depression. All the things that come with mental illness, and I just started medicating.

ED: How much were you taking a day?

RL: Well I had to figure out how to get 100 miligrams somehow. Whether that was 10 pills, or at some point, 20, to do it. Just to be normal.

ED: And how were you getting the pills?

RL: I ended up going to doctors at first, of course. But ultimately, I didn’t know a drug dealer, I wasn’t a good criminal or anything. I went to people’s homes – friends I knew. I went to open houses in Montana, pretending to be interested in buying a home, and would go through medicine cabinets or cabinets in the kitchen. The shame of it was terrible, but once they were in my hand, that obsession dissipated. This effect that opiates have on a person’s brain, they disappeared, and the ends justified the means.

ED: And how long were you living that way?

RL: I started taking pills at 28, and until my arrest at 35, it was off and on for seven years.

ED: And you got arrested for what reason?

RL: I got arrested for having Vicodin without a prescription, in my golf bag, and charged with burglary, in my hometown, where I was supposed to be a hero.

ED: So the reason you’re here, what we heard about you, is that you were watching this show, in your cell?

RL: Yeah, so I had a 13-inch television at the end of my bed, and I’d watch it. You live this public life, and had a platform of service on a daily basis, and it made me feel something. I felt like a human being again. It gave me my humanity back, it really did. An hour a day, when I didn’t have it. I went and found it because I saw your face.

ED: Wow. (Smiles)

*audience applause *

ED: That is so touching to me. I feel like I’m so lucky that I come here, and there’s so much joy in this room and I get to get this from. But to know that I’m touching people, and reaching people in that way, I hear it in different ways when people are in the hospital or sick. But it means a lot to me to know that in a place like that, to be in prison, that I could reach you.

ED: So in prison you started teaching other inmmates to elevate themselves?

RL: Yeah my roommate would come in and he’d see me either bawling or laughing uncontrollably watching your show. One day he came in and said “let’s go down to the library, you’re gonna help these guys who don’t know how to read learn how to read. And that was the first time I was ever of service to anybody but myself in my whole life.

ED: And it feels good, right?

*Leaf nods*

ED: So you started a foundation? Tell everybody about the foundation you started.

RL: Well I started a foundation called the Focused Intensity Foundation. FocusedIntensity.org, where I raise money for scholarships for people who can’t afford treatment or mental health treatment. When I got out of prison I couldn’t afford to go to treatment, and if the NFL didn’t have grants available to me, I wouldn’t have been able to get the help I needed, and I don’t ever want somebody who really wants help and wants to change their life not be able to do it because they can’t afford it.

ED: You’re a great guy and an example of why we need to have programs in prison to help people actually get better and put programs in there that will make people have humanity again. Shutterfly cares about supporting organizations like Focus intensity, so they want to give you a check for $10,000.