Times reporter Danny O'Neil travels to Great Falls, Mont., to get the inside story on infamous ex-football player Ryan Leaf, who went from college stardom at Washington State to NFL bust to — now — having a string of criminal charges.
GREAT FALLS, Mont. — In the end, Ryan Leaf wasn’t recognized as the quarterback who led Washington State to its first Rose Bowl in 67 years.
He wasn’t identified by his NFL infamy, either.
Leaf was picked out of police photos by a victim who had returned home to find a tall guy coming out of her trailer home wearing shiny black loafers. He said something about being at the wrong address.
A little while after the man drove off last Sunday afternoon, the victim discovered three bottles of prescription medicine were gone. The missing medication became part of a police investigation that resulted in Leaf’s second drug-related arrest in 3 ½ days.
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When the area’s drug task force arrived at Leaf’s house, police officers were already there. He wore a sweatshirt similar to the one described by the victim, and those shiny, black loafers were at the front of his closet. Officers also found 89 pills identified as hydrocodone in the pocket of his robe hanging in his bathroom, according to an incident report filed.
Leaf stayed silent after being informed of his arrest, said Great Falls Police sergeant Chris Hickman. No shock, no protests. When Leaf was taken to the county jail, it demonstrated both the fragility of sobriety and strength of addiction.
After all Leaf had been through — from the unmitigated failure of his professional playing career to the drug problem that cost him a college coaching job to the brain tumor that was removed last year — he seemed to have found a bit of happiness in his hometown. He was living on his own in a one-bedroom mother-in-law of a house. The first of three books he agreed to write was published last year. He was driving the unofficial state car of Montana: a big, black pickup truck.
Great Falls is a town with more than 50,000 residents, big enough to have two public high schools yet small enough for many people to leave their doors unlocked. That last fact is significant because police allege that twice in a week Leaf walked into a home without permission and walked out with drugs that are illegal without a prescription.
The guy who became famous in college, then infamous in the NFL, spent the past week in the Cascade County jail. He is being held without bond facing seven criminal charges in Montana — five of them felonies — plus a parole violation in Texas. The happiness Leaf professed to have found had become yet another lie, and if Leaf hasn’t hit rock bottom, well, you certainly can see it from here.
“It’s just a sad deal,” said Jack Johnson, his high-school coach. “I hope he gets through it.”
“I was good at two things, athletics and lying. I was always worried about what others were thinking about me or how I was being perceived … soon lying, to make the story more about who I wanted people to think I was, ultimately won out.”
— Ryan D. Leaf, “596 Switch”
That poignant reflection has become a cringingly prophetic passage early in Leaf’s book.
Leaf was scheduled to sign that book at the Barnes & Noble in Billings on Saturday, March 31. It would be his first trip to the town since high school, and he was planning to go with his father, John.
Leaf was excited. At least that’s what he told Troy Shockley, a reporter for The Billings Gazette. They arranged to meet for dinner Friday, the night before Leaf’s signing.
Leaf never made it out of Great Falls that day, his lies piling up until a monthlong police investigation brought them crashing down into a heap of criminal charges.
Shockley got a call just after 3 p.m. Ryan’s father called to say they wouldn’t be coming, and while he didn’t say what happened, that became clear soon enough.
Leaf was arrested for possession of the same kind of painkillers that led to his guilty plea to eight felonies in Texas and cost him a promising college coaching career at West Texas A&M.
In Texas, he was accused of taking a painkiller prescribed for one of his players, prompting an investigation that found Leaf had acquired more than 1,000 pills in less than a year from various local pharmacies.
He resigned from coaching in November 2008, then spent 42 days in a Canadian rehabilitation facility. That’s where he was when he was indicted in Texas in May 2009. He pleaded guilty to eight drug charges, and was sentenced to 10 years of probation.
Painkillers like hydrocodone, oxycodone and morphine are legal only with a prescription, but their illicit, unprescribed use is nothing short of a public-health crisis in this country. More fatalities are caused by prescription drugs annually than by heroin and cocaine combined.
Leaf might have been struggling with his sobriety for months, perhaps even longer. According to Hickman, who’s in charge of the Central Montana Drug Task Force, the Great Falls post office has records of multiple cash-on-delivery packages Leaf began receiving in January. A year and a half ago, there were reports of a black truck like Leaf’s or a man matching Leaf’s description seen at seemingly random houses, explaining he must be at the wrong address.
Publicly, Leaf gave no hint he was struggling with his recovery.
Last October, Leaf said he had been sober since Nov. 16, 2008, during a chat on The Seattle Times’ website. Last month, he was interviewed by Neil Scott for the national radio program “Coast to Coast Recovery.” The conversation was recorded on March 16, a date that corresponded with both Leaf’s sobriety date and his college number.
The task force’s investigation of Leaf had been triggered by a tip from a postal inspector. Leaf had been receiving packages from Florida for several months and paying for them with cash. Those packages began arriving in January, cost between $500 and $700, and were coming twice a week by the end of March. Police believe he received a delivery as recently as March 27.
Officers had Leaf’s probation officer summon him on the morning of March 30. Leaf initially denied receiving the packages, but when confronted with evidence, admitted he had received up to 10 packages containing prescription medicines, but asserted they were not narcotics.
Leaf denied having any narcotics in his possession and denied taking any. But when police searched his truck, as allowed by the terms of Leaf’s probation, officers found 28 oxycodone pills in a golf bag with his name embroidered on it. Those pills were in an unmarked bottle. There was another bottle in the bag, bearing the name of another Great Falls resident.
Police discovered the bottle had been taken after Leaf entered a home through an unlocked side door without permission, only to be seen by a housekeeper. Leaf said he was dropping off a book, but left with a bottle of pills from the back bathroom.
A urinalysis ordered by Leaf’s probation officer detected opiates in his system, and during interrogation, Leaf admitted to officers that he had taken the pills and also had pills from an old prescription.
Hickman has worked in the drug task force for more than seven years, running it for the past two and a half. Leaf’s arrest was straightforward. It was also sad.
“I was sick in my stomach,” said Hickman, one of the arresting officers. “I hated to see that.”
Leaf was released from jail that Friday after posting bail, which was set at $76,000. Just after 6 p.m., he sent a text message to the reporter he was supposed to meet in Billings: “This tumor stuff just keeps getting in the way.”
It was a reference to the benign tumor found on his brainstem May 19, a golf-ball sized mass removed six days later.
“I’ve made sum mistakes, & have no excuses. i’m using the tools I’ve learned 2 move forward rather than backwards, & will B open 2 talking abt the details in the days 2 come. i’m confident that thr will B further understanding when the facts R revealed, & feel vry blessed 4 all of the support, esp from my friends & family.” #beblessed
— Ryan Leaf via Twitter, March 31
Football is a footnote in this story.
The question of what kind of player Leaf could have been is history. Leaf turns 36 next month, 10 years removed from his last NFL game. He had accepted what happened in a career in which he had 36 interceptions and 14 touchdowns. He won just four games as a starting quarterback, but insisted he would not be defined by his lack of NFL success.
The issue is what kind of person he could become as he fought the demons of addiction in his hometown, where he said he’d found the happiness that had eluded him since entering the NFL in 1998.
He wrote his book and began making public appearances without any of the cockiness or combativeness that had become a trademark of his athletic career. Of all America’s faults, a reluctance to forgive is not one of them, and pretty soon the criticism that had been constant for Leaf the past 10 years turned to compassion.
T.J. Simers, The Los Angeles Times columnist who branded Leaf “the punk” before he played his first NFL game, described a newfound maturity. Cougars fans gave him a standing ovation when he appeared at a Seattle hotel to celebrate the school’s recruiting class in February 2010. He hosted a radio show in San Diego, a city where the crowd had once booed when he appeared on the scoreboard as part of a Make-A-Wish commercial in the middle of a game.
Even in his hometown of Great Falls — where he has been a polarizing figure since high school — people he had once aggravated pulled for his personal comeback.
“It was really good and refreshing to see him with a fresh attitude,” said Jon Kasper, his high-school teammate. “Having people rooting for him to overcome his past demons.”
Kasper was a year ahead of Leaf at C.M. Russell High School, and he caught Leaf’s first varsity touchdown pass. Like everyone else in this town, Leaf rubbed him the wrong way at some point, and most likely more than once.
There was never any question of Leaf’s athletic prowess. Here was a monster of a kid who could dunk a basketball with his elbows in high school and throw a football more than halfway down the field without warming up.
“It was really kind of awesome what he could do,” said George Geise, sports editor at The Great Falls Tribune for 33 years until he retired in 2011.
But Leaf was also the kind of kid who was once ejected from a Little League game, and told another kid he walked like a girl.
The local feeling about him?
“Ambivalent,” Geise said.
The second player picked in the 1998 NFL draft was never the most celebrated quarterback from his hometown. That is Dave Dickenson, the overachieving honor student who wasn’t even 6 feet tall but led C.M. Russell to 24 consecutive wins, two state titles and set passing records at the University of Montana in the 1990s.
Leaf’s team won the Class AA state title in 1992, his junior year. He became the starting quarterback the fourth game of that season, but as a senior he suffered a thumb injury that kept him in a cast for two weeks, and the team lost in the first round of the playoffs.
Leaf, who wouldn’t agree to a jailhouse interview for this story, grew up in a middle-class home. His father worked in insurance and his mother was a nurse. The metal frame on the doorbell outside their home reads, “Home Sweet Home.”
His family paid for a notice in his senior yearbook. It showed Leaf as a kid wearing a San Diego Chargers helmet and No. 14 jersey juxtaposed against his senior football photo. The dedication: “From a little boy with a dream to a young man who gets to realize his dream.”
That dream might have faded, but that didn’t change the fact that he led Washington State to its first Rose Bowl since 1931. Millions of kids grow up dreaming of playing for the Dallas Cowboys. Leaf started for them on Thanksgiving Day, 2001.
He came home to live in a tiny house that was built back from the street and next to an alley with a porch light powered by an orange extension cord. But he said he was happy, and after all the turbulence of the past 10 years, that counted for something.
It’s too much to say there was some groundswell of support to really get behind Leaf this time, but at the same time, there wasn’t anyone who didn’t hope he had gotten things together.
“You really want to root for him,” Kasper said.
“You’re always addicted to painkillers when you’re an addict … It’s like brushing your teeth. You’ve got to do something every day.”
— Ryan Leaf on www.seattletimes.com, Oct. 20, 2011
Ryan Leaf faced a choice the last afternoon he spent out of jail.
His parents’ house sits halfway between Leaf’s home and the single-wide trailer police officers allege he burglarized last Sunday.
That afternoon, he must have come to the intersection that leads out of the development where his parents live and found himself at a literal crossroads.
Turn right and he could go south back toward town, return home and restart his recovery. Turn left and he would be on Bootlegger Trail, a two-lane highway with a 70 mph speed limit shooting straight out into the country.
Try to imagine the sheer weight of that moment for Leaf.
He has been called a punch line and a bust. He was dealing with a chemical addiction, and an emotional crisis after the sobriety had become a mirage. He was facing new criminal charges in Montana from his arrest just a few days earlier and the very real prospect that Texas would come after him, with the threat of a sentence that could run as high as 20 years.
Last Sunday afternoon, with all those consequences piling up, Leaf turned left and made a bad situation worse. He headed down Bootlegger Trail until he came to the dirt road that led to that trailer, which had three lawn mowers, several loose car tires and a boat in the front yard.
He was inside when the resident came home. She didn’t see a former football star, or even a professional failure. He was just a tall guy with shiny, black loafers who had taken a wrong turn.
Danny O’Neil: 206-464-2364 or firstname.lastname@example.org. On Twitter @dannyoneil.