On Aug. 16, the Washington Huskies helped save Ryan Leaf’s life.
In return, he told a story.
Of course, many of you already know it by now. In 1998, Leaf — a statuesque 6-foot-5 quarterback from Washington State — was selected by the San Diego Chargers with the second overall pick in the NFL draft. He was a Heisman Trophy finalist, a first-team All-American and the Pac-10 Offensive Player of the Year.
He was a human land mine, engineered to explode.
He was all ego and entitlement and immaturity, latched — like a parasite — to a pristine right arm. In four NFL seasons with the Chargers, Buccaneers, Cowboys and Seahawks, he completed 48.4% of his passes and threw for 14 total touchdowns and 36 interceptions. By the time he retired in 2002, he was arguably the biggest bust in NFL history.
And things got worse before they got better. The Great Falls, Montana, native developed an addiction to painkillers, which led to an arrest on burglary, theft and drug charges in 2012. He spent a total of 32 months in prison.
Which is where he got sober.
And discovered he had a story to tell.
“It’s about, then, the idea of choices,” Leaf told The Times last week. “You can be a 21-year-old second overall pick millionaire, and you think that’s your identity and the end-all, be-all. But you can make poor choices moving forward where it all can go away. So I think it’s a great story, because it has everything they can possibly imagine going well for them … and going poorly for them. They can do what they want with that. So it’s choices, consequences, identity — identity around whether or not being a football player is all you can be.”
For Leaf, it turns out, it was just the beginning. Now nine years sober, he’s working as a college football analyst for ESPN and Westwood One radio, while hosting a show on Sirius XM as well.
But, more important, he’s sharing his story — traveling to college campuses each fall to hopefully form connections and impact lives.
“I’ve been doing this for about five years now and have developed some neat relationships,” Leaf said. “It’s neat to hear from (former Clemson quarterback and No. 1 overall pick) Trevor Lawrence after a big game, or after a tough one. He’d never lost a game when they lost to LSU in the national championship. Hearing from somebody in that moment is big for me, too, because I want to be there for them. So it’s been really powerful.
“I tell the kids when I’m done with my speech that they contributed in helping to save my life today, and sometimes I don’t think people fully understand what that means. It’s definitely the case.”
Which is where Washington comes in.
Three years ago, former Husky head coach Chris Petersen asked Leaf to speak with his team — which is where he met rising UW defensive coordinator Jimmy Lake. It’s also where he made a profound impact on standout defensive back Elijah Molden, who recommended Lake invite Leaf back for a repeat visit this fall.
But his visit consisted of more than a one-hour cameo. On Aug. 16, Leaf watched practice. He ate meals with the team. He sat in on the coaches and quarterbacks meetings. He pored through practice tape. He spent dedicated individual time with Lake. He made himself available.
And in doing so, he found a program he believes has only improved.
“For as much as I want to dislike the Huskies and everything they stand for and the color purple, Jimmy Lake is a special, special individual. You can just tell,” Leaf said. “You can tell inside that facility, in those meeting rooms, around the kids, it’s a neat place they have. The environment coach Petersen has bestowed and Jimmy Lake has taken over, from the tutelage of (athletic director) Jen Cohen, I think is pretty spot-on.”
Which is one reason Leaf picked Washington to go undefeated this fall. Of course, there are other reasons — such as the strength of the Huskies’ offensive line, the improvement of quarterback Dylan Morris, their rotating crew of running backs and a schedule that includes a premier nonconference opponent and home games against Oregon, Arizona State, Washington State and UCLA.
“I think they are the lone team in the Conference of Champions that has a real shot at going undefeated. So I prognosticated that would be the team,” Leaf said. “It’s hard to do. Now, don’t get me wrong: I’d love to see them be 11-0 and be in Seattle calling the Apple Cup (on radio) the day after Thanksgiving and watch my Cougars wreck it for them. I’d love that more than anything. But I went on a limb here. I’m looking for some optimism. I’m looking for a Pac-12 team to maybe make a statement this year. I think it’s needed. I really do.”
And maybe Leaf’s message — delivered in a one-hour team meeting — was needed, too.
“My (presentation) is just raw, transparent. There’s no cue cards. There’s no PowerPoint,” he said. “It’s just me in a room with these guys, just kind of tearing off the band-aid in front of them so they can see that vulnerability and transparency and know it’s OK for them to do the same thing when times get tough.
“I’m emotionally exhausted at the end of the night, don’t get me wrong. I want it to be the best possible version of the talk that it can be every single time so I don’t shortchange anybody that needs to hear it in that room, whether they need to hear it that night or they need to hold onto it for years down the line. It’s difficult to do. You don’t just walk into a room full of strangers and tell them about all the (expletive) that’s in your life. But if you’re speaking about transparency and vulnerability, if you’re not willing to do it in front of them, it’s not going to stick with them.”
It’s safe to say it stuck.
“Our team, our staff, everybody that was in that room, our coaches, (operations) people, recruiting, we all walked out with a bunch of notes and a bunch of takeaways that’s going to help us in our own lives,” Lake said. “So it was great to have him. How about this? At the very end he gave his phone number out to everybody and said, ‘If you ever need anything, reach out to me.’ That was a really cool thing to do. I think our guys could connect with him, because he’s real, and he just shot it straight.”
He shot it straight, and he wore the shirt — a black long-sleeve UW shirt with “BOW DOWN” featured in bold gold print.
Of course, on the arms of Coug quarterback, this counts as potentially controversial apparel.
But Leaf wore it because the Washington Huskies helped to save his life.
And when needed, he’s ready to return the favor.
“This is about people’s lives,” Leaf said. “We lost our starting quarterback (Washington State’s Tyler Hilinski) just over three years ago to a suicide because of the stigma that exists. He still didn’t feel comfortable telling his brothers or somebody that he was struggling so much, and that can never happen again.
“So it doesn’t matter which colors you wear. If I have to put up with wearing purple for an hour in the service of hopefully making sure something like that never happens again, then by all means. Those who don’t get that — who are judgmental and critical of it — they’ll never get it, and that’s too bad.”