Four years ago, as Ryan Leaf was still trying to detach himself from a series of unremarkable decisions that caused him to spend more than 970 days of his mid-30s behind prison bars, the former Washington State quarterback met a man who had everything he desired.
Before Leaf spent more than two years in a Montana penitentiary, his life was riddled with drugs, addiction, depression and, above all else, deep regret. The man who’d eventually become Leaf’s mentor was leading a peaceful, unchaotic life, and desperately seeking both, Leaf vowed to “follow his advice verbatim.”
Because, five years later, Leaf still acknowledges this reality: “I don’t make the right choices. I simply don’t.
“My best thinking takes me to a prison cell,” the former WSU QB said Wednesday over the phone. “So I need help and I have a group of guys — I call them my board of directors — that help me with the choices in my life.”
Since the former No. 2 overall NFL draft pick and Heisman Trophy finalist was released from jail, he’s reversed course, helping more than he could possibly hurt by touring the country and giving motivational speeches to those who may be suffering the same way he did. Leaf has spoken to various college football programs, he’s served as a program ambassador for the Transcend Recovery Community, a group that sponsors sober living houses in Los Angeles, Houston and New York, and he’s presided over a Pac-12 radio show on Sirius XM
Last weekend, he debuted as a College Football Analyst for ESPN, calling Georgia State’s 38-30 upset win over Tennessee in Knoxville alongside play-by-play partner Clay Matvick. Leaf posed for a pregame photo with Peyton Manning, the player selected ahead of him in the 1998 draft, and opened a text message from the former Volunteers quarterback.
“We took a picture before the game and he texted it to me with a little dialogue and said, ‘You are no longer able to call Tennessee games,’ ” Leaf said.
In two weeks, Leaf will return to the TV booth and continue to chip away at his second career. But there’s business to attend to this weekend in Pullman where Leaf will be inducted into the 2019 class of the WSU Hall of Fame, alongside track and field/cross country athlete Josephat Kapkory (1991-94), volleyball player Stephanie Papke (1994-97); track and field athlete Ellannee Richardson (1999-2003), rower Lisa Roman (2010-12) and sports information director Rod Commons (1976-2007).
Leaf is honored and proud, but at the same time embarrassed and reluctant about what he’s taking part in this weekend. Before an intervention from his mentor, the former Pac-10 Offensive Player of the Year had thought about respectfully declining.
“A big part of my transformation in my life is not making things about me and this is kind of the ultimate making it about you type of moment, so I was hesitant,” Leaf said. “But my mentor really talked to me and said, ‘Hey, you’re kind of going in the opposite direction here. If you haven’t been the person you’ve been the last 4 1/2 years, this isn’t even a consideration.’ ”
Leaf will be spotlighted individually. That’s unavoidable. But he also wants to use his induction as a platform to talk about the 1997 Cougars, who secured a Pac-10 championship with their win in the Apple Cup, earning them a berth in the Rose Bowl against Charles Woodson-led Michigan.
So, in that vein, we present the untold and unsung stories of Ryan Leaf’s career at Washington State:
Not totally unlike the 2019 team, the ’97 Cougars had a chip on their shoulder after being picked to finish seventh in the Pac-10 preseason polls. Fans preemptively assumed the worst when coach Mike Price OK’d a move to play UCLA at home in the season opener, rather than November, when the Cougars would’ve had the presumptive cold-weather advantage.
The Bruins, meanwhile, salivated at the opportunity. With a trip to USC on deck, many feared the Cougars were destined for a 0-2 start.
“A lot of people were giving coach Price a hard time, like you’re going to open the season with UCLA and USC,” Leaf said. “All right, well there you go, the season’s already going to be a wash. He really got in our head about how this is an amazing opportunity.”
That apparently sunk in for the Cougars because they tripped up the Bruins 37-34 in the opener and beat USC 28-21 a week later.
“Then we were off and running,” Leaf said.
The next week, Price and his team were approached about an early kickoff against Illinois. Just how early? (Mike Leach, you may want to cover your ears.) The Cougars and Illini got things going at 9 a.m., which made for a brutally early wake-up call, but offered an upstart WSU team and its standout QB maximum exposure.
“ESPN2 had just launched, and they wanted to see if we would be open to playing a 9 a.m. Pacific kickoff. And coach Price jumped at it,” Leaf said. “He knew no one knew about us, no one knew about the possible Heisman Trophy candidate at quarterback. He said, ‘Let’s put us on national TV at the noon Eastern kickoff hour.’ And guess what? We went out and balled. I threw four touchdowns, we threw a touchdown for 80 yards to open the game, to Kevin McKenzie, and people were talking about us. And it was fine.”
Golfing with the Fab Five …
Not coincidentally, Leaf became one of the country’s top quarterbacks around the same time his legion of skilled wide receivers broke onto the scene. They were the “Fab Five.” By name: Kevin McKenzie, Shawn Tims, Shawn McWashington, Nian Taylor and Chris Jackson.
Leaf treasured the slow, quiet summers in Pullman. Most days, there would be a team lift early in the morning, followed by throwing sessions the quarterback and his wideouts used to build the harmony and synchronization that allowed the Cougars to throw for more than 4,000 yards and 35 touchdowns.
Their chemistry was built on the gridiron, but it was enhanced on another piece of well-manicured turf.
“We’d get up really early and we’d go train, and we’d throw and then we’d be done about 9 o’clock,” Leaf said. “Then me and a bunch of my wideouts would jump in my car and we’d drive across the border to Moscow and tee it up and play golf from about 10 a.m. until it got dark, which in the Palouse, in the summer it could be anywhere from about 10, close to 11 at night sometimes with the sunlight.
“We’d just play all day long, and it just brought us together. Guys got to be pretty darn good at golf. We’d compete.”
Some took the strokes more seriously than others. Leaf and Tims hit consistently down the fairway, but a few of the others spent their afternoons chasing wayward balls and chasing … well, just keep reading.
“I think Shawn Tims, this day and age, would say he could compete pretty well, but a lot of the other guys are kind of spray it all over the place,” he said. “They were just there to enjoy their time. I think a bunch of them took an opportunity to just kind of flirt with the cart girl most of the afternoon, too. It was fun.”
… And feeding the Fat Five
As national buzz started to gather around the five wideouts and their sleek nickname, Leaf’s offensive linemen began to grow envious. Eventually, the big boys up front birthed their own nickname, “The Fat Five.” By name: Rob Rainville, Jason McEndoo, Lee Harrison, Cory Withrow and Ryan McShane.
Leaf was fond of the skill players who caught his passes, but he also made time for the blockers who diligently protected the prized QB’s blind side. After Friday walk-throughs, the O-linemen would engage in mini two-on-two games — two players on offense and two on defense, with a 6-foot-5, 230-pound Leaf patrolling back deep.
“I’d play defensive back,” Leaf said. “I loved when I’d pick it off and I’d take it to the house and be dancing. That was a fun way for us to be competitive with the O-linemen.”
Occasionally, Leaf took it upon himself to fuel the “Fat Five.” The nickname only worked if the players could live up to it. For a while, WSU’s O-line had the bite it needed, but lacked the bulk or the beef.
“They weren’t the biggest offensive linemen in the country, so I needed to beef them up as much as I could,” Leaf said. “I’d feed them, I’d buy them pitchers of beer and I’d load them up with as much as I could.”
And it didn’t have to necessarily be in the quarterback’s budget. Eventually, Leaf would sign a $31.25 million contract with the San Diego Chargers, but six months earlier, equipped with only a measly student-athlete stipend, his checks were often bouncing at local fast food joints and pizzerias.
“When I bought my first house,” Leaf said, “I had all these red flags on my credit report because I bounced a bunch of checks to places like Pizza Hut and stuff like that for $13 or $15 because I was trying to feed my O-linemen.”
They stayed fat and kept Leaf happy. (And more important, upright.)
Price and The Pointer Sisters
“I’m So Excited!”
WSU took a 5-0 record into an Oct. 18 matchup against an underwhelming Cal team. At 36.4 points per game, Leaf and the offense were humming, the defense was gaining confidence after allowing 13 points in two games and the QB began to detect complacency.
Perhaps Price sensed it, too.
The night before, the Cougars were watching a highlight video with the top plays from their Week 4 win over Oregon. It was customary for a song to play over the highlight reels, used as motivational tools to boost energy before the ensuing game.
“I’m So Excited,” a big hit from 1970s R&B group The Pointer Sisters, blared in the background as players watched footage of their 24-13 win from the week prior. The Cougars were dragging when they sat down for their pregame meal. That changed when their 50-year-old head coach leapt onto a table in song.
“I think it was homecoming, and we were just eating and it was quiet,” Leaf said. “Then all the sudden, we just hear this scream and this person jumps on top of the table in our dining hall and coach Price just jumped up on top of the table and started screaming out, ‘I’m so excited.’ And he just starts screaming it at the top of his lungs and everybody is just watching this play out, he’s like, ‘I’m so excited,’ he starts running around, ‘And I just can’t hide it.’ ”
The Cougars won in a rout, 63-37, improving to 6-0 behind Leaf, Price and a little help from The Pointer Sisters.
“I’ll tell you what, it was an early game, he fired everybody up, we went and hung like 50 on them in the first half. I had five touchdowns. It was just one of those things,” Leaf said. “That’s the one I remember the most, just dead quiet and there’s this middle-aged man with glasses on jumping and screaming out the Pointer Sisters’ ‘I’m So Excited’ to get us fired up.”
Between the wins over USC and UCLA, a 35-34 overtime triumph against Arizona and the most consequential Apple Cup in program history, WSU’s home finale against Stanford may have been lost in the shuffle.
Leaf still remembers it vividly.
“They came in with a great game plan. They played this shell Cover 4 coverage that kept everything kind of bottled up, didn’t let us to go downfield where we excelled all year long,” he said. “And we just took it in stride. We just did the things we needed to, it just showed us how we were able to adapt. Defense made some big plays, knocked the quarterback out.”
Leaf hit on 23 of 37 passes for 258 yards and two touchdowns. The Cougars, in his terms, “manhandled” Stanford backup QB Todd Husak, who’d eventually become the conference’s player of the year.
A 38-28 win over the Cardinal clinched an unbeaten home record for WSU, and it also signified a California sweep. Never in school history had WSU won games against Stanford, Cal, USC and UCLA in the same season.
“I popped the pose, the Heisman Trophy pose, in front of the Stanford bench at the end of the game,” Leaf said. “The fans carried me off the field. So that game for me is special as you can get, my last home game there at Martin Stadium.”
In the late 1990s, former Spokesman-Review beat writer Mike Sando classified Leaf as a staunch competitor who offered grins about as often as he threw interceptions. Leaf admits he didn’t lead the same social life as many of his teammates, acknowledging football was his first, second and third priority.
“Sacking Leaf is about as hard as getting a smile out of him out on the football field,” Sando wrote, according to Leaf. Or something along those lines.
“I didn’t hang out too much with people off the field. I wasn’t a big drinker, I wasn’t a big partyer, I was really competitive,” Leaf said.
But in his three years at WSU, Leaf developed a meaningful friendship with his roommate and backup quarterback, David Muir. The two became “fast friends” and their relationship has persisted, despite the hills and valleys of Leaf’s professional football career and ensuing prison sentence. Along with a handful of family members, Muir will be in Pullman this weekend for the HOF induction.
“He’s my best friend,” he said. “We’ve been as close as anybody for the last 22 years and he’s always been there for me. He could care less that I was a famous football-playing quarterback.”
The 1997 Apple Cup featured a pair of touted passers in the Cougars’ Leaf and Huskies sophomore Brock Huard. Occasionally, the game still surfaces in conversations between Leaf and Huard, both television analysts and radio show hosts these days.
Huard was intent on winning the game, but he was also eager to post a more impressive stat line than the QB on the opposite sideline. Leaf wasn’t caught up in the duel between him and Huard, but he was desperate to beat the Huskies and secure the school’s first Rose Bowl trip in 67 years.
“Brock always talked about, he just wanted to win that game so bad and he wanted to beat me, because we were having the season they were supposed to have, they were picked to win the Pac-10 Conference at the time,” Leaf said. “He watched me walk on the football field, and he was just really honed in with me.”
Huard recently invited Leaf onto a podcast and posed the question: “Were you as honed in with me?”
“I was like, ‘To be honest, Brock, I wasn’t thinking about you at all. I was thinking about that defense and how I was going to exploit them and try to get a win,’ ” Leaf said.
Maybe it was the difference. An element at least. Leaf was 22 of 38 for two touchdowns. While the Huskies scored 35 points, the hosts were repeatedly undone by Huard’s interceptions. UW’s quarterback threw five after throwing five up to that point.
The Cougars emerged with a 41-35 win and Leaf was carried off the field — a rose stem clenched between his teeth — as UW’s PA announcer proclaimed, “From everybody here at the University of Washington, congratulations and good luck in the Rose Bowl.”
“I thought that was pretty cool,” Leaf said. “ … It was supposed to play out how it was supposed to play out. We had done the work, we were ready to play, we dominated from the first whistle to the last and what a time to celebrate, to be handed a rose, to know you were actually doing something that I don’t think a lot of people ever thought would necessarily happen at Washington State. And to have Keith Jackson a couple weeks later to be on that call for that Rose Bowl was pretty special.”