Fuckin’ hell! You and me aren’t gonna have to fight, are we?”
Those were the first words I spoke to Ryan Leaf, who all but blotted out the lights when he entered my 12-by-16-foot cell behind the Sheriff’s Department in Lewistown, Montana last October. The man is six-foot-five and 242 pounds, with a set of shoulders like a range of the Rockies. At 52, I wasn’t at all sure I had enough knockin’ out left in me for all he’d take.
“Nah,” he said with a shrug and the slightest of sheepish grins. Then he went to sleep for two days.
I’d heard about a celebrity inmate on temporary time-out from addiction treatment making his way around the rotisserie. His name, I admit, meant nothing to me. I’m an import from England; we don’t swaddle ourselves in body armor prior to playing a game. American football, to me, is overly refereed rugby for the squeamish. Even real football, what you Colonials insist on calling soccer, means little to me any longer. I’ve grown too old and brittle for hooliganism, so there hardly seems any point. I am simply not a sports fan.
This was to serve me well with Leaf. After a couple of days he crawled out of both his doldrums and his tiny, one-size-doesn’t-fit-all bed at about the same time. We began some stimulating conversations, on any topic other than football.
That lasted two more days, until Montana’s temperature plunged toward 20 below and we were joined by a homeless man who had stolen a car in order to drive drunk just so he could get in the jail and out of the cold. Recognizing Leaf but not any degree of the courtesy that must mark such close quarters, all he wanted to do was talk about football. The former Number 16 did not. One interlude I missed, related by Leaf: “He sat at the table, just listened to me all the way through a long and fairly intimate conversation with my mother. Then immediately all he wanted to do was go on about a fuckin’ Bucs game. Hadn’t I made it clear I didn’t want to talk about football?”
Everyone wants to talk to Ryan Leaf about football. People talk about how he led his high school to the Montana state championship in 1992. They talk about his days at Washington State University, where he threw for 33 touchdowns in a single season, setting a Pac 10 conference record and leading the Cougars to their first-ever Pac 10 championship win and a trip to the 1998 Rose Bowl. Or they talk about how, in 1997, he put up the second-highest passer rating in the States, came in third in Heisman Trophy voting, won Pac 10 offensive player of the year and was chosen as part of Sporting News’s first-team All-Americans. But mostly they talk about the San Diego Chargers taking Leaf as the number two pick in the 1998 NFL draft, with debate raging that he should have been in pole position. But Peyton Manning, perceived as more mature, won out. It would prove prophetic.
Leaf’s four-year contract with the Chargers totaled $31.25 million. His $11.25 million signing bonus was the highest in sports history for a rookie. During his four-year professional career Leaf played—poorly, if at all—for the Chargers, Dallas Cowboys, Tampa Bay Buccaneers and Seattle Seahawks.
By 2002 his football career was over, and the talk changed. “I’m considered the biggest bust ever in the NFL,” he tells me. He’s right. That’s a direct quote from MSNBC. And ESPN. In fact, “the next Ryan Leaf” is sports-speak for each year’s most spectacular draft flameout. ESPN’s “25 Biggest Sports Flops of 1979–2004” ranked him in the top slot. In 2010 the NFL Network agreed, naming Leaf the number one NFL quarterback bust of all time. Leaf even picked up the tag. In his 2011 autobiography, 596 Switch (which covers only his college days), he describes himself as “Ryan Leaf, the NFL bust…the PR train wreck…the cocky jerk.”
These days everyone wants to talk to Leaf about his decade-long struggle with painkillers, his rehab attempts and his incarcerations. Most major media outlets, including the sweaty wretches manning sports desks across the country, have approached him. Countless letters arrive asking for interviews. Leaf declines them all. This article contains the only for-publication interviews he has consented to since his incarceration, indeed, since his, as he refers to it, “spectacular return to drug addiction.” They were conducted start to finish inside a jail cell and document the conversations of two men wearing convict orange, both wondering what the hell happened to their lives, his story a little more complicated—and public—than mine.
Here is how a man once perceived as America’s next great quarterback wound up in a cell with yours truly. It was October 2012 and I was in there accused of committing a crime that never occurred; I was released in early December. Leaf’s latest sentence—seven years (with two years possibly knocked off for good behavior) for burglary and criminal possession of dangerous drugs—started with nine months at Nexus, a behavioral-modification facility in Lewistown. The privately owned lockdown rehab is run for Montana’s Department of Corrections. Its dynamic is that of a community overseen by inmates thrown together and forced to interact as family members with only minimal guidance from staff. The governing principle acknowledges that addicts are extremely sneaky fuckers. It assumes they’ll fool any outsider, no matter how well educated and well intentioned, but won’t waylay 80 other hypes, junkies and meth heads. Fooling the educated and naive is one thing. Deceiving other addicts is quite another.
Leaf didn’t see it working. The problem, as he saw it, was Ryan Leaf. “I’m a leader. I saw what was happening. During my first six weeks, when I was trying hard, I was leading people in a productive way. During the next six weeks I was bumping heads. I saw other people start to act up as well.”
He experienced an aloof, isolationist epiphany around week 12. “I went to the office and told them I’d had enough of the unspoken competition. Told ’em I wanted to get the most out of the program, was prepared to give up any trace of individuality to see if it would really work for me.”
Leaf’s problems started with an addiction counselor we’ll call Yosemite Sam. Leaf mocked Yosemite Sam, and his new self-proclaimed mentor wrote him up. The system cracked down. “They need to retain a little perspective on what they’re trying to do there, trying to accomplish,” Leaf explains.
His first mistake was walking around inside the facility without an escort. Number two was refusing to read in a group. The next hiccup occurred when Yosemite Sam checked Leaf’s room for compliance; the former quarterback couldn’t resist saying, mockingly, “Tighten up my bed corners for me, will you?” Thin-skinned counselor scurries off to office: write-up number three. When Leaf was asked to expound on his failings in therapeutic community (oh, it hurts to report such touchy-feely feculence), he delivered his explanation with a sneer: “I was a smartass. I said I’d interfered with the peace and harmony of another family member.”
Written up again. Off to jail to internalize the errors of his ways.
At his hearing, administrators accused Leaf of being unwilling to change. He disagrees. “I just don’t see it’s going to work. I’m being honest. I don’t see nine months of this is going to give me the equipment. I don’t see the sustainability. I totally tried to join in, but it felt phony, like I was lying. I knew if anyone put pills in my hand, I was gonna take ’em. Their doctrine is that it’s not what you’ve done, it’s what you’re doing that counts. But I have a terrible time disregarding what I’ve done.”