Leaf brought problems with discipline and attitude to San Diego in 1998. The rookie quarterback didn’t settle in well with his teammates. He yelled at hecklers and got into screaming matches with coaches. In the most famous incident, caught on video, Leaf exploded at a San Diego Union-Tribune reporter in the Chargers’ locker room, screaming, “Don’t talk to me, all right? Knock it off!” until teammates hauled him away.
His atrocious attitude was matched by a woeful work ethic. Then physical problems affected his performance. He was fined and suspended. His record, losing 11 of his first 17 starts, was the final straw. The Chargers released him in March 2001. He signed with the Bucs and was let go without making a single appearance; the Cowboys then released him after only four appearances, all losses. Once labeled the world’s next great quarterback, he retired—blaming injuries—before ever playing a game for the Seahawks. In 1998 he had envisioned a 15-year career. He would have been winding down his life’s work as a pro football player today, at the age of 37. Instead, he was out on the street at 26.
“I’d pretty much achieved the pinnacle of what success was available to me. I wanted to keep climbing, but all I could do was plateau. That held no interest. I guess I just got involved in sliding down the other side, as far and as fast as I could,” he says. With a plate-size right hand he gestures downward, a swift, chopping motion. “There I was, a 21-year-old millionaire. I’d reached the peak of every ambition I had as a child. Fifteen years later my perspective’s very different, but essentially the problem’s the same.”
Football’s quintessential Americanness ramped up Leaf’s self-recrimination. He interpreted his behavior as a desecration of the whole country. By squandering his on-field talent, Leaf felt he’d attacked an entire ethos and tarnished the institution of football. “I was drafted with Peyton Manning, and that certainly didn’t help,” Leaf says. “He’s arguably the best quarterback of all time, so we were looked at under the same microscope. And he handled everything just like he was supposed to.”
Leaf is congenitally unable to share the spotlight, even in a grubby little jail cell or a state-sponsored lockdown rehab facility. If he couldn’t be the best at being good, it must have been cheap work for his subconscious to suggest he become the best at being bad. Painkillers helped. “It was the expectations everybody had,” he says, explaining what led him to pills. “It wasn’t at all related to the way the drug made me feel, not at the beginning, not ever. It was what I didn’t feel—all that disappointment. I was lonely and sick of being criticized. But the bottom line is, I wanted to get high.”
Get high he did, shoveling down every opioid painkiller he could purchase. Oxycodone. Hydrocodone. The pills felt great when he was in physical pain, then they felt great when he was depressed about it, and then he was a drug addict wondering how the fuck that happened. “It’s not the pain. You can pull a bone out of my body and I’ll stay on that field until the game is won,” he explains. Taking pills “initially started out as pain treatment, but after a very short while it became something else. When I was taking the pills, I didn’t have to deal with my feelings of being a failure.”
When he couldn’t buy, he begged. In 2006 he began coaching quarterbacks at West Texas A&M, a gig that lasted two years, until he was caught hitting up players for pain pills. When he couldn’t beg, he burgled. In 2009 he caught burglary and drugs charges in the Great Republic of Texas for breaking into a player’s house, receiving 10 years’ probation.
Extraordinarily, it was Leaf’s remoteness from criminal culture that led to this downfall. The lifelong jock simply lacked street cred. “If I could’ve found a drug dealer, I would’ve never gotten in trouble. If I’d made the right connections, I could’ve said, ‘Here’s a hundred grand. Give me several years’ supply.’ Then I’d just go sit in my cabin.”
For a while Leaf latched on to an internet source that sold pills through the mail from Florida, a state on the cusp of pain-management-clinic corruption. He forked over $19 per 10-milligram Percocet pill, or $570 for a tub of 30, from the Sunshine State. I’m currently not short of drug dealers to consult concerning comparative cost structures. At that time, the same pills were peddled at 10 bucks a button on the mean streets of Great Falls, Montana. In a bulk buy they’d probably go for $7 each, about one third of what Leaf was paying.
The setup was ideal until Leaf’s attitude sabotaged him; he refused to give his e-dealer a credit card number. “I was just too mean, man. My mail carrier told me he normally saw only a dozen COD packages a year, yet he’d had eight for me in half that many weeks.” In March 2012 law enforcement launched an investigation. When police searched Leaf’s house they found a pill bottle stashed in a golf bag and traced it to an acquaintance, who claimed Leaf had stolen it. Leaf was charged with burglary and theft.
Bailed for $76,000, he was busted again three days later for entering an unoccupied and unlocked house outside Great Falls and cleaning out the bathroom of three bottles of prescription painkillers. The owners came home as he was leaving. He talked his way out with the old “Sorry, wrong house” routine and did a downfield dash. The owners called the police. When they described their uninvited guest—a “tall man with an athletic build”—the cops suggested they check their medicine cabinet to see if anything was missing. Bingo. The GPS in Leaf’s truck verified it had been there at the time of the robbery and had stopped at five to 10 other houses in the area. Montana police hauled him in. “I turned up looking like a bum, man. I had long hair, for me, and a full beard that grew right down my neck.”
He served 10 weeks in Montana’s Cascade County Detention Center while his warrants were worked out, including two from Amarillo, Texas for breach of parole. After being convicted, he readily accepted the DA’s first plea bargain of seven years, two suspended. Leaf feels his sentence was too light.
“If they put me in Montana State Prison for five years, that’d be okay by me. I don’t really have any drive to be out. I’m just so miserable out there.”
One day Leaf received a postcard from a cousin then in Spain, a whole lifetime still before him. I heard a little-boy warble in Leaf’s voice as he read me the message. Years earlier, Leaf and a cousin had taken a six-month grand tour of Europe after his football career had ended. “It was just like everyone else does after college,” he incorrectly assumes. “Except it was all Ritz-Carltons for us, not hostels, and we rented cars and took sleeper trains instead of hitchhiking. All that time in Europe, I was recognized only twice. Both times it was Americans.” Later, from a Montana jail, he placed a collect call to his mother and stood holding the postcard at arm’s length as he talked, describing it to her.
Leaf, the oldest of three boys, was raised in Great Falls by his father, an insurance salesman, and his mother, a registered nurse. At a sentencing last year, Leaf told the court, “They believe I’ve held them for ransom for 36 years, and I don’t understand why I should have to do that anymore. I’m lazy and dishonest and selfish. These were behaviors I had before my addiction kicked in. Five to 10 years of Ryan-free drama for my family, this community—particularly for this nation—would be pure bliss.”
A prison cell hasn’t softened the feeling. “My worst humiliation was putting my family through hell,” he says with a sigh, before explaining how the pills fit nicely with his other addiction: isolation. “I just sat in my lake house all alone. I’d be there for weeks, and I loved it. But it was so unhealthy. I got high and watched TV and slept. I just liked it. I didn’t feel anything. I just lay around, loving it. Anyone who tried to stop me, I was just, ‘Fuck you, let me go feel good.’”
I admit it all sounds serene. “I just wasn’t with others. No one ever saw me use,” he says. “No one knew. I ignored my parents, my brothers, never had relationships with women. Being around people, they wanted to talk about football. That was always my identity.”
A millionaire ex–football player, even—or especially—one addicted to pills, is someone to use. “I never can really figure out other people’s motives, so I have a hard time trusting anyone. Women love to be treated to things they can’t afford themselves. With men it’s more occupational.” Sports-oriented, making introductions? “Nah, my first job outside football was in financial services, working with my ex-father-in-law. I thought he was going to teach me all about wealth management, the intricacies of how to help people. Turned out his only interest was that I knew a lot of people with a lot of money.”
Better then to stiff-arm all newcomers and not run any risks. He tries to avoid those who are attracted to his extraordinary success; by Leaf’s logic, it means they are dumb by definition—they don’t see him as a failure.
“The people who haven’t let me down through all of this are those I took for granted before,” Leaf says. “My defense mechanism is to rationalize that it doesn’t matter enough to really experience other people, because I’ll never see him or her again.”
But people want to believe in heroes, and the reception to Leaf’s 2008 stint in rehab (when it still appeared successful) was uniformly positive. People who’d never met him were proud, praising his having accomplished something they understood to be desperately difficult.
Now Leaf feels like a hypocrite. “After the rehab in 2008, I was right back in the public eye. I wrote my book 596 Switch; then I had to go out and speak about it.” The book covers only his career at Washington State, but that didn’t stop people from asking about his addiction. “At the signings and the speaking engagements, people wanted to hear me talk a lot about overcoming my addiction. It was humbling to speak so publicly about things that were bothering me privately.” What things? “Becoming a drug addict, not succeeding at what I wanted to succeed at.”
One particular appearance sticks in his mind. In 2011 the University of Oklahoma was the top-ranked football team in the country and had recently lost its 22-year-old starting linebacker to a painkiller overdose.
“It felt like such an honor, and I put in a lot of effort to give an awesome presentation. Three and a half months later I did exactly the opposite.”
This is how Leaf’s latest relapse happened: During treatment for a benign brainstem tumor in 2011, Leaf started to use again, in the most authorized and understandable of ways. “The pills were in front of me because of medical issues. I’ve come to believe that I cannot take painkillers ever again in my life.”
Leaf underwent a craniotomy with local anesthetic only. Actual pain management, Leaf says, is “just an excuse, like it was my reward for all I’d been through. It was what I remembered, that euphoria and lack of any physical or emotional pain. I was hooked immediately after taking the first pill.” He had sacked himself again. “I fooled myself into believing I could control it, as all addicts do. I thought I wouldn’t get caught and I would continue on with my life after my treatment was over.”
But no, the world changes, the tensions bleed away. No more failure. No more hypocrisy. No more expectations. There it is, the drifting delight of smoothed-out edges. Too much to resist. Fuck you, let me go feel good.
“I rented a house in Venice Beach, and my treatment was in Santa Monica. I started to use again on the first of December. It was so easy. I didn’t have to think about anything. I’d go to treatment, get a pill and then go to a movie theater where I’d be all alone through the day.” Leaf sat, aimless and uninvolved, observing show after show, a shadow creature adrift in unreality. “I’d stay there till they shut.” Day after day alone in a dark movie theater. “I went through the whole radiation therapy that way. After eight weeks, I was fully addicted again. I absolutely believed I’d quit as soon as I got back to Montana.”
I believe he believed it. Brain tumors scare the hell out of everyone. Trepidation is a desperately horrible feeling, one he could switch off with ease. I personally detest that unshakable sensation of something bad about to happen; lately I’m an expert. It seemed stupid to Leaf not to alleviate it. But life ain’t over. Bad times will roll around again as sure as Elvis is eternal. What happens next time? “The biggest message I learned is that I needed to ask for help,” Leaf says. “But I didn’t. Even though I knew I needed to, right while I was living it, I couldn’t ask for help. I still can’t.”
Then jail ain’t seen the last of you, mate.