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A Hail Mary for Ryan Leaf
  • August 19, 2013 : 07:08
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I sort of miss seeing Leaf galumphing around our shared quarters in XXXXL convict-orange pajamas or wedged onto a sub-six-foot, bolted-to-the-wall bunk, head rough against the end wall, huge feet dangling over the end. Spend an extended period in close quarters with Leaf and it’s obvious he tends much more toward attention-seeking rather than outright raffish behavior. Silences are often broken by complaints about food, the absence of exercise, the 24-hour-a-day confinement and the lack of a TV. Other moments are filled with shameful “singing.” His horrible howl-alongs made almost anything from the 1980s even worse.

Sometimes he spoke with disinterest about the Bentley Azure he owns in California (though when we played Monopoly, he insisted on being the car). He talked about his custom-built home in Denver, his lakeside retreat in Montana and his crash pad in San Diego, which looks out onto the Bentley. Or the time he mentioned having funded four Thoroughbreds. Once, when Sara Bareilles’s “Love Song” came on the radio, he commented casually that she was his brother’s ex. Then there was the story about Shania Twain, who insisted on wearing his jersey for a photo.

Leaf certainly isn’t shy about soft-soaping his celebrity, especially to alleviate the inconveniences of incarceration. The judge at his sentencing reduced a plea-bargained punishment Leaf had already signed, an unheard-of event. A similar thing happened when Leaf joined me in October. A few hours after Leaf was removed from rehab and handed a 10-day sanction for misbehavior, his sentence was abated to eight days, no explanation. Leaf just shrugged. On his second night, an officer brought him an additional mattress pad after lockdown. Shrug again.

We’ve stayed in contact by mail. In the way of snakes eating their own tails, Leaf returned to rehab at Nexus for seven weeks, until he landed back in the same cell where we’d met. How did that happen?

“I was asked—or should I say told—to sign a contract. Among many things it stated I could ‘wear only Nexus-issued clothing’ and I was to ‘resign or quit any and all committees and would not volunteer, facilitate or co-facilitate any committees.’ On December 28 I did some service work by setting up chairs in the gym [and then] helped Phase One [new inductees] with their criminal cycles by using mine as a teaching tool. [That] night I went outside to recreation and it was near zero degrees, and I wore my own sweatpants.”

The next day a shift supervisor accused him of violating his contract. Then a roommate tattled to security that Leaf said he wanted to drag Yosemite Sam around by his hair, something he calls “an absolute lie.” Fiction or fact, talking about it—instead of doing something about it—was right. “Recognizing your thinking errors and choosing intervention thoughts or other thoughts so you don’t act on it is what I did, so the tools were working,” Leaf writes. “Just like it will have to work when I want to take a pill or walk into a home and steal a pill. It was working, slowly but surely, but for Yosemite Sam it wasn’t fast enough. This is just not a quick escape route back to the world to do it all over again. This has to work. This is my last chance. Whether it takes nine months or five years, it has to work.”

The relationship with Yosemite Sam was so toxic Leaf saw no therapeutic value in continuing. He claims he asked to be removed from the program and returned to prison. “So off I went back to Fergus County jail to await the formality of being terminated. When I received the paperwork, I acted out, said I wasn’t signing any of these lies and threw them on the ground.” It was the Chargers locker room temper tantrum all over again. “I felt like standing up for myself. Waste of time, but I did feel a little bit better.”

On January 23, 2013 he writes to me from prison: “How goes it my friend? Oh, it is just lovely to be away from Nexus and that godforsaken town. Until I’m confident I won’t harm myself and my community and my family with my actions and selfishness, here is where I will stay.”

Leaf feels better when he’s sober and knows it. He’s driven to do the right thing and annoyed when he doesn’t. That’s his spiral: He’s a failure when he does dope, but the dope stops him from thinking he’s a failure. At least for a while. He feels used by pills, but without pills he feels used by society. He feels used by the media. He feels used by isolation from that attention when he’s sober. Celebrity is his relapse trigger. The cure for Ryan Leaf is, unfortunately, not being Ryan Leaf.

January 30, 2013: “Yes, you’re right, the sweatpants was so me. My extremist nature reared its ugly head. I held others accountable at every turn, and it absolutely backfired on me. Yosemite Sam was going to be the one to cure Ryan Leaf. It was a battle again with him until I was escorted off the premises. But if I was a security risk then I’m the goddamned tooth fairy!”

He doesn’t have to continue punishing himself for having fucked up. Failing doesn’t make one a failure. But for Leaf, the painkillers mute a noise only he can hear: other people’s disapproval. He saw this truth at that 12-week epiphany, when he realized, “I couldn’t control anything outside, but I could control my thinking.” Essentially, stop trying to be as bad as Peyton Manning is good. “There were also ego issues,” he once said. No shit, buddy.

But scuffing the shine off his tattered legacy means persuading others to see him the way he fears he must see himself. Mainly, life ain’t a bed of Rose Bowls for everyone who achieves fame and fortune. It’s also hardly news that learning from other people’s mistakes is a splendidly cheap way of improving one’s own life.

February 13, 2013: “I’m where I’m supposed to be,” he writes. “I’m safe, I’m sober, and I’m not harming my family and my community.” He’ll serve out a 60- to 90-day evaluation period before being moved to Montana’s state prison. “I got what I wanted, as you would probably say. All is well, and time moves on.”

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read more: sports, Celebrities, football, issue september 2013


  • Ashford Henderson
    Ashford Henderson
    Misty seeds aplenty, I wand on the fresh beef you know. YES
  • ChargerFan101
    Fantastic story!