Dear 21-year-old Ryan,
I have a joke for you. Stop me if you’ve heard it before….
What’s the difference between Ryan Leaf and God?
(I’m just kidding. I know you remember this one. It was an ongoing joke back at Washington State, so I know you already know the punchline.)
God doesn’t think he’s Ryan Leaf.
And I know you’re feeling a lot like a God right now, because it’s April 18, 1998, and the San Diego Chargers just selected you with the second pick in the NFL draft.
Congratulations. You officially have it all — money, power and prestige. All the things that are important, right? And by this evening, you’ll be on a private jet to Las Vegas to pull a celebratory all-nighter while sportswriters in San Diego write columns that pair your name with the word “savior.” You’ll read them and think, Savior … that sounds about right.
That’s you, young Ryan Leaf, at his absolute finest: arrogant, boorish and narcissistic. You think you’re on top of the world and that you’ve got all the answers.
Well I’m sorry to have to tell you this, but the truth is….
You don’t know shit.
Now, before you ask me who the hell I think I am or tell me to f*** off, just relax for a minute and listen. I’m not here to tear you down, or to tell you how to live your life. I’m just here to tell you how things really are. You think you’re better than everybody else because you’re a big, important NFL quarterback now — but you’re wrong. You’re seeing dollar signs, flashbulbs and Super Bowl rings in your future, but the reality is that it’s a privilege just to play in the NFL, and you should be grateful for that.
So my advice to you is to enjoy it while it lasts.
Because it won’t last.
Here’s a snapshot of what your NFL career is going to be like: You’ll be named the starter right out of the gate as a rookie and you’ll win your first two games. Sounds great, right? Well, on one play in that second game, you’ll slide on the grass, and your socks and tights will basically melt into your skin. You’ll develop a staph infection that will land you in the hospital, but you’ll be determined to play the following week at Kansas City. You will play … and you’ll play the worst game you could possibly imagine. You’ll complete 1 of 15 passes for just four yards, with two interceptions and three lost fumbles, and your team will lose the game.
You’re probably thinking, So what? It’s just one game. No big deal, right?
Well, the following day, you’ll be back in San Diego sitting at your locker, and a local beat reporter named Jay Posner will sit down next to you. I know how you loathe the media, Ryan. And on this day, you’ll still be feeling the physical effects of the staph infection and the psychological sting of your embarrassing 1 for 15. So when Jay sits next to you and starts asking you about the game, you’ll take out all your frustrations on him.
You’ll stand up, towering over him as he sits at your locker, and you’ll scream down at him, “Don’t talk to me, all right! Knock it off!”
One of your veteran teammates, Junior Seau, will come pull you away before the situation gets out of hand, but the damage will have already been done. Somebody will capture the blowup on video, and it will be all over TV, seemingly running on an endless loop.
That video will follow you for the rest of your life. When your career is over, that will be the one thing people remember most about Ryan Leaf.
Knock it off!
It won’t feel like it at the time, but that day and those three words — just three weeks into your rookie season — will effectively signal the beginning of the end of your NFL career. I mean, you’ll apologize for your actions, and you’ll move on, and you’ll spend a few more years in the league after that, but you won’t do anything of note. It will all be downhill from there.
You’ll miss the 1999 season with a shoulder injury. The following year, you’ll be named the starter again. But after two games, you’ll get benched, and you’ll basically turn into a petulant child, arguing with the head coach and ignoring veteran teammates who will try to help you.
Junior Seau and Rodney Harrison will try to take you under their wings and teach you how to be a professional, but your ego won’t allow it. Like I said, you think you have all the answers, so you won’t think you need their help.
John Carney will extend an invitation for you to join him for a weekend with motivational speaker Tony Robbins on his private island in Fiji. Your response?
“F*** Tony Robbins.”
Getting along with your teammates will be one of the most difficult things about life in the NFL for you, mostly because you think everything is all about you … and probably because you have the nerve to look at a veteran guy like John Carney — who’s probably the nicest guy on the planet — and say something like, “F*** Tony Robbins,” when all John is trying to do is help his young quarterback out.
After your third season in San Diego when you’re on your honeymoon on a small cruise ship in Tahiti, somebody will slide a copy of that morning’s USA Today under your cabin door. Right on the front page, in big, bold letters, you’ll see it.
CHARGERS RELEASE RYAN LEAF
For most guys, this would be devastating. Not just the feeling of rejection from being released, but to find out in the newspaper? That’s like pulling into the parking lot at the facility and finding your helmet and shoulderpads out on the sidewalk with a note that says, “You’re fired.”
But you? It won’t bother you one bit. In fact, you’ll be over the moon. You and your new wife will pop a bottle of champagne and toast a fresh start. You’ll be happy to be out of San Diego because you will have grown to hate the Chargers as much as they hate you.
Years later, you’ll look back and realize that the Chargers hadn’t just given up on you. They did try to help you and groom you. Whether that was because they had invested a lot of money in you or because they actually cared about you, you’ll never know. But they did try … which is more than you’ll be able to say for yourself.
The Buccaneers will claim you off waivers, and you’ll cut your honeymoon short so you can report to Tampa and join your new team. But at the end of the day, the change of scenery won’t be the fresh start you’ll be hoping for.
The Bucs will ask you to take a pay cut so they can keep you on the roster and develop you. But you’re Ryan Leaf, remember? The No. 2 pick. The next big thing. Ryan Leaf doesn’t take pay cuts … especially to be a backup.
So you’ll refuse, and the Bucs — a team with a great coaching staff led by Tony Dungy, that believes in you and wants you to succeed — will be forced to release you.
You’ll catch on with the Cowboys and play in four games in 2001, but they’ll release you after the season. Then you’ll get another chance when the Seahawks pick you up. This will be a team much like the Bucs — a team with great leadership that wants to mentor you and develop you. You’ll attend their off-season workouts and you’ll feel good about where you are, even though it will be nothing like what you thought your career would be like after four years in the league.
By this time, you will have already started to hear the word no NFL player ever wants to have attached to his name.
You’ll grow tired of fans yelling at you. Tired of being a punchline. Tired of being looked at as a failure. And just before Seahawks training camp starts, you’ll think, I don’t want to do this anymore.
So you’ll quit.
You’ll retire, thinking it’s over and that you won’t have to deal with the pain of being a failure anymore. You’ll just walk away from the game.
And you’ll walk right into a buzz saw.
When most guys retire from football, there are certain things they miss about the game — things they can’t find in other aspects of their lives, like the thrill of competition, the roar of the crowd and the camaraderie of the locker room.
But you? You weren’t really able to compete at a high level in the NFL, the crowd never cheered for you and your teammates hated you. So you won’t miss those things.
No … you’ll just miss the attention.
When you retire, you’ll think you’re still important because you were a football player. But you’ll also feel like a disappointment because you didn’t live up to expectations. You were a bust. And those competing thoughts will make for a toxic combination.
Every time you walk into a roomful of people, you’ll walk with your head down, afraid of being judged. You’ll almost hide your face, thinking, Please, nobody recognize me….
Then, 15 minutes later, when you realize that nobody noticed you, you’ll think, Why the f*** isn’t anybody recognizing me?
Sounds crazy, right? But it’s like a sickness, Ryan. You’ll want people to notice you because you crave that attention. But they won’t recognize you as Ryan Leaf, the football player. You’ll be Ryan Leaf, the biggest draft bust ever. You’ll be known as a failure, and even more so, as a bad person. So you’ll feel like no matter what, you can’t win.
Then, one night in 2004, you’ll really feel what it’s like to be hated.
You’ll attend a boxing match in Las Vegas, and before the fight starts, the P.A. announcer will introduce the celebrities in the audience. After every name, the crowd will erupt in cheers. But when the announcer says your name, boos will radiate throughout the arena.
No cheers. No applause. Just … hate.
You’ll feel like you’ve been punched in the stomach. I mean, you will have been booed before in stadiums much larger than that arena — but with a helmet on, and with a job to do.
Here, you’ll be completely exposed, and everybody in the building will react to the sound of your name and what it stands for — a failure, a bust, an asshole.
After the fight, you’ll be at a party when an acquaintance — a boxing promoter you will have gotten to know over the years — will offer you Vicodin.
“You ever take one of these before?”
“Oh, yeah. I played in the NFL. I’ve taken painkillers before.”
He’ll offer you two, and you’ll take them. And you’ll mix them with alcohol, which is something you will have never done before.
When you were playing football, painkillers had always helped mask physical pain. But this will be much different. This will be the first time you’ll take them for your emotional pain.
Combining Vicodin and alcohol will make that feeling of being judged when you walk into a room disappear. You’ll feel … numb. And your obsessive nature — the same thing that makes you crave attention, money, power and prestige — will come to the forefront.
You’ll instantly be hooked.
Let me tell you what will happen when you start taking painkillers to emotionally medicate: First, you’ll feel great. Numb. Free. Then, over time, you’ll slowly start to build up a tolerance, and you won’t feel the high as much anymore. So you’ll take more pills. Then, you’ll get to the point where you’ll be taking so many pills that the numb, free feeling you crave becomes your reality. It becomes your normal. And you’ll feel like you can’t live without your pills.
You’ll be dependent on painkillers for about eight years. You’ll have a couple of periods of sobriety along the way, but the withdrawal symptoms — the sweating, the shaking — will be too much to handle, and you’ll keep going back. You’ll need your pills so much that you’ll do anything to get them. And if you can’t have them, you’ll feel like you’d rather be dead.
Which brings me to April 1, 2012.
The worst day of your life.
You’ll wake up that morning at your house in Great Falls, Montana, with no painkillers. You’ll be on probation, out on bail after having been arrested two days earlier for breaking into a friend’s house and stealing pills. You’ll be back in the national news. All the negativity will come rushing back into your life. Everybody will be talking again about how you were a failure as an NFL quarterback. Now, they’ll also be talking about how you’re a failure as a criminal.
And a failure at life.
Your little brother, Jeffrey, will fly up from L.A. to be with you — to watch over you, really — so you won’t be alone.
But you’ll feel alone. You’ll feel … sober. Not numb, not free. Sober. It will be excruciating.
You’ll think, I can’t feel like this anymore.
I want to be high.
And if I can’t be high….
I’d rather be dead.
You’ll start googling ways to kill yourself. The easiest method will appear to be to slit your wrist and just bleed out, so you’ll grab a knife from the kitchen and sneak into the bathroom.
You’ll sit on the side of the bathtub and dig the blade into your wrist, pulling back in short, choppy strokes. Blood will trickle from your wrist and fall in little round droplets into the bathtub below.
Then, you’ll just … stop. Out of nowhere.
Maybe it’ll be the sight of the blood, but you won’t be able to go through with killing yourself. Not like that.
So you’ll put the knife down on the sink, run some cold water over the fresh cuts on your wrist and dab them with a towel until the bleeding stops. Then you’ll poke your head out of the bathroom to make sure Jeffrey isn’t watching, sneak out of the house and jump into your truck. The plan will be to drive to Mom and Dad’s house, park in their garage, close the garage door and leave the car running. According to Google, the carbon monoxide fumes from the exhaust should be able to do the job you couldn’t do with the knife.
While you’re on your way to Mom and Dad’s, Jeffrey will find the knife and the towel and see the blood in the bathtub.
Now, I want you to stop and think about that for a moment, Ryan … Jeffrey, your little brother, will discover the evidence of the botched suicide attempt of the older brother — the one he once idolized. The brother he would have given anything to be like.
That’s how far you will fall.
And that’s how much your fall will affect those around you.
When you get to Mom and Dad’s, their cars will be in the driveway, blocking the garage. So you’ll flip a U-turn and try to come up with a plan C.
This time, the plan won’t involve suicide.
It will involve the pursuit of painkillers.
There will be a house you’ve been to before — you won’t know the people who live in it, but you’ll know they have painkillers there. So you’ll drive there and park outside. You’ll walk up to the front door and knock. No answer. You’ll jiggle the doorknob to see if it’s locked. This is in small-town Montana, so it won’t be locked. Most doors aren’t. So you’ll go inside. It will be about 3:30 in the afternoon.
By 4 p.m., you’ll be back home with Jeffrey, and you’ll be high. But Jeffrey won’t care that you’re drugged up. He’ll just be happy that you’re safe — that you’re alive.
Jeffrey will call Dad and tell him what happened, and Dad will come over. He’ll get there just before the sheriff’s department shows up to put you in handcuffs for burglary … for the second time in two days.
This time, no bail. No probation. They’ll throw you in jail.
It will be the worst day of your life.
You’re not an asshole, Ryan. You’re just trying so hard to be one. You’re playing a part, that’s all. In this 1998 NFL draft, it’s you vs. Peyton Manning. Who’s the better QB? Who’s got the better arm? Who’s going to be the No. 1 pick?
Peyton is clean-cut. His dad played in the NFL. He comes from a well-respected football family. And with everybody talking about you vs. Peyton, you started to feel like people wanted you to be something different. That they wanted you to be a little more brash. Maybe a little cocky. So between the time you left Washington State and draft day, something shifted inside you. You became what you thought people wanted you to be instead of being who you really are.
The Ryan Leaf the world has seen throughout the NFL draft process and the one they’re about to see treating reporters and teammates like shit as a professional is not the real Ryan Leaf. The real Ryan Leaf is not a narcissist, or a criminal, or a drug addict.
The real Ryan Leaf is strong, empathetic and self-aware. He understands that there’s more to life than money, power and prestige. The real Ryan Leaf is comfortable in his own skin and doesn’t care what anybody thinks about him, as long as he feels good about himself.
That Ryan Leaf is somewhere inside you. But you’ve buried him so far down that this other persona you’re building up is going to have to get so far out of control that it will take something drastic for you to dig deep and bring out the real you.
Thirty-two months in prison for burglary and drug crimes will be that “something drastic.”
The change won’t happen right away. In fact, you’ll be the same old Ryan Leaf that everybody hates for most of your time in prison.
But you’ll have a cellmate who will wake you up — a military veteran who served in Afghanistan and Iraq. He’ll be in prison for vehicular manslaughter. He made the poor decision to drive drunk, and he ended up killing somebody.
This is a good person who made a poor decision that will cost the life of another person.
And you? You’re a bad person who made poor decisions and tried to take his own life.
You couldn’t be more different.
But one day, your cellmate will get on you pretty hard about your bad attitude.
“You don’t understand the value you have, do you?” he’ll say. You’ll blow him off because you won’t know what the hell he’s talking about. But he’ll keep going. “I’m serious, Ryan. You have real value. Not just to the guys in here, but when you get out. Because you’re going to get out at some point.”
He’ll tell you that he’s going to go down to the prison library to teach some other inmates how to read. He’ll ask you to go with him, and you will.
You’ll start going to the library regularly to teach other inmates to read. And over time, a light will come on. You’ll feel like for the first time in your life that you’re doing something for somebody else. That it’s not all about you. And your narcissism will start to wane. You’ll feel this rush of … I don’t know what. Maybe it’s compassion. Maybe empathy. Or just plain joy. Whatever it is, you’ll feel it, and your addictive personality will finally work in your favor, because you’ll be drawn to that feeling.
When you get out of prison, you’ll be 32 months sober. And you’ll stay sober. It won’t be easy.
But the man that walks out of prison sober will be the real Ryan Leaf.
I know I’ve been hard on you here, but what I’ve been doing since I got out of prison is sharing my story with as many people as possible. And I know that if there’s anybody in this world that it can help, it’s you.
Sometimes things need to get worse before they get better. I think that’s true with you. I look back sometimes and think about how things might have been different if I had made it as an NFL quarterback and lived up to the hype. I’d probably be sitting here today at 40 years old with a couple of championships under my belt and a long Hall of Fame football career behind me.
But I’m kind of glad things worked out the way they did. I know that sounds cliché, but if I could go back, I wouldn’t change anything. Not even the decisions that took me to rock bottom. I would want everything to be exactly the same, because today, I’m happy with my life and with who I am. And I’d rather be happy and have strong relationships in my life like I do now than be just another asshole with a couple of Super Bowl rings.
Actually … there is one thing I think I would change.
I would treat people better.
That will be your one big regret, Ryan. It won’t be your failure to make it as an NFL quarterback. It won’t be your addiction to painkillers. It won’t even be your attempt to kill yourself.
When all’s said and done, your biggest regret will be that you didn’t treat people well.
So if I have just one piece of advice to leave you with, it would be … don’t be a dick, man. You’ll be amazed at how much you get back when you just treat other people with dignity and respect. And it feels pretty damn good.
Oh, and congrats again on that whole getting drafted thing.
Enjoy it while it lasts.