Former star football player Ryan Leaf had a simple message for Montana State University-Northern students and football players, and it’s advice he repeatedly said he wished he would have followed himself many years ago.
Leaf, the former No. 2 overall pick in the 1998 NFL Draft out of Washington State University and CMR High School in Great Falls, spoke to Northern students and others and also spoke to the Lights’ football team Saturday night in Havre as part of new student orientation and his message was simple, but powerful.
“When you need help with something in life, when you need guidance, ask for it, ” Leaf said. “Don’t be afraid to lean on your family and your friends for support and help. I always perceived that as weakness when I was younger, and I associated weakness with failure. So I never let anyone help me with any issues I’ve ever had. In fact, I pushed people away in my years as a quarterback. Now, I want people to know that reaching out, asking for help is something everyone should do. ”
Leaf, who’s career was well-chronicled in the media over the years, spoke openly and honestly about his failures, his insecurities and his ups and downs as a professional athlete. He told the crowd about a 10-year span that started with leading Washington State to its first Rose Bowl in almost four decades, nearly winning the Heisman Trophy and standing under the bright lights of Radio City Music Hall in New York City as he was drafted just behind Peyton Manning in the NFL Draft, to then one day being in a court room in Amarillo, Texas, with legal troubles and eventually winding up in rehab for an addiction to pain killers. He talked openly about being known as perhaps the biggest bust in NFL history as well as his struggle emotionally and physically. He said that during that span of his life, he never leaned on family, friends, coaches or teammates for help, instead trying to cope on his own with the failures and difficulties he never dreamed would happen to him.
“I had never really failed before I got to the NFL, ” he said. “And I thought that life would be the same. I thought I would get to San Diego, have a 15-20 year career and win a championship, just like I did in high school and in college. But then, for the first time in my life, I started losing on the field, and everything changed, and I didn’t deal with it like I should have. I never asked for help, I never confided in anybody. ”
Leaf went on to say that once he found out he was addicted to pain killers after playing in the NFL for just four years, he still kept quiet. He perceived the addiction as a weakness and a failure, and he hid it from everybody, which, while coaching college football at West Texas A&M, led him to legal troubles. It was then he could no longer hide his addiction, his failures and his physical and emotional pain.
“It was that day, while I was appearing in court, I was back in front of the media, ” he said. “Only this time, I was honest, I was open and I let everybody know exactly what I was going through. It was the first time I had done that. ”
Since those days, Leaf has successfully fought his battle with pain killers, which he had become addicted to after he incurred multiple injuries to his wrist, knee and shoulder and after he endured eight surgeries. He recently had a benign tumor removed from his brain stem; he’s become a powerful motivational speaker — just recently giving a talk to the No. 1 ranked University of Oklahoma football team in Norman, Okla. ; he’s authoring three books on his life as a college and professional athlete, the first of which will be released in October; and he’s doing work for ESPN Radio Seattle. He also has a blog at Cougfan.com.
Leaf is a long way removed from his playing days, but he closed his message saying that he feels he can make much more of an impact on people’s lives as Ryan leaf the person than he ever could have as Ryan Leaf the football player.
And his message probably wasn’t lost on anybody who was in attendance on Saturday, especially Northern football players who look up to professional athletes and may not know the hidden dangers of things like prescription drugs.
“If my story can stop one person, one athlete from going through what I went through, then I’ve succeeded, ” Leaf said. “Those two years when I was addicted was hell, and I don’t want anyone to ever have to go through that. ”
“It’s pretty awesome that he could come up here now and talk to us, to our players, ” Northern offensive coordinator Kyle Samson said. “Ryan was somebody that I really looked up to as a young football player growing up in Helena and watching him play against Helena Capitol back in those days. I was very good friends with his younger brother Brady. He and I went on our recruiting trip to Montana together. And Ryan is somebody I really looked up to, because he was a great football player from Montana. He was one of those special players that don’t come along very often.
“And to know what he went through, following the ups and downs of his career, ” he added. “I really admire him for being able to come and speak and be so honest and open about things. I think it was a great experience for our players to be able to listen to someone like him, to hear everything he’s went through in life and as a football player. So I think it was a positive message and one I think our kids really got a lot out of. ”
And Leaf’s message, his ability to talk so openly and honestly about his addiction, his mistakes, his shortcoming and his triumphs will go on.
He’s scheduled to speak to the University of Colorado in Boulder later this fall, and he said that, while he spends time now in Great Falls, he also spends a lot of time traveling and talking to young people. And while he has certainly come a long way from his darkest days, he said being able to talk to young people, athletes and nonathletes alike isn’t just good for them, it’s good for his personal growth as well.
“I like being able to go talk to people about these things, whether it’s a crowd of 15 people or 1,000, ” he said. “I feel very good about giving back to people and trying to make a difference. But it’s also been very cathartic for me. Doing this has helped me continue to grow as a person. ”