Summer Re-Run: Weekend Reads– Ryan Leaf Addiction Edition

Editor’s Note: Last spring Points intern Alex Tepperman published this thoughtful piece on Ryan Leaf’s ignominious rise and fall.  With Leaf’s name once again in the news as details of his sentencing are made public, we’re honoring the summer tradition of re-runs and putting this back on the top of the page. 

On Friday, March 30, the name “Ryan Leaf” was the sixth most popular trending topic on Twitter. Most Points readers will have little or no familiarity with Ryan Leaf, a retired pro footballer whose moment of glory in the national spotlight came and went over a decade ago. This is to be expected, as even sports fans have little reason to hold on to their memories of Leaf’s four disastrous seasons in the NFL. So why was “Ryan Leaf” a trending topic? Because, for a relatively large proportion of the American public, Mr. Leaf is synecdoche of two wildly different obsessions, two different opportunities to hand-wring and chide and call for “personal responsibility.” Ryan Leaf is a nexus – one of many nexuses, actually – at which America’s national obsessions with drug addiction and athletic performance meet.

The story of Ryan Leaf’s rise and fall is well known to serious football fans, oft-repeated though unclear in its message. In 1996 and 1997, Leaf was the star quarterback for the Washington State Cougars, a team he took to the prestigious Rose Bowl. At the end of the 1997 season, he finished third in Heisman Award voting for best college football player in the nation and, prior to the 1998 NFL Draft, was deemed by most prognosticators a “can’t miss” pro-ready talent. NFL fans and pundits heatedly debated for months whether Leaf or University of Tennessee quarterback Peyton Manning should be the first pick taken in the draft, an argument that seems silly in retrospect.

Draft day for Peyton and Ryan

On draft day, the Indianapolis Colts took Manning with the first pick and the San Diego Chargers, holding the second pick, gladly scooped up Leaf. The San Diego front office signed leaf to a four year contract for $31.25 million, at which point Leaf famously remarked “I’m looking forward to a 15-year career, a couple of trips to the Super Bowl, and a parade through downtown San Diego.” Needless to say, Leaf’s moxie did not go down well with either the conservative NFL establishment or skeptical fans, two groups that have come to expect mawkish false modesty from their sports idols. To that end, many fans and journalists watched with a certain contentment as Leaf flailed over the next four seasons, washing out of pro football by 2001. His career ended after just 25 unremarkable games, whereas Manning became one of the most successful, admired, and heavily marketed players in NFL history.

Leaf’s shortcomings as a professional quarterback were often – and continue to be – phrased in the language of moral failure. Rarely was Leaf’s inability to thrive in the NFL considered a case of scouts misreading his abilities, or a sign that he was talented enough to succeed at one level but not the next. Rather, Leaf was seen as too simple or lazy to learn how to raise his game to the next level, or too hubristic and entitled to accept coaching. Some of these critiques were understandable, as Leaf acted out in ways that people would be more willing to brush off as “fiery” if he was more successful. Because he wasn’t successful, though, when Leaf acted like a jerk, players, managers, and fans savored his fall. Leaf’s persistent critics eagerly followed the ex-prospect’s descent into anonymity, tracing him to Canyon, Texas where he started volunteering as the quarterback’s coach at West Texas A&M University, a job he held without incident for two years. 

Read more