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The Sad Tale Of Former NFL QB Ryan Leaf

Ryan Leaf was once the highest paid rookie to have been drafted in the NFL. Last week he was released from prison after serving time for burgling a house for prescription drugs.

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March 30th 2012

Ryan Leaf is arrested and charged with burglary, theft and drug charges in his home in Montana. Four days later, Leaf breaks into a house and is caught again stealing prescription drugs. He is charged on multiple counts by the police. In May of 2012, after signing a plea bargain he is sentenced to prison.


last week, Ryan Leaf was released early on account of good behaviour and time already served. He will remain under the supervision of the Great Falls Probation & Parole office. Leaf’s life has jackknifed from an NFL quarterback to prescription drug addict.

Leaf, a Montana native led his High School to the State title in 1992. His first choice had originally been to head to University of Miami as a linebacker, but he was persuaded by the then head coach of Washington State to play QB for their team, ‘The Cougars’.

By the end of his college life, he was a Heisman Trophy finalist, the award is given to the most outstanding college player that year. Leaf came third but his performances with the Cougars earned the college a first PAC-10 Championship and a losing appearance at the Rose Bowl. Leaf was all set for a promising NFL draft.

Back in 1998 Leaf was considered to be one of the top draft picks in the run up to Draft day. Pundits debated whether he or another powerful QB by the name of Peyton Manning would be selected first. Leaf was held in such high regard that many believed he would be picked ahead of Manning. It was in the run-up to the Draft though that cracks started to emerge in Ryan Leaf’s character.

Between the end of the College and the NFL Combine, Leaf put on 20 pounds. He failed to attend his interview with The Indianapolis Colts. Manning on the other hand did not and it was part of the reason why Colts’ scouts, who originally had favoured Leaf, jumped ship in favour of Peyton.

Leaf’s draft prospect profile described him as:

“Self-confident to the point where some people view him as being arrogant and almost obnoxious” – Ryan Leaf Draft Report

Not exactly the dream profile for a future prospect. Regardless, The San Diego Chargers came calling. They needed a new QB desperately. the Chargers had scored the fewest TDs the previous season. The were panicking big time. In order to snatch-up Leaf they made a deal that in retrospect certainly wasn’t the smartest.

To guarantee a shot at Leaf or Manning they traded the third overall pick, their second round pick, a future first round pick and a three-time Pro Bowler. It gets worse. Upon selecting Leaf they gave him a four-year contract worth $31.25 million, including a guaranteed $11.25 million signing bonus. Sounds like a lot back in 1998. That’s because it was a lot. It made him the best paid Rookie in the NFL at that time.

The Chargers were left immediately ruing their decisions. Leaf skipped the last day of an event mandatory for all draftees and was fined. The season didn’t get much better. He was dropped several times in favour of the second string QB and at one point had to be restrained following a locker room interview.

He remained on with the Chargers for two more seasons before they cut him loose. Next up was a brief spell with the Tampa Bay Buccaneers. He lasted six months before being released when he would not accept a demotion to fourth choice QB. Then it was on to the Dallas Cowboys. Still carrying an injury to his wrist, sustained while at the Chargers, he played only four times before leaving Dallas.

And that was it. The Seattle Seahawks offered him a contract only for Leaf to retire abruptly from Football aged 26, and before the season began. In his short career he was labelled the greatest NFL flop by ESPN in 2004. He had played 25 games in total and had a pass completion rate of only 48%. He is the subject of a Youtube video titled ‘Ryan Leaf highlight reel’ it lasts five minutes and features nothing but a blank screen.

Since retiring, Leaf’s life has continued its downward spiral. He divorced the Chargers cheerleader he married in 2001 after only two years. In 2009, he first got into trouble with prescription drugs. Since then he has had a benign tumour removed from his brain in 2011.

The following year, he was again caught breaking and entering and in possession of stolen prescription drugs before being sentenced to jail.

Ryan Leaf was a man that came close to having it all. Today he will be remembered for his criminal transgressions as well as being a yardstick by which to measure other NFL flops. Upon retiring, Rodney harrison, an ex-Pro Bowler and former Charger said this of Leaf.

“Normally in this game, you get back what you put into it, and he pretty much got back what he put into it”

What caused Leaf’s life to deviated so much from the path it looked set on will never be known probably, but Ryan Leaf’s life serves as a warning to other professional athletes on the cusp of having it all.

Sean Curtin, Pundit Arena 

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Author: The PA Team

This article was written by a member of The PA Team.