WILLISTON, Vt. – Former NFL quarterback Ryan Leaf discussed his struggles with addiction and his efforts to help others Wednesday evening at Majectic 10 Cinemas.
Leaf was drafted second overall in the 1998 NFL Draft, but his career was short-lived. After several disappointing seasons with the San Diego Chargers and short stints with the Tampa Bay Buccaneers and Dallas Cowboys, Leaf retired in 2002.
He recalled his mindset heading into his rookie season, when expectations were high that his career would be successful.
“I was going to play 15 to 20 years in the NFL, win two Super Bowls and ride off into the sunset and do Old Spice commercials,” Leaf said. “As we all know, that isn’t how life works, life is unfair.”
In the years after his retirement, Leaf struggled with substance abuse. In 2012, he was arrested on burglary, theft and drug charges. He served 32 months in prison.
Leaf said his downward spiral started in 2002 shortly after his retirement. During a boxing match in Las Vegas, the announcer named off a list of celebrities at the event. When Leaf’s name came up, the crowd booed. He said that experience made him feel depressed, and when an acquaintance offered him some Vicodin later that night, he took it.
“When he gave me those pills and I mixed it with the alcohol I was drinking that night, I walked in and out of those parties and felt none of that,” Leaf said. “I didn’t feel the shame, I didn’t feel the depression, the less-than. No judgement at all. It worked.”
During his time in prison, Leaf slowly saw the value of serving others. His cellmate, a vetern of wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, convinced him to teach other inmates to read. Leaf was initially hesitant to the idea.
“I went back the next day, and I realized that I was being of service to another human being for the first time in my life,” Leaf said. “I knew that was going to have to be my foundation when I got out.”
Since he was released in 2014, Leaf has taken steps to make that foundation his new life. He started a foundation for people who can’t afford substance abuse treatment and travels across the country sharing his story with the hope that others can learn from his mistakes.
“My only hope in all of this is that no one feels as miserable as I did at one point,” Leaf said. “We’re all the same. We’re all fragile, vulnerable, flawed. But the big thing is, if you continue to just get up and get better, everything is going to be okay.”