|No. 5, 16|
|Date of birth:||May 15, 1976|
|Place of birth:||Great Falls, Montana|
|Height:||6 ft 5 in (1.96 m)|
|Weight:||235 lb (107 kg)|
|High school:||Great Falls (MT) Russell|
|NFL Draft:||1998 / Round: 1 / Pick: 2|
|* Offseason and/or practice squad member only|
|Career highlights and awards|
|Career NFL statistics|
Ryan David Leaf (born May 15, 1976) is a former American football player who was a quarterback in the National Football League (NFL) for four seasons. He played for the San Diego Chargers and the Dallas Cowboys between 1998 and 2001, and also spent time with the Tampa Bay Buccaneers and the Seattle Seahawks.
Leaf had a successful college career for the Washington State Cougars of Washington State University, where he was a finalist for the Heisman Trophy after his junior year. He was selected as the second overall pick in the 1998 NFL Draft, but his career was short and interrupted by poor play, bad behavior, and injuries. He struggled to stay focused. An episode of NFL Top 10 ranked him as the No. 1 "draft bust" in NFL history.
After his NFL career ended, Leaf completed his degree at Washington State. He would later have legal troubles involving drugs beginning in 2010, after a Texas judge sentenced him to 10 years' probation. Two years later, Leaf pleaded guilty to felony burglary and drug possession in Montana. After a suspended sentence with a stint in drug rehabilitation, Leaf began serving a seven-year sentence in state prison in December 2012. In 2014, Leaf was sentenced to five years in prison for breaking into a home in Montana to steal prescription drugs, which violated his Texas probation. He was released from prison on December 3, 2014.
After leading Charles M. Russell High School in Great Falls, Montana to the 1992 Montana state title, he considered playing college football as a linebacker at the University of Miami. He chose to be a quarterback for the Washington State Cougars instead after head coach Mike Price, who had coached longtime New England Patriots starting quarterback Drew Bledsoe, called him on the phone while Leaf was watching the Rose Bowl, and told him "If you come here, we're going there" even though Washington State had not reached the Rose Bowl since 1931. Leaf told Sports Illustrated that he immediately knew he wanted to accept a scholarship and play for Price.
He played in 32 games for Washington State, starting 24 of them. In his junior year, he averaged 330.6 yards passing per game and threw for a then Pacific-10 Conference (Pac-10) record 33 touchdowns. He also led the Cougars to their first Pac-10 championship in school history. Despite his strong early showing in the 1998 Rose Bowl, Washington State was defeated 21–16 by the eventual Associated Press national champion Michigan Wolverines.
Leaf was a finalist in balloting for the Heisman Trophy that year, which is given annually to the "most outstanding" player in American college football voted in by media figures and former players. He finished third behind the winner, defensive back Charles Woodson of Michigan, and fellow quarterback Peyton Manning of Tennessee. He was named Pac-10 Offensive Player of the Year, was named first-team All-American by The Sporting News, and finished second in the nation in passer rating. The Rose Bowl helped make him a possible first overall selection in the NFL Draft, and Leaf decided to forgo his senior year at Washington State and enter the 1998 draft.
Peyton Manning and Leaf were widely considered the two best players available in the 1998 draft, and scouts and analysts debated who should be selected first. Many favored Leaf's stronger arm and greater potential, while others deemed Manning the more mature player and the safer pick. Most observers, however, believed that it would not greatly matter whether Manning or Leaf was drafted first because either would greatly benefit his team.
The Indianapolis Colts owned the first draft pick that year. Team scouts favored Leaf, but Colts president Bill Polian and coaching staff preferred Manning, especially after discovering during individual workouts that he could throw harder than Leaf. Manning also impressed the team during his interview, while Leaf missed his. Leaf's draft prospect profile described the player as "self-confident to the point where some people view him as being arrogant and almost obnoxious". Leaf gained about 20 pounds between the end of his junior season and the NFL Combine in February, which Jerry Angelo, one of six experts Sports Illustrated consulted on the choice, described as "a [negative] signal" about his self-discipline. All six believed that Manning was the better choice, but the magazine concluded "What does seem reasonably certain is that ... both Manning and Leaf should develop into at least good NFL starters".
The San Diego Chargers needed a new quarterback after having scored the fewest touchdowns in the league in the previous season. To obtain the second draft pick, the team traded its third overall pick, a future first round pick, a second round pick, and three-time Pro Bowler Eric Metcalf to the Arizona Cardinals, guaranteeing the Chargers the right to draft whichever of the two quarterbacks Indianapolis did not take first. Manning was drafted first by the Colts and Leaf second by the Chargers, who signed him to a four-year contract worth $31.25 million, including a guaranteed $11.25 million signing bonus, the largest ever paid to a rookie at the time. Leaf said, "I'm looking forward to a 15-year career, a couple of trips to the Super Bowl, and a parade through downtown San Diego." The night after the draft, Leaf flew to Las Vegas, Nevada on the jet of Chargers owner Alex Spanos and partied all night; the following day Leaf yawned during his first news conference.
San Diego Chargers (1998–2000)
San Diego's high hopes for Leaf were soon dashed, as his rookie season was marred by poor behavior. Before the season started, he skipped the final day of a symposium mandatory for all NFL draftees and was fined $10,000.
Leaf did well in the preseason and led the Chargers to victory in the first two regular-season games. The Chargers won the season opener on September 6, 1998, 16–14 over the Buffalo Bills despite mistakes from Leaf such as fumbling his first snap and throwing two interceptions; Buffalo penalties voided two would-be interceptions from Leaf. In the game, Leaf's 6-yard touchdown pass to Bryan Still that followed a 67-yard pass to Still gave San Diego a 10–0 lead. However, late in the game, San Diego fell behind 14–13 after a Leaf interception. Leaf completed 16 of 31 passes for 192 yards in the opener and 13 of 24 passes for 179 yards (with 31 rushing yards in 7 carries) in the second game, a 13–7 win over the Tennessee Oilers. In the third game of the season on September 20, Leaf completed only one of 15 passes for four yards, threw two interceptions and fumbled four times (losing three) in a loss to the Kansas City Chiefs. The Thursday before that game, Leaf was hospitalized for a viral infection. Leaf later said that infected turf fibers entered his skin and lymph glands.
After Leaf threw four interceptions in the first half against the New York Giants in the Week 4 game (September 28), coach Kevin Gilbride benched Leaf in favor of Craig Whelihan. The following game on October 4 against the Indianapolis Colts matched Leaf against the number one 1998 draft pick Peyton Manning. Indianapolis won 17–12, as both quarterbacks completed 12 of 23 passes with an interception each, but Leaf threw for 160 yards (23 more than Manning), and only Manning threw a touchdown. Manning was never sacked; Leaf was sacked four times. Inside the final two minutes and San Diego down 14–6, Leaf's 56-yard pass to Charlie Jones set up a one-yard Natrone Means touchdown run, but Leaf's potential tying two-point conversion pass to Webster Slaughter was incomplete.
Whelihan replaced Leaf on November 8 after Leaf completed only 4 of 15 passes and became starter on a permanent basis afterwards. Leaf finished the season having played 10 games with 1,289 passing yards, 45.3% completed passes, 2 touchdowns, and 15 interceptions, with an abysmally poor quarterback rating of 39.0.
Leaf related poorly to both the media and his teammates, whom he tended to blame for his poor play. In a locker-room incident during Leaf's rookie year, he was caught on camera screaming "Don't talk to me, alright? KNOCK IT OFF!" to San Diego Union Tribune reporter Jay Posner, and was physically restrained by Junior Seau. He soon developed a reputation for a poor work ethic to the point of occasionally being found on the golf course while the other quarterbacks were studying film. After Leaf's rookie season ended, Charger safety Rodney Harrison described it as "a nightmare you can't even imagine," adding: "If I had to go through another year like that, I'd probably quit playing."
Leaf missed his second season due to a shoulder injury suffered 20 minutes into the Chargers' first training camp workout on July 23, 1999. Leaf had surgery to fix a labral tear in his throwing shoulder. During an August training camp, a fan heckled Leaf: "Hey, Ryan, you're the worst draft choice in NFL history. You make Heath Shuler look like an All-Star." Leaf, accompanied by a coach and security guards, walked towards the fan and asked a question. The fan began walking closer to Leaf, and two coaches restrained Leaf, with another Chargers employee saying "No, don't do it, Ryan. Don't do it." Leaf later explained the incident: "...what I wanted to do was say, 'Hey, look, I've grown up, I'm calm about it, I would like to understand why you would say that about me.'"
He was placed on injured reserve but made headlines in early November when he got into a shouting match with GM Bobby Beathard and one of the coaches, resulting in a fine, a suspension without pay and an apology by Leaf (four weeks later). During his suspension, he was caught on video playing flag football at a San Diego park, a violation of his contract according to Charger management.
In the final game of the 2000 preseason, Leaf completed a pass to Trevor Gaylor to seal a 24–20 win over the Arizona Cardinals. After the game, he appeared on the cover of the September 4, 2000 issue of Sports Illustrated along with headline "Back from the Brink". The cover story characterized his comeback as "an ascent from pariah to possible standout pro passer". He started the first two games of the 2000 season but completed less than half of his pass attempts and threw five interceptions but only one touchdown. In the season opener on September 4, a 9–6 loss to the Oakland Raiders, Leaf completed 17 of 39 passes for 180 yards and threw three interceptions, including one on a 4th-and-inches play with 1:37 left and sealing the Raiders victory. After the game, Leaf's left hand was swollen, and a late hit from Regan Upshaw gave Leaf a chin gash that required seven or eight stitches. The following game, a 28–27 loss to the New Orleans Saints, Leaf completed 12 of 24 passes for 134 yards and threw his first touchdown pass since his rookie season, a 20-yard pass to Curtis Conway; however, Leaf threw two interceptions, including one that ended the Chargers' final drive.
Coach Mike Riley started Moses Moreno for the Week 3 game, but Leaf took over after Moreno went down with a shoulder injury. Leaf injured his wrist when he threw an interception in the Week 4 game and next played in Week 11. By October, Leaf speculated that the Chargers would release him after the season. Late that month, reports suggested that Leaf lied about a hand injury to get out of practice and play golf instead.
In the Week 11 game on November 12 against the Miami Dolphins, Leaf replaced Moreno mid-game. Leaf threw an interception on his fourth snap, led a touchdown drive in the Chargers' next series, and left the game with nearly a minute to go after straining a hamstring on a scramble. This game was the first since 1993 where three quarterbacks for a team - in this case Leaf, Moreno, and Jim Harbaugh - threw interceptions in one game. On November 19 against the Denver Broncos, Leaf completed 13 of 27 passes and reached career single-game highs in quarterback rating (111.8), passing yards (311), and passing touchdowns (3), but the Chargers lost the game 38–37. After a 0–11 start, the Chargers got their first win on November 26, 17–16 over the Kansas City Chiefs. San Diego took a 14–3 lead early in the second quarter after Leaf made two touchdown passes to Freddie Jones, but the offense struggled later in the game, and Leaf threw two interceptions, one of which was returned for a touchdown.
Leaf would again play poorly, as he threw four interceptions on December 3 against the San Francisco 49ers and completed only 9 of 23 passes on December 10 against the eventual Super Bowl champion Baltimore Ravens. He improved on December 17, completing 23 of 43 passes for 259 yards, 2 touchdowns, and 1 interception, but San Diego lost to the Carolina Panthers 30–22. In the Chargers' final drive, with nearly two minutes remaining in the game, Leaf completed a 10-yard pass to Curtis Conway that referees ruled was six inches short of the end zone. On first down, however, miscommunication between Leaf and running back Jermaine Fazande resulted in a fumble and 8-yard loss, and the next two plays followed by a penalty forced a fourth down and goal 10 yards from the end zone, and Leaf's fourth down pass was incomplete. On the final game of the season on December 24, Leaf made a 71-yard touchdown pass to Jeff Graham on the first play from scrimmage, but San Diego lost to the Pittsburgh Steelers 34–21. In the game, Leaf completed 15 of 29 passes for 171 yards, 1 touchdown, and 1 interception and fumbled his final snap. After finishing the season 1–15, the Chargers released Leaf on February 28, 2001. In three years with San Diego, Leaf had only four wins as a starter. For the 2000 season, Leaf completed 50% (161 of 322) of his passes for 1,883 yards, 11 touchdowns, and 18 interceptions.
Tampa Bay Buccaneers (2001)
On March 2, 2001, two days after the Chargers released him, Leaf was claimed by the Tampa Bay Buccaneers, who were intrigued by his physical talent and planned to develop him more slowly, giving him time to watch and learn. Leaf's wrist had still not healed, and doctors recommended surgery. After mediocre preseason performances, he was asked to accept demotion to fourth quarterback status on the team and accept a lower salary. He refused, and was released on September 3, five days before the start of the 2001 season.
Dallas Cowboys (2001)
His next attempt at a comeback was with the Dallas Cowboys, who signed him after the Buccaneers released him, but he failed his first physical and was let go on September 5. After regular starter Quincy Carter suffered an injury, the Cowboys signed Leaf again on October 12. The Cowboys released him in May 2002 after he had appeared in only four games — all losses — throwing for a four-game total of 494 yards with only one touchdown and three interceptions.
Retirement and legacy
Days later, he got still another chance when the Seattle Seahawks signed him to a one-year contract, planning to let him develop slowly (as the Buccaneers had done) to allow his still-injured wrist time to heal. He attended the team's spring minicamps and seemed upbeat about his new team, but then abruptly retired at the age of 26 just before the start of the Seahawks' 2002 training camp, offering no explanation at first. Seahawk coach and general manager Mike Holmgren told the media Leaf's wrist didn't bother him with either the Cowboys or the Seahawks.
During his brief career in the NFL, Leaf appeared in 25 games and made 21 starts. He completed 317 of 655 (48.4%) passes for 3,666 yards, with 14 touchdowns and 36 interceptions and a career quarterback rating of only 50.0. After hearing of Leaf's retirement, Rodney Harrison, one of his most outspoken critics on the Chargers, said, "He took the money and ran. Personally, I could never rest good at night knowing my career ended like that. Normally in this game, you get back what you put into it, and he pretty much got back what he put into it."
The ESPN sports network put Leaf first on its list of 25 biggest sports flops between 1979 and 2004. NBC Sports commentator Michael Ventre called him "the biggest bust in the history of professional sports". Since Leaf's retirement, sportswriters and commentators have characterized subsequent drafted potential NFL quarterback flops as "the next Ryan Leaf". In 2010, the NFL Network listed Leaf as the number one NFL quarterback bust of all time, adding that the only good that came out of drafting Leaf for the Chargers is that it put the team in position to draft LaDainian Tomlinson, Drew Brees, and eventually (after it initially appeared Brees himself would be a draft bust) Philip Rivers.
More recently, Dish Network included Leaf in their "Biggest NFL Bust Bracket" where he was a "1 Seed" along with fellow busts Jamarcus Russell, Tony Mandarich, and David Carr.
On February 4, 2016 in an interview with Yahoo! Sports, Leaf himself compared the problems of Cleveland Browns quarterback Johnny Manziel to his own, saying it was like "looking in the mirror" and that the only difference was that Leaf's substance abuse problems happened after he retired. Leaf went on to state that Manziel is able to get the help he needs.
Life after football
After retiring from professional football, Leaf returned to San Diego and became a financial consultant. In 2004, Leaf resumed his education at Washington State University and graduated with a Bachelor of Arts degree in humanities in May 2005. The San Diego Union-Tribune reported that among his classes in the spring 2005 was a sports management course titled Media Relations.
He then joined Don Carthel's West Texas A&M University staff as a volunteer quarterbacks coach in 2006, commenting, "About a year after I retired from playing, I decided that I wanted to get back to college, where I had the greatest time of my life, and to get involved with college football." He also admitted that he was unprepared for the NFL when he was drafted back in 1998. In April 2008, ESPN described Leaf as having come to terms with his past. He said at the time, "When playing football became a job, it lost its luster for me. I kind of got out of the spotlight, and life's never been this good."
But in November 2008 he was put on indefinite leave, and resigned the next day, from his coaching position at West Texas A&M for allegedly asking one of his players for a pill to help him deal with pain in his wrist from past injuries.
In September 2010, he began writing a regular column about Washington State University football for the website Cougfan.com. He wrote nine columns that football season and his work attracted a strong following among Washington State fans. In December 2010, he signed a contract with Pullman, Washington-based Crimson Oak Publishing to write no fewer than three memoirs. Crimson Oak describes its mission as publishing books with themes of "hope, possibility, and determination." Crimson Oak released Leaf's first book 596 Switch: The Improbable Journey from The Palouse to Pasadena in October 2011. The book focuses on the 1997 Washington State football team that made the 1998 Rose Bowl.
In September 2010, the Associated Press reported that Leaf was spending time with his family in Montana.
In May 2009, Leaf was indicted on burglary and controlled-substance charges in Texas. He was in a drug-rehabilitation program in British Columbia at the time of the indictment, and was arrested by customs agents at the border on his return to the U.S as he was intending to fly to Texas to surrender on the indictment. However, his attorney Jeffrey A. Lustick successfully blocked the fugitive warrant extradition process, therefore legally allowing Leaf to go to Texas on his own. Lustick later successfully got the Washington fugitive action against Leaf dismissed with prejudice. On June 17, he posted a $45,000 bond in Washington state for the criminal charges in Texas. In April 2010, he pleaded guilty in Amarillo, Texas to seven counts of obtaining a controlled substance by fraud and one count of delivery of a simulated controlled substance, all felonies. State District Judge John B. Board sentenced him to ten years of probation and fined him $20,000.
On March 30, 2012, he was arrested on burglary, theft and drug charges in his home town of Great Falls, Montana. Four days later he was arrested again on burglary, theft, and two counts of criminal possession of dangerous drugs. As part of a plea bargain on May 8, 2012, he pleaded guilty to one count of felony burglary and one count of criminal possession of a dangerous drug.
On June 19, 2012, Leaf was sentenced to seven years in custody of the Montana Department of Corrections, with two years suspended if he abided by the conditions imposed by District Judge Kenneth Neil in Montana. He was to spend the first nine months of his sentence in a lockdown addiction treatment facility, Nexus Treatment Center in Lewistown, Montana. But on January 17, 2013, Leaf was remanded to Montana State Prison in Deer Lodge after being found guilty of "behavior that violated conditions of his drug treatment placement." He was also accused of threatening a program staff member.
On September 9, 2014, a Texas judge sentenced Leaf to five years' imprisonment, giving credit for time spent in prison in Montana. According to ESPN, Leaf would not see further time in jail, but would also not be released from Montana prison. On December 3, 2014, Leaf was released from prison and placed under the supervision of Great Falls Probation and Parole.
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