CUT BANK — Ryan Leaf is one of the most polarizing sports figures in Montana. After a standout career as a quarterback at Great Falls CMR and Washington State, Leaf became the only Montanan ever selected in the first round of the NFL Draft when he was selected second overall by the San Diego Chargers in 1998, behind only future Hall of Fame quarterback Peyton Manning.
But his time in the NFL was marred by inconsistent performances and locker room outbursts, and he was out of the league less than four years later.
After his football career ended, Leaf went through well-documented legal struggles. In 2012 Leaf pleaded guilty to felony burglary and drug possession charges in Great Falls and spent the next 32 months in prison.
When he was released in 2014, Leaf turned his life around. He joined a sober living community in Los Angeles, and started public speaking across the country, sharing his story and experiences and working to end the stigma surrounding mental health and substance abuse.
He also works as an on-air analyst for the Pac-12 Network and hosts a college football radio show on Sirius XM.
On Sept. 29, Leaf’s journey brought him to Cut Bank, just 20 miles from where he was incarcerated in Shelby. He spoke to community members at “Meeting the Challenge,” a substance abuse workshop hosted by the Glacier Community Heath Center.
That’s where MTN Sports caught up with the former quarterback for our Sunday Conversation. (Edited for Clarity)
MTN Sports: Ryan, did you ever think you’d be 20 miles away from where you were imprisoned, speaking in Montana about mental health and substance abuse? I know you passed Shelby on the way here. How would you describe that experience?
Ryan Leaf: “I think I texted ‘weird’ to my parents. It feels like it was 20 years ago, you know, I know it was a lot sooner, but my life has changed dramatically simply because of the choices I’ve been making over the last 3.5 years. But I feel like if I continue to do that, and part of it is to show up here and share my story and try to impact the community that I kind of felt like I took from most of my life.”
MTN Sports: In your speech you talked about how the approach to mental health in LA and Montana is night and day. In Montana, it’s all about ‘Cowboy Up’, push the emotions and stigma to the side. Does that make it even more important to have an event like this where you can share your story and share your message, in places like this?
Leaf: “For sure. My answer to that is, ‘How’s that working for you?’ And it never is. Montana has one of the highest suicide rates in the Union. I want that to change. I don’t want anyone to be here because they didn’t feel like they were worth it. And there are resources available. I talked with the (Cut Bank) community tonight and said, ‘Hey, I’m disappointed there’s not more people here.’ But when people show up to these things, they have to take a look at themselves and take a look in the mirror. I know I was that person for a long time, and I wasn’t willing to do it, too. It takes gradual steps. There’s stereotypes, there’s stigmas that exist. There’s things that existed in the (1960s) that we’re still struggling to get into our communities. I may not be alive to see the end of the stigma surrounding mental health, but I’m not going to pack it in every night if people are showing up. If there are enough people showing up that want to be part of the solution, if I continue to keep (sharing my story), then positive things happen.”
MTN Sports: It’s clear that you don’t shy away from opening up and sharing your story these days, and you don’t sugarcoat the bad parts. When someone comes up and tells you that hearing your story and your message helped them, how rewarding is that?
Leaf: “It’s pretty special to connect on that level. For the longest time my identity was as an athlete, and that’s what I was going to have be my legacy. I was just down at the college football Hall of Fame giving a speech, being honored for what I’m doing in communities that are completely out of the realm of football. And I always thought I wanted to be there because of my accolades on the football field. But that’s not important, and it took me a long time to figure that out and I had to be humbled in a way where I needed to realize that. I want to be honored for how honest I am, rather than how good I was on the football field.”
MTN Sports: Tomorrow you get a chance to speak to the high school kids. Many of them didn’t get a chance to see you play or aren’t aware of your struggles. How do you bridge that gap?
Leaf: “I play a video that shows who I was drafted by and who I was drafted with. Any kids at this age, if you say ‘NFL’ and then you say ‘$31 million dollars’ and you say ‘the only Montanan ever drafted in the first round,’ that usually pulls somebody in and then you have to be honest with them, brutally honest with them and tell them the truth. You can’t sugarcoat your story. You tell it like it is and they do with it what they will. I can’t control what they do with my message, but showing up and sharing is the whole point. I’m going to stay sober because of it and I’m going to be a better person, husband, father because of it, and I can’t necessarily take it personally when people don’t listen and they have to go down the same path. My hope is that they don’t, but I’m going to sleep well at night because of what I’m doing and what my part in it is.”
MTN Sports: One of the things that struck me in your speech is when you said it took you a while to realize that you can’t control what people think of you. Your relationship with Great Falls and Montana will always be complicated. How has the relationship with Great Falls changed over the years, from growing up to where you’re at now?
Leaf: “I don’t think it’s gotten any better. I would even dare to say it’s probably gotten worse. A) I victimized the community, and I think that’s probably the most important part of it. B) I didn’t live up to expectations, and I didn’t live up to how I felt I needed to be to make it out of this state and be the first Montanan drafted in the first round of the NFL. There’s something to that. No matter how poorly the community treated me, I couldn’t control that. I still had control over how I reacted to that, and I reacted in a defensive manner and went back at them in a way where I felt that I could make them feel bad and disassociate being a part of the community. I can’t control how people treated me or how they continue to treat me. I just know that I’ll do whatever I can to get through the day in a positive way, and that’s the only thing I have control over. My hope is that that relationship will someday be mended, but I don’t necessarily think that it needs to be, either. We’re in the mindset like, ‘Let’s not fix what ain’t broken.’ Great Falls is doing great, I’m doing great and that’s a good way to look at it.”
MTN Sports: Do you have good memories from CMR? When you look back, is there anything that bubbles up that’s positive and good?
Leaf: “(Former CMR basketball coach) Mike McLean. He came in my senior year, and he just changed my whole disposition about what I experienced at CMR, with the way he approached things. He was a player’s coach. He was tough on me, but he just saw me as kind of like an unbridled colt, and he wasn’t going to try to break me, and he was just going to let me have fun and experience what high school football and basketball was supposed to be like. I definitely look back on my senior year there and playing basketball for Mike McLean as the best part of high school. He really made a significant impact on my life moving forward.”
MTN Sports: We still see Mike McLean all the time. Do you still stay in contact at all?
Leaf: “Yeah, and the thing is he always had my back. He didn’t buy into what he heard when he came to town. He knew he had a very talented player and there was going to be a way to coach me and we would be successful together. That translated into the next level when I went to play for (Washington State) coach (Mike) Price. It was very similar. We were confrontational with each other, but we respected one another, and we kind of got the most out of one another. In similar stops along the way in the NFL, too, Tony Dungy, Mike Holmgren, Jim Jones were similar. It all started with Mike McLean, and I think he was kind of the blueprint for how to coach me and get the most out of me. He got the most out of me on the basketball court than any coach had up until that point.”
MTN Sports: In the NFL your name will always be linked with Peyton Manning, but at CMR you followed up Dave Dickenson. Was there any pressure that contributed to some of the struggles you went through as a young guy, just following in the footsteps of a guy like Dave?
Leaf: “No, because I grew up playing street ball with Dave. He lived down the block from me. It was so cool to be able to play with the older kids. And I never looked at it as pressure. I looked at it as, ‘I’m going to be better than him.’ That was just how it was going to be. I saw myself as more physically talented, so I always thought this was going to be how I’m going to do it. But I could never quite live up to those expectations, because he cast a long shadow. It was probably a big reason why I wanted to leave the state and not go to Montana necessarily. I thought it was the only way for me to differentiate myself. I don’t think there was ever pressure, because he was such a hero of mine and I wanted to be like him. I wanted to wear that green and gold and I even wore No. 16 because it was right next to his. He was a hero of mine, and to see him get inducted into the College Football Hall of Fame this year, that’s so cool.”
MTN Sports: Your son (McGyver) turns 1 year old this week. How is fatherhood treating you?
Leaf: “Being a father is the coolest thing. I never thought that those would be words that ever come out of my mouth. It’s the best thing I’ll ever do. What makes that great is that I have an amazing partner to do it with (fiancée Anna Kleinsorge). We’re this team. I started a company called RAM consultants and that’s our family – Ryan, Anna and McGyver – and that’s who we are. And we’re going to ride or die together and I think that was the best way to look at it. He’s the most precious. He’s a giant already. And he never stops moving. I wouldn’t want it any other way.”