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That Time Hunter S. Thompson Told The Colts: ‘Draft Leaf’

Gonzo journalist was a huge Colts fan … but not a big believer in Peyton Manning in letter to Irsay before Draft Day 1998

Every so often a story so bizarre spans the stratosphere that it demands immediate attention because you wonder how in heaven’s name it could possibly be true.

Earlier this week, Ryan Leaf, the former NFL quarterback, was on the “Rich Eisen Show,” where he told the NFL Network host of a letter that was sent to Colts owner Jim Irsay before the 1988 NFL Draft by Hunter S. Thompson.

Thompson was truly a weird dude, to say the least. He was an author and journalist, a counter-culturalist who was given credit for spearheading what was known as “gonzo journalism” in the 1970s.

What was gonzo journalism? Simply stated, it was a term used to describe stories told totally from the author’s perspective, with the author thrusting himself into the narrative to offer commentary and criticism without an over-reliance on the facts.

Hunter Thompson

Jamie Squire / Allsport

Essentially, he was a satirist and in 1973, Thompson described his style perfectly to Rolling Stone.

“If I’d written the truth I knew for the past ten years, about 600 people—including me—would be rotting in prison cells from Rio to Seattle today. Absolute truth is a very rare and dangerous commodity in the context of professional journalism.”

Eventually, fame began to wear Thompson down. His popularity progressively eroded, even though he once wrote a weekly column for ESPN. He began depending again too heavily on drugs and alcohol. He finally committed suicide at age 67, and according to reports, had his ashes blown out of a cannon by Johnny Depp.

Yep, so now you know about Hunter S. Thompson.

But it turns out that Thompson, who was born in Louisville, Ky., in 1937, was a huge football fan. And for some reason, Thompson decided to write Irsay and implore him to take Leaf – and not Payton Manning – with the first pick in the draft. Leaf told Eisen he’d just received a copy of the letter, which he shared on social media.

As we said, Thompson was strange – and sarcastic – and at the start of his note he tells the owner he had decided not to loan him the $30 million Irsay had asked for because he’d heard Irsay was favoring Manning.

Here is what Thompson wrote:

“But the Leaf boy is another matter. He looks strong & Manning doesn’t — or at least not strong enough to handle that ‘Welcome to the NFL’ business without a world-class offensive line. … How are you fixed at left OT for the next few years, James? You don’t want a china doll back there when that freak Sapp comes in.”

By this time, the movie adaptation of one of Thompson’s most popular books, “Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas” – with Depp staring as Thompson – was about to debut and Thompson figured it would make him so wealthy that loaning Irsay the money, conditional to Leaf’s selection, would be a breeze.

Ezra O. Shaw / Allsport

The movie turned into a cloud of dust, losing approximately $8 million,  according to IMDB.com.

Of course, Irsay, and his general manager, Bill Polian, had other ideas and they took Manning with the No. 1 overall pick, leaving Leaf to the San Diego Chargers at No. 2.

Leaf quickly burned out, throwing 36 interceptions in three seasons, and eventually spent time in jail because of substance abuse. He has since become an inspirational speaker who is now affiliated with a national group of homes for those battling alcoholism.

Manning led the Colts to a 141-67 record, the playoffs 11 times, eight seasons of at least 12 victories and the Super Bowl twice, winning XLI over the Bears. And he has become one of the nation’s most popular pitchmen, representing Budweiser, Papa John’s Pizza, Nike, Gatorade, Nationwide Insurance, DirectTV and Buick.

Gonzo story, indeed.

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