The first weekend of the college football season will open a new chapter in Ryan Leaf’s remarkable comeback.
That’s when he’ll start his new gig as college football analyst for ESPN, a job that seemed so unlikely just five years ago when the former NFL first-round draft pick was sitting in a prison cell in his native Montana.
He’s pulled himself all the way up from the bottom.
“I’m really grateful and I don’t take it for granted at all,” Leaf said in an interview.
He’ll be paired with play-by-play announcer Clay Matvick, doing games mostly on ESPNU and ESPN2. Leaf said he hasn’t received game assignments yet but knows they’ll probably be games in places like Boise and Reno and other stops that aren’t in the big-time glare.
And that’s OK.
“I’ll be all over the country. I suspect as low guy on the totem pole, I’ll start out in some smaller markets doing what some people may think are not big games, but for me they will be huge no matter what,” he said.
For those who remember his brief, incendiary NFL career — particularly those who covered him — it’s a stunning transformation.
“I don’t like the word redemption,” said Leaf, 43, who lives in Los Angeles with his fiancee and their young son. “I’ve used comeback. I don’t know if I like that either. I feel like I have a peaceful and unchaotic life now. I’ve been searching for that my entire life. Now that I’ve found it, that’s the best definition. It’s a peaceful, unchaotic life and I want to continue to live in it.”
Unlike his NFL career, Leaf had a tremendous college career at Washington State. He finished third in the Heisman balloting in 1997, behind winner Charles Woodson and Peyton Manning. He took the Cougars to the 1998 Rose Bowl, where Woodson intercepted him in the end zone during Michigan’s 21-16 victory.
While Leaf admits he’s perhaps being granted an entree to broadcasting that others might not get, he does have experience.
“Luckily enough for me, a year ago I got to work for the Pac-12 Network for three games. It was pretty good, a couple of Washington State FCS opponents, and at the end of the year the Cal-Colorado game up in Berkeley. It was good to experience another game other than a Washington State game and it really made me want to do it more,” Leaf said. “Lucky for me, ESPN has given me this awesome opportunity to do this and on a weekly basis. That’s the cool thing. When I worked for the Pac-12 Network, they only usually get two games a week for their main two networks and I wasn’t going to get any games after the non-conference schedule, so that limited me. ESPN has so much content, it allows me to go at it and call games every single weekend.”
He’ll work opening weekend and then take the second week off “because of another great amazing thing, being inducted into the Washington State Athletic Hall of Fame.”
Leaf has indeed done a 180 since his bad-boy days in the NFL, when he loathed the media.
Now he’s part of it.
“I will never take it for granted. There are a lot of individuals who have really worked from the bottom up in this profession and I’ve been in the broadcast side of things a bit meteoric,” he said. “The difference is I’m not taking it for granted. I understand there are some privileges and opportunities for me that maybe are not necessarily available for other people. It’s not like I have blinders on to that. I understand that and I understand that my story plays a part in it. The fact I was as talented as I was at the collegiate level was part of it, and a lot of hard work.
“When I walked out of that prison cell, I had no prospects, no network was wanting me to work for them or anybody really that wanted me to be around. It was all about starting over and being OK with that and knowing, hey, there are going to be hurdles along the way, because of the consequences of your actions. That’s where surrender and acceptance come in.”
Indeed, Leaf’s past figures into the equation.
“Ryan has experienced the highs and lows in the game of football, putting him in a position to relate to a wide range of situations players can find themselves in,” Lee Fitting, ESPN’s vice president of production, said after the hiring was announced. “He’ll be able to rely on those experiences — including an unbelievable college career where he was an All-American and Heisman Trophy finalist — in his analysis, making him a tremendous asset for our team.”
Leaf’s stunning NFL implosion began just three games into his career with the San Diego Chargers, when he berated a reporter the day after one of the worst performances a quarterback could have. It was long before iPhones, but one San Diego TV cameraman captured the profane outburst — punctuated by Leaf yelling at the reporter, “Don’t talk to me! Knock it off!”, before Junior Seau moved in to escort the QB out of the locker room.
That moment lives on via YouTube, perhaps the lowlight in a long list of immature, bad-boy behavior.
Two decades later, Leaf gets a chuckle out of the irony that he’s now in the media.
Leaf was working on a broadcast degree before he declared for the NFL draft after his junior season at WSU.
“But to get all the requirements to get that degree you have to get an internship in a newsroom,” he said. “The last place I wanted to be was with reporters and stuff. I took the easy way out and thought I’d just go on and be a coach, and so I needed to get that degree. I changed to humanities and finished as fast as I could. I assumed I’d be a coach then. I didn’t have any other prospects for myself. What would have been great is if I had just walked into a newsroom and made amends and learned the craft. Maybe that’s where this would have started 10 years ago. But it played out the way it is. It’s ironic now that I’m on the other side, how I treated them during my career. I’m sure there’s going to be some karma. When I see a mirror looking back at me sometimes, I think, ‘Oh good God it must have been horrible dealing with that arrogant ass.’
“The thing I never fully realized and understood was that you guys had a job to do. That’s all you were doing. I simply thought I was a better human being than everybody else. That was the simple difference.”
After his failed NFL career, Leaf tried coaching. He became addicted to painkillers, got into trouble with the law in Texas, attempted suicide and was sent to prison after being arrested in 2012 for breaking into a home in Montana to steal prescription drugs, which violated his Texas probation.
Changing his life from being resentful, angry and blaming others “took a reckoning, a bottoming out and guidance from a fellow inmate who was going through some adversity, my prison roommate, who got me to take a look at being a service to humanity rather than taking from it all the time, and having a conscience and being positive,” Leaf said. “It seems like something very simple that we’ve made very complicated in our human existence. I wake up every morning and chose to remain in a good mood regardless of what the day looks like. Sometimes I start my day over again, and I’m glad to have that luxury.
“I’m really blessed to have gone through what I went through. Most people can figure it out. It took me until I was 38, with some pretty big downfalls to get me to that place. But I’m glad I’ve found that peace and that serenity and that surrender and what I get from it.”
Leaf’s dramatic change started with being program ambassador for Transcend Recovery Community, a sober-living environment with nine homes in the Los Angeles, New York and Houston areas.
He has shared his cautionary tale with athletes and other young people, some of whom have gotten into trouble.
This fall, he’ll be back full-time around the game he loves.
Leaf said the key to news career was being able to move his parole from Montana to Los Angeles. He also credited Jay Glazer of Fox Sports and Sam Farmer of the Los Angeles Times with helping him make the transition to the media.
Besides his work with the Pac-12 Network, Leaf has had a college football talk show on SiriusXM.
In March, he went back to the ESPN studios for an audition. “I called the Clemson-South Carolina game with Steve Levy, which was really great. The fact he took time to call a fake game with me was great. They set up a fake studio show with Matt Berry, who’s a great SportsCenter anchor and studio host, and we did a show around that. I felt like both things went well.”
“The day I got the call offering me a job was a pretty emotional day and a day that ever since, I’ve been filled with a ton of gratitude.”
Give him a listen. He’s probably going to be pretty good at it.