The word "bust" always will be associated with Ryan Leaf, and not the kind of bust that the Pro Football Hall of Fame awards to its inductees.
Drafted second overall by the Chargers in 1998 — one spot after the Colts took Peyton Manning, two spots before Charles Woodson went to the Raiders — Leaf was supposed to have the kind of career that ends with that bronze statue in Canton. Instead, after flaming out in four NFL seasons as a massive disappointment both on the field and off, he is immortalized in other ways: for being one of the greatest failures in the NFL history.
Yet, talk to him now, 13 years after he entered the league and a decade after he last threw a pass, and he doesn't sound like a man who is bitter at the hand he has been dealt or upset with his status in the football community.
The 35-year-old Leaf seems to have put his brief time in the league and the mistakes he made into the proper perspective. With an autobiography about his time at Washington State University having been released recently, Leaf spoke with Pro Football Weekly about his health, the advice he gives to college players, what he thinks of the current crop of young quarterbacks and more.
PFW: How are you feeling? (Leaf had a benign tumor removed from his brain stem in June.)
Leaf: I'm feeling pretty good, but we are going to have to go through a bout of radiation for about six weeks, starting in mid-November through the rest of the year. That's a little disappointing, of course, but we're lucky it was benign and I'm just looking forward to getting it taken care of and moving on.
PFW: Do you feel any symptoms from the operation?
Leaf: I seem to get fatigued a little more easily, and I became symptom-free after the surgery, but I'm kind of starting to see some of the symptoms reemerge a little bit. Lightly, not as definite as they were before, because of how large the tumor was. The biggest thing is being lethargic and tired.
PFW: Do you think the injury might have been football-related?
Leaf: My doctor said it could be trauma-related, and we don't want to speculate, of course, because there's no way to really prove that or understand that, but it's something to question. It's not been in any family history. I played football for a long time and got knocked around a bit, so it's something that is in the back of my mind but I don't want to really speculate on it. So who knows?
PFW: Looking back to 1998, after you led Washington State to the Rose Bowl, do you have regrets leaving school with another year of eligibility remaining?
Leaf: Oh, of course, that's the biggest regret of my life that I didn't stay at Washington State. Hindsight is always 20/20, but now that I look back, it was the greatest four years of my life and I actually gave a year of that away. That's a disappointing thing. We would have struggled a bit, we lost 26 seniors, we would've lost maybe a few games where we would have had to fight and claw. I would have had to deal with failure, would have had to deal with the media spotlight being a front-runner for the Heisman, so maybe I would have learned to deal with the media in a more positive light than I did when I got to San Diego and was so defensive.
PFW: What advice would you give to a college quarterback who is considering leaving school early?
Leaf: Well, I think that they ultimately have to make their own decision, but I think guys are just so much more well prepared going into the NFL now just because of the scrutiny they're under in college just because of how big college football is and the mentors that they have. I think Andrew Luck is the perfect example. He came back and is doing a heck of a job. He's in the spotlight all year long and handles himself very well and is playing very well. So I think he's a perfect example of that, and, of course, I'm more than happy to speak with anybody who wants to go early and have a discussion about that. Because — I think it may surprise people — but I don't want anybody ever to enter the draft and have high expectations and then fall on their face just because they can replace the bust persona of mine. I wish the best for everybody. I want them to be successful because football is such a fun sport and such a fun part of my life. So I certainly don't want it to be a negative for anybody else's.
PFW: What were your thoughts when you learned you were going to be selected by the Chargers?
Leaf: We were pretty pleased with it. I knew pretty early on that I didn't want to go to Indianapolis first of all, and I think Peyton was the best pick for them. I wanted to go to San Diego, I had family down there, it's on the West Coast. I couldn't have asked for more. The city wanted me there, there were high expectations, you know I didn't live up to those expectations, I didn't handle myself in a way that was … (long pause) … that made the city excited for me to be there. I didn't represent the city or myself or my family in a positive way and that's disappointing.
PFW: Do you still watch the NFL?
Leaf: I watch it now. It was about three years ago that I picked up the NFL Sunday Ticket and really kind of got back into it. I think college football is my true love. I'll make time on Saturdays to watch football. If I miss stuff on Sunday, like if there's a good game or somebody I want to watch, guys that I know or admire. I really admire Philip Rivers and Peyton Manning and Tom Brady and those guys. So I'll sit and watch them play just to see how they do it, because I understand how difficult it is, so to see them do it so well is fun to see.
PFW: How do you watch football? Still like a quarterback?
Leaf: I still watch from a player's perspective, I'm always looking at the defense, seeing what the safeties are doing, what the linebackers are doing. I don't think that will ever go away, it was inbred in your mind for so long on how you watch film or how you watch the game. I don't think that just goes away.
PFW: There are two rookie QBs starting right now — Cam Newton, Andy Dalton — who were named starters Week One. You did that, too, starting from Day One. From your perspective, was that a good or bad thing?
Leaf: In my experience, I would have rather sat. Not at the time, of course. I was too competitive and wanted to play, but I can see how it has benefited people like Carson Palmer, things like that.
But I've also seen how it has been helpful for people like Peyton Manning, Matt Ryan, Joe Flacco. Cam Newton's doing a tremendous job, so is Andy Dalton. I think the guys coming into the league are so much more well prepared. I think physically, mentally, media-savvy, I think they have an understanding of this league different than I did. Coming from Pullman, Washington, as somebody who was really immature and had a very, very big ego of himself but really was a socially awkward person, it was difficult for me to handle all of what came to me. And it sucks, it really does, because I loved it since I was four years old. And the fact that I couldn't succeed in something I wanted to do for so long was disappointing.
PFW: Do you keep in touch with anybody from your time in the NFL?
Leaf: Yeah, I keep in touch with some former teammates and coaches, keep them up to breast on how I'm doing and what's going on. I've been lucky enough to stay friends with Peyton over the years, just because we dealt with something huge in '97 during that season, so our names are always going to be synonymous. Especially being drafted alongside arguably the best quarterback who has ever played. So, I'm happy I developed and sustained a relationship with him because he's such a good person and his family (members) are such good people.
PFW: What are you up to now?
Leaf: Well, I just released my first book, "596 Switch." You can go to CrimsonOakPublishing.com and 25 percent of proceeds go back to Washington State athletics and scholarship fund. And you can get it anywhere else out there. It's about my four years at Washington State and truly about what its like to be an 18- to 22-year-old, going through all that, especially in a community where we had succeeded at a high level. And because we did, it changed the perspective of a lot of people. I'm very proud of it, very excited for people to read it. It's gotten a lot of good feedback. And it reached not only Cougar fans out there, but it does have a lot of national implications when it comes to paying players at the college level, dealing with agents, racial stereotypes, and the recruiting process. I think it would be a good book to read for mothers, fathers who have a young man who is ready to set off and be a successful college player and have to go through the recruiting process. I know it's changed a ton since I went through it, but it's an educational view from my perspective, for sure. It was fun. I have two more books after that, and I go out speaking, talking to kids at universities trying to help. Hopefully (I'll) do some college football analysis along the way after I get done with this treatment. I plan to stay busy. I need to be, so I'm looking forward to everything on the horizon for me.
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