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Former QB Ryan Leaf On Sharing Life Story With Maryland Football, Other Programs

August 14, 2019
Ryan Leaf is not interested in being a role model.

Leaf's only focus now is to give back, be the best version of himself and tell his story to college athletes. Whatever they do with it is up to them.

"I live with a ton of gratitude, and I don't take anything for granted, that's for sure," Leaf said on Glenn Clark Radio Aug. 8. "Getting the opportunity to travel around the country and visit programs ... is super impactful for me."

Leaf made one of those trips to College Park, Md., recently to speak with the University of Maryland football team about his tumultuous career in the NFL and more. The former No. 2 overall pick in the NFL Draft visits college programs to tell his story, "warts and all," in an effort to ensure that today's college players do not make the same mistakes.

"You have to be a guy that's willing to become vulnerable and transparent," Leaf said. "A lot of these guys who were sitting in those seats were exactly where I was 21 years ago. I really tell the guys I'm there for them when it comes to being vulnerable and being transparent and how strong it is, if they're able to do that."

A former standout at Washington State, Leaf is considered by many to be one of, if not, the biggest busts in NFL history. After being selected by the San Diego Chargers in the 1998 NFL draft -- one pick after Peyton Manning went to the Indianapolis Colts -- his four-year career was marred with a history of poor play, bad behavior and injuries. He made even more headlines after his retirement in 2002 by spending time in and out of prison on charges of drug use, burglary and theft.

But despite his well-documented history, many of today's college athletes have no idea who Leaf is or what he has done.

"A lot of them weren't even born," Leaf said. "So we have an introductory video that really plays it out. It shows the things they really perk up to like the Heisman Trophy, the Rose Bowl, the NFL Draft, all of those things. And then there's the downpour like prison and drug addiction and mental health. So they get introduced pretty quickly."

The video is followed by an open discussion with the players, during which they can ask more specific questions. But recently, Leaf has taken it a step further: he gives his personal phone number to every player he speaks with.

The reason for that goes back to his concern for players' mental health. In January 2018, Washington State quarterback Tyler Hilinski committed suicide. It was later discovered that Hilinski suffered from CTE, and Leaf said the 21-year-old didn't feel like he had an outlet to tell his teammates or anyone around him about the difficulties he faced.

"He thought the only answer was to no longer be here anymore," Leaf said. "And I cannot accept that ever happening on not only my former college campus, but anywhere else in this country. And that's why I offered the number."

Leaf said he has had players take him up on his offer just to talk with him about some of their successes and struggles.

"I think it just relieves them of any stress and pressure that they may have maybe inside the locker room or even with the coaches, because as big, strong football players, we're not supposed to show what we consider weakness," Leaf said.

There have been parts of Leaf's life that have been turbulent, to say the least. But there has always been one thing that has given him happiness, and that is college football. For Leaf -- who was hired by ESPN in July to be a college football analyst -- helping athletes make the most of their experience has helped give him a new sense of purpose in his life.

"I love college football," Leaf said. "I love what it stands for. I love what it offers to young men trying to make themselves into better human beings. ... And I think it's important for me to stand in front of those men and say that I'm here for them and really mean it."

For more from Leaf, listen to the full interview here:

Photo Credit: Courtesy of ESPN