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Ryan Leaf

Time to stop stigma surrounding mental health, substance use: Former NFL QB Ryan Leaf

By Mike Pettinella
Ryan Leaf
Former NFL quarterback Ryan Leaf speaking to the public at Genesee Community College on Wednesday night. Photos by Howard Owens.

Growing up in what he calls “the cowboy culture” of rural Montana, former National Football League quarterback Ryan Leaf said that he never saw another man reach out for help with mental health issues because of the stigma associated with it.

Leaf failed to live up to the expectations of the No. 2 pick in the 1998 NFL draft, leaving professional football after a relatively uneventful five seasons. He then turned to drug use, which led to his arrest and incarceration for 32 months.

Today, a week shy of his 48th birthday, he tells his story at venues throughout the nation when he’s not commentating on college football and the NFL as a radio and television host. 

On Wednesday night, he capped his appearance in Batavia with a two-hour talk in front of 70 people at Genesee Community College. Earlier in the day, he spoke to about 300 high school 11th- and 12th-graders at the GCC gymnasium (see story below).

Leaf's presentations were sponsored by UConnectCare (formerly Genesee/Orleans Council on Alcoholism and Substance Abuse).

Leaf shared that he didn’t have the ability to cope with failure, instead blaming others and taking a self-righteous and “I’m better than you” attitude. He said he didn’t know where to turn when his emotional health worsened.

“I wasn’t used to seeing people being vulnerable or transparent, it's just not,” he said. “It's a huge reason why I didn't seek help because I grew up in what you would consider a cowboy culture of Montana (and) then in locker rooms in college and in the NFL where you've never seen another man simply say, ‘I'm really struggling here. Can you help me?’

“So, if we haven't seen it, what would make us think anybody would be able to do it? Right? It's not taught. What has been taught is rub some dirt on it, get it back in there, toughen up.”

He went on to say that his father, who he said he admires, told him, “Why can’t you just stop (taking the Vicodin pills that led him astray)? Yeah, if I could stop, I would have done that a long time ago. Clearly, this was not a choice. And the idea was stigma exists -- the idea that someone may know that you need help is more frightening than actually getting the help that you need.

“That's what stigma is, and it will be the last rail that you have to climb over for people to take mental health and substance abuse seriously.”

Married with two young children, Leaf, now a Connecticut resident, illustrated his point by comparing those with a medical illness with those suffering from mental illness.

“A perfect example, two kids get sick in the same neighborhood. One has leukemia and one deals with a mental health disorder or substance use disorder. The difference in comparison to how the public then treats the family of the leukemia child in terms of support, food, things of that nature in comparison to what the individual family deals with when it comes to the mental health side of things … they're ostracized, they’re isolated, they’re talked about … when in reality, there's medical science that exactly the same thing exists. It's a disease.”

Leaf, realizing that some in the audience were in recovery, credited those in attendance for coming to hear him speak.

“You had a choice to be at home, stay at home, and not do something to try to be part of the solution tonight within your community,” he said. “So, I applaud all of you and you should applaud yourselves for being able to go off and do that and be a part of it.”

As for his own life, Leaf said he was driven by competition – “my first drug of choice,” he said -- at a young age and developed into a three-sport star (basketball, football and baseball) in high school.

“I worked harder than anybody else, and so I was rewarded with the opportunity to play at any college,” he said. “I was able to get an education for free and relieve my parents of the burden of having to have to foot the bill or something like that,” he said. 

He said he didn’t fit into the Montana culture and looked to escape, signing with Washington State University, where he led his team to a trip to the Rose Bowl and became a Heisman Trophy finalist in his junior year.

His collegiate success led to him being selected by the San Diego Chargers right after Peyton Manning in the 1998 NFL draft. With it came a five-year $31 million contract, including an $11.5 million signing bonus.

Despite Leaf’s extraordinary athletic talent, his dream of a long NFL career and a place in the Pro Football Hall of Fame never materialized as he was ill-equipped to handle adversity. He ended up playing for four teams before calling it quits. From there, his dependency on Vicodin led to possession and burglary charges as he continually searched for a way to ease his inner pain.

Eventually, after two years in prison, he was able to turn his life around by finally considering the plight of others around him.

“When you make it about someone else, you're not thinking about you at all, you're not thinking about your problems and your troubles with things you've dealt with, you're actually thinking about someone else's issues,” he said. “That's what empathy is … you actually put yourself in the shoes of someone else going through something. And I don't think I really had an empathetic bone in my body until I was confronted with all my stuff.

“There was no talk of mental illness or drugs or alcohol in my life when I got to the NFL because there just wasn't. It turns out that I was dealing with mental health issues. I just didn't understand it.”

Leaf compared himself to Peyton Manning, who is considered one of the greatest quarterbacks ever, as he pointed out the public’s perception of success.

“If I placed Peyton Manning right here and I stood next to him right now in front of us and asked you to point out the failure and the success, I don’t think it would be hard for anybody to do the pointing,” he said. “But that’s how people view and define success and failure.

“We’re both far removed from playing NFL football. He’s been retired for some time and I as well. If you look at our resume and our life right now, Peyton is a 48-year-old father of two and so am I. I own a profession and consulting company -- a broadcasting one a does he. We both do a ton of philanthropic things and give back to our communities. We both are very happy with our lot in life and … suffice to say, we both have the life of our dreams.”

Leaf said the “baggage” of the past doesn’t define a person’s life today and hope for the future.

“I mean a lot of people quit from that aspect of things like it will never get better. And I think it's the furthest from the truth,” he said. “It does not matter at all what has gone on in your past if you’re willing to accept that and surrender to who you are and why you're here. It's all about what you do today and tomorrow.”

Disclosure: Mike Pettinella is the publicist for UConnectCare.

GCC Leaf

Leaf urges students to focus on attitude, behavior, effort

By Mike Pettinella

Attitude. Behavior. Effort.

“Those are three things you can control,” said Ryan Leaf, former National Football League quarterback and now a sought-after motivational speaker, to about 300 high school juniors and seniors on Wednesday morning during a prom awareness event at the Genesee Community College gymnasium.

Leaf, the No. 2 selection in the 1998 NFL draft (right after Peyton Manning), came to Batavia as a guest of UConnectCare (formerly Genesee/Orleans Council on Alcoholism and Substance Abuse).

Following a stellar collegiate career at Washington State University where he was a finalist for the Heisman Trophy in his junior year, Leaf was drafted by the San Diego Chargers – receiving a five-year, $31 million contract, including an $11.5 million signing bonus.

The Great Falls, Mont. Native said that being handed that kind of money only reinforced his belief that he could do anything he wanted.

“Money, power and prestige; I had it all,” he said to the students from Batavia High, Oakfield-Alabama, Elba, Byron-Bergen and Lyndonville at the outset of what turned out to be a two-hour talk. “I really felt that I was more important than anyone else.”

With wins in his first two NFL starts, Leaf was on top of the world. But in week three of his rookie season, a loss to Kansas City, he had “the worst game of my life” and was devastated.

“I wasn’t equipped to deal with it,” he said, adding that he experienced “arrested development” at age 13. “I was humiliated and embarrassed.”

Life in the NFL went downhill quickly after that, with Leaf sharing that he doesn’t remember many good things about his five-year NFL career. He went on to play for Dallas, Tampa Bay and Seattle before mental health issues prompted him to, in his words, “walk away from the think I wanted to do since I was 4 years old.”

Falling into depression and living under the burden as being known as one of the biggest draft busts ever, Leaf said he turned to taking Vicodin to ease his pain.

“I didn’t want to feel anything and the Vicodin did that for me,” he said. “It was eight years of a constant chase.”

Leaf said he squandered all of his money and resorted to going through friends medicine cabinets in search of his high – and then to entering strangers’ homes to find pills. Law enforcement caught up to him in March 2012 and he was sentenced to seven years in prison for burglary and possession of narcotics.

“For 26 of the 32 months that I served, I did nothing much watch a little TV at the end of my bed,” he said. “I wanted to die. I didn’t want to be there.”

Fortunately for him, his cellmate urged him to help some of the other inmates learn how to read. Reluctantly, he accepted the offer and, later on, he set out to become a substance abuse counselor.

Over the past 12 years, Leaf, 47, has maintained sobriety and has worked tirelessly to improve his life through AA meetings, therapy, prayer and meditation, and reaching out to others.

“What changed is (that I embraced) service to others, and it’s not money-generated,” he said. “Just sharing my story. And (addressing the students) your life’s story is just as inspirational and impactful as mine because you’re still here. Sharing that is the most serviceable thing you could do.”

Leaf, a Connecticut resident, talked about how he changed his attitude toward women – “I never respected women,” he said – and speaking glowingly of his wife, 6 ½-year-old son and 6-month-old daughter.

When not traveling around the U.S. speaking about substance use and mental health stigma, Leaf, chief executive officer of RAM Consultant, Inc., serves as a college and NFL analyst for Westwood One Sports and hosts a radio and television shows.

Stating that he’s “OK” with his past, Leaf said, “We all screw up and then think it’s the end of the world. But it’s not. You can stumble and fall but you need to keep trying. It doesn’t matter what happened it the past.”

He encouraged the students to “do the little things” that provide strength in times of temptation.

“You always have a choice,” he said, mentioning drinking and driving, drug use and sexual activity. “Enjoy the next couple weeks (before proms and graduations). It’s fleeting. It goes by so fast.”

Former NFL QB Ryan Leaf to share his story at GCC, Room T-102, at 6 o'clock tonight

By Mike Pettinella
Ryan Leaf and students
Former NFL quarterback Ryan Leaf poses with six of the 300 or so students this morning following his prom awareness presentation sponsored by UConnectCare at Genesee Community College.  The public is invited to hear his inspirational story that focuses on substance use recovery and mental health sitgma at 6 o'clock tonight at Room T-102 at GCC. Photo by Mike Pettinella/UConnectCare publicist.

Former NFL quarterback Ryan Leaf to speak about substance use disorder, mental health on May 8

By Press Release
Ryan Leaf
Former NFL quarterback Ryan Leaf, right, and former Pittsburgh Steelers linebacker Jack Ham at a Legends & Stars event in February 2023 at Batavia Downs Gaming. Now a motivational speaker, Leaf is scheduled to speak at Genesee Community College on May 8. Photo by Mike Pettinella.

Press release:

“Twelve years ago today I woke up on the floor of a jail cell...with no hope or possible idea what could be! There was no possibility of this life, no love of my life, no career, no future, no family, no recovery," Leaf wrote on X. "You can't go back and change the beginning, but you can start where you are and change the ending! There is Hope!” – Ryan Leaf, April 1, 2024.

In 1998, the San Diego Chargers selected Ryan Leaf, standout quarterback from Washington State University, as the No. 2 overall pick in the National Football League Draft behind Peyton Manning. A finalist for the Heisman Trophy following his junior year, the future looked bright for the Great Falls, Mont., native.

However, dreams of a storied NFL career turned into a nightmare for the strong-armed 6-foot5-inch, 235-pound signal caller as issues involving bad behavior, injuries, work ethic and focus -- beyond poor play – limited his time as a pro to four nonproductive years.

Leaf went into a downward spiral, eventually ending up in prison for burglary and drug-related offenses – a period of time he referred to in his statement above.

Although he wasn’t able to survive in the world of professional football, Leaf has turned his life around – carving out a respected space throughout the United States as a motivational speaker and ambassador for sobriety.

He said he has been in recovery from substance use disorder for the past 11 years, and has devoted his life to helping others overcome the stigma of mental health and addiction as a program ambassador for Transcend Recovery Community and CEO/President of RAM Consultant, Inc.

Leaf, 47, is coming to Batavia in May to share his experiences, both triumph and challenges, and offer invaluable lessons in resilience and the power of determination.

“Asking for help is the strongest thing you’ll ever do,” Leaf says, referring to those struggling with substance use.

Leaf also works as a college football analyst for the ESPN network.

UConnectCare (formerly Genesee/Orleans Council on Alcoholism and Substance Abuse) invites the public to attend his presentation, which is scheduled for 6 p.m. May 8 at Genesee Community College, Room T102.

To reserve your seat, call 585-815-1883 or send an email to by May 1.

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