WORLAND – For former NFL quarterback and Heisman finalist Ryan Leaf, the money and fame were not his biggest accomplishments. He told the young men at the Wyoming Boys’ School last Thursday that getting sober was his biggest accomplishment because it was the hardest thing he has had to do.
Leaf, now a motivational speaker, spoke to three groups in Worland last week, brought to the community by Cloud Peak Counseling Center and Cloud Peak’s Substance Abuse Coordinator Wendy Wiecki. While there were similarities in the messages, Leaf knew his audiences and had probably the most blunt message for the youth at the Wyoming Boys’ School Thursday afternoon.
He opened each presentation with a video outlining his struggles in the NFL, his struggles with mental health, his addiction to opiates and his time in prison, ending with the statement, “I’m just like you.”
He asked the WBS youth if they believed that and only about a handful raised their hands. When asked why they didn’t believe him the answers were because he was famous, he had been and NFL quarterback and more.
Leaf told the young men that he was just like them because when he got out of prison he had nothing. He did not have the product endorsements, he was not making millions of dollars and the only people that greeted him were his parents.
While he played nearly five years in the NFL, he said his career was over after his third game with the San Diego Charges against Kansas City. He said he played the worst game of his career and the problem was not drugs but was how he dealt with failure and the criticisms.
While being sober is his biggest accomplishment, his biggest regret, he said “is how I treated people. You need to treat people with respect,” he said.
After retiring from the NFL he went on a trip to Las Vegas and was offered Vicodin and he realized that the drug helped him not feel anything, especially feeling like a failure.
When he couldn’t get drugs legally he started breaking into homes and he credits law enforcement for helping him get sober, because he did not have access to the drugs in jail or prison.
While in prison, after about two years, “my higher power showed up in form of my cell mate,” Leaf said. His cell mate was a veteran, convicted of vehicular manslaughter. He had accepted what he had one and confronted Leaf telling Leaf, “You don’t understand the value you have for men in here and when you get out.”
He challenged Leaf to go with him to the prison library and help teach other prisoners how to read. Leaf said he kept going back and realized he was sleeping better and feeling better because he was being of service to others and it was not all about him.
“I was being of service to a human being for the first time in my life,” he said.
As a narcissistic personality he said until then it was always all about him.
He told the WBS students that there are consequences to their actions and for every choice they make. Leaf told the boys that he was just like them because he made bad choices and ended up in prison and they made some wrong choices and the consequence for their choices was being sent to the Boys’ School.
He said he also learned that life isn’t fair … for anyone, rich or poor, famous or not so famous. He told the boys that “how you deal with life is the only thing that matters. It is the only thing you can control. When you are in the worst possible situation you have to make a conscious choice to be better every day.”
Leaf emphasized to those at the WBS that choices are what determines a person’s path.
“I don’t believe you are a product of your environment,” he said, noting his dad was a veteran and he had strong family support and community support growing up.
“You always have a choice. Are you going to make a choice that is positive and healthy or negative and toxic. The reason you are here is because you made a choice that was negative and toxic. You need to make it about choosing the next right thing with every choice.
“Amazing things can happen regardless of what is in your past,” Leaf told the WBS students. He reminded them that he is an eight-time convicted felon who had nothing when he left prison but is now an analyst for ESPN, is a broadcaster for Westwood One, who would be helping call the college UCLA-USC game last Saturday and the NFL Chiefs-Charges game last Sunday night.
He said being a motivational speaker gives him a purpose and lets him be a service to others. “Your life gets better when you are being a service to others,” he added.
He told the boys that they need to ask themselves “What am I willing to do to not come back here?” And the answer needs to be that they are willing to do anything, whether it is counseling, treatment or more.
He said it has been 10 years since he has been sober and on Dec. 3 it will be eight years since he has been out of prison. After prison he knew he wanted to get more treatment to ensure he stayed sober.
“Asking for help is the strongest thing you’ll ever do,” he said.
“A purposeful life I think is all I was searching for. I can be grateful for having spent 32 months in prison. I don’t recommend it, but I am grateful because of it.”