Former NFL Quarterback Ryan Leaf Discusses His Addiction And Recovery

Nov 3, 2017

Ryan Leaf is a former NFL quarterback. At 28 he quit professional football.  By 35 he was in prison for stealing painkillers.  Leaf says his addiction to opiates was based in part on his ego and narcissism.  He now travels the country to talk about addiction and recovery and was in Plattsburgh this week.

In 1998, Ryan Leaf was the No. 2 NFL draft pick. Over his career he played for San Diego, Tampa Bay, Dallas and Seattle.  Although it was his dream since the age of 4 to play football, he gave it up and quit when he was 28.  It was after he ended his football career that he was offered and became addicted to the painkiller Vicodin.  He says he liked how it suppressed his emotional pain and he continued to get pills from doctors and even took pills from kids he was coaching.  He was eventually arrested after breaking into homes to get pills. He was sent to prison for 32 months.  

About a thousand students and area residents gathered at the Plattsburgh State Field House Wednesday evening to hear Leaf’s story of addiction and recovery. He met with local reporters before speaking to the crowd.  He said his cellmate helped him begin his recovery after insisting he help other inmates learn how to read.  “I think there was a moment prison where I actually was there sitting on my bed watching T.V.,  you know getting fat, eating bad food,  you know self-loathing and just going this is okay.  In fact it almost was a safe harbor for me for a while where I had no responsibility and I think my roommate was a guardian angel of sorts. He gave me a new perspective.  It was a defining moment.”

Leaf believes people don’t realize how sick an addict is, but he found his family was key to his recovery.  “The best thing about my family was is they unconditionally supported me through it all. They stopped enabling that behavior. You know my mom and dad, I found a way to bond out of jail one night and they asked me to go back. And I can’t  imagine how difficult and hard that was for them to do that in that moment. And I don't know why I acquiesced to that either.  I can't even imagine how hard that was for my mom to drop her son off at prison.  She dropped me off at college or kindergarten and now she was I mean that showed a lot of strength on her part to not continue and enable the behavior of this addict son of hers.”

One of Leaf’s frustrations as he travels across the country is that he finds too many people do not perceive addiction as a disease.  “It's seen as a choice and this can be genetic just like cancer.  So I think if we look at it that way I mean it's killing a lot of people.  If I told you that you know 75 percent of the people with cancer didn't seek treatment you'd think they were nuts.  And that's the number right? Seventy-five percent of people with addiction issues do not seek treatment because of the stigma or the inability to pay for it.  You know that’s  super impactful.”

The Clinton County District Attorney saw a profile of Leaf’s life earlier this year and immediately began efforts to bring him to Plattsburgh to speak on behalf of SPARCC – the Substance Abuse Prevention and Recovery Coalition of Clinton County.  United Way of the Adirondack Region CEO  John Bernardi,  a member of the coalition, says Leaf’s story helps de-stigmatize addiction and promote recovery.  “We want people to be proud of their recovery efforts.  And if you think about it we celebrate people's efforts when they are working to overcome any number of diseases but when it comes to addiction and recovery we don't do the same. We tend to stigmatize it.  We tend to keep it in the shadows and we want people to come forward to seek help and to be proud of their efforts to recover.”

Ryan Leaf has created a foundation to help alleviate the financial barriers people have when seeking treatment.