Ryan Leaf busts out of his shell

To the Colts, Peyton Manning. To the Chargers, Ryan Leaf.

Their names are forever linked, but their lives since the 1998 NFL Draft couldn’t be more distinct. Leaf’s brief stint in San Diego abruptly ended in 2000, his football career soon after. He’s widely considered the biggest quarterback flop in NFL history, south of JaMarcus Russell. After football, Leaf’s addiction to painkillers sunk him to new lows.

But Leaf is back and sober, and he was making the rounds Thursday on Radio Row. We had a chance to speak with him.

For a while now, there’s been talk of a changed Ryan Leaf. What does that mean?

Ryan Leaf makes an appearance at Radio Row on Thursday. (Alix Drawec/NFL)

I don’t know if it’s such a transformation. I think it’s just me trying to be a better person, and in doing so, you usually develop better relationships than you ever (would) before, when you kind of thought that you were the end all, be all of things.

How did it get to that point for you?

I think you’re just given everything and you’re placed on a pedestal and, for the longest time, people are always telling you yes rather than no. It gets to a point where you almost have blinders on to the real reality of how to be a good, normal person.

So what lifted the blinders?

Accepting my addiction to painkillers and going to rehab in 2008 changed my life completely for the better. And since that point, it’s been an unbelievably different perspective and enlightening every day.

Looking back on that, what was the toughest part for you?

The hardest thing I’ve been through? Letting down my little brothers. Letting them down that I’d become a prescription-painkiller addict. They looked up to me my whole life. I just feel like I embarrassed them so much. Of course, I didn’t; they love me to death. It’s just, there’s that pride thing of mine.

So now you’re here, surrounded by former coaches, teammates, opponents — do you have to work to let them know, “Hey, I’m a different guy now”?

No, I don’t think so. I don’t think I ever really knew those people anyway. They were just acquaintances. I think that — I’m ashamed, too, to say that I was so self-absorbed that I, a lot of times, didn’t remember their names anyway. So, it’s kind of a re-introduction more now.

Your name is invariably linked to Peyton Manning. Does that get tiring?

It’s not tired for me. He might be the greatest quarterback to ever play the game, so, to be — it was a contest who they were going to pick. It was almost me. So that was a great compliment, and I’m really proud to see him do well and I’m really disappointed to see the struggles he’s having to deal with, with injuries, because he’s always been so strong, so poignant, almost Superman out there when it came to injuries and playing. To see that a possible neck injury may not only sideline him from the team, from the city he built, to possibly his career — is devastating not only to him and his family, I believe, but all his fans and me, as well.

Andrew Luck appears to be the prize in this year’s draft. How do these next wave of quarterbacks avoid a meltdown?

He’s pretty level-headed. The type of things these young men have to go through nowadays — the scrutiny they’re under — are much different than it was 13 years ago, in my case. You very rarely get a gentleman like Peyton Manning who comes along who is truly ready at that time, and I think rookies are more emotionally ready to deal with failure (now) than we were when we were younger.

You’ve lived with people calling you a “bust” for so long now. Does that hurt?

It’s difficult to hear it sometimes, but, again, it’s a small spectrum of what my life is going to be. To go through the ups and downs that I had to go through after my career that, really, when you put it in perspective, it’s pretty meaningless.

So what is your mind-set today?

I can’t do all of it on my own, because I tried to do everything for so long. One of the biggest things is asking for help. Throwing your pride away and asking for help when you need it, whether it be something as small as a ride to the airport — or a ride to rehab. To be vulnerable allows you to be open and to develop new relationships and — for the longest time — there weren’t any relationships to develop.

– Marc Sessler

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