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Call it calculated, call it insincere, and after a year of shifting blame, call it unbelievable.
But for the first time, San Diego Charger quarterback Ryan Leaf has taken responsibility for making a shambles of his young NFL career.
“I know I have screwed up,” Leaf says. “In the past year I have handled everything wrong. Everything--just all wrong, and now it’s time to make it right.”
Lunch with Leaf, now isn’t that a scream, after all the insults that have been hurled his way. But here he was for more than two hours along with his fiancee, Niki Lucia, in a nice La Jolla setting, munching on a plain grilled chicken sandwich while being deposed for his boorish behavior, and not a single table overturned.
“The hole I’ve dug for myself is very big,” says Leaf, recovering from shoulder surgery but still on the Chargers’ 53-man active roster. “A lot of times people say they want a fresh start, but you can’t really have a fresh start because it doesn’t happen that way. But I want to take that step to move forward.”
Face to face, holding the hand of his fiancee, he was both vulnerable and charming--nothing like the lout who appears so unapproachable on the job. Would the real Ryan Leaf please stand up?
“I’ve made mistakes and made them bigger because of the way I have reacted to them. No, there has been no repentance until now--no legitimate repentance. I’m stubborn. It’s tough to say I screwed up, but I have messed things up.”
It’s one thing to be stubborn, quite another to be so consistently stupid. Billed as “boy wonder” after being selected as the second player in the 1998 NFL draft, some of the San Diego media now refer to him as “boy blunder.”
It took much less to spark a Leaf tantrum caught on videotape in the Charger locker room a year, the sound bite replayed daily on radio talk shows everywhere, but now he sits docile, absorbing the rehash of abuse without so much as scrunched eyebrows.
“This is not about my performance on the field,” Leaf says, his self-esteem apparently unscathed. “I am a very talented quarterback. I proved that in college and I will prove that in the pros. This is about how I acted to different situations, and when brought to a head publicly, how I acted wrong once again.
“But things just kept piling up, and I kept getting pounded and I never thought clearly through what was happening.”
Like a prisoner up for parole, he might not be reading from a script, but it has the sound of someone who has been well-rehearsed for the performance of a lifetime. Rehabilitated con, or con man?
“No one is going to believe anything I say right now,” he says, the act of contrition or charade being carried out all the way. “I know that, and there’s no reason why they should.”
By his own choice, he says, he has been meeting with the team psychiatrist, and while admitting “that kind of bothers me, it’s also kind of cool to chat with someone. It’s healthy. It’s a good place to express anger. It’s always been good for me to release it and then I’m fine.
“I did the same thing at Washington State. I met with the team’s psychiatrist to do visualization. We did that every Tuesday night. You know it’s not good to sit and have things bottled up, and the first year in San Diego I didn’t meet with anybody and that happened. This off-season I’ve been meeting, and that’s been good.”
Give him a second chance, the opportunity to demonstrate the light bulb has gone on, or dismiss all this as simply another ploy to get his way?
“You see a flicker in that light bulb?” he says with a grin. “It’s a start.”
His first move, he says, has been an attempt to retrieve respect from his teammates, who turned on him publicly last year after he fell asleep in team meetings and showed no regard to remain a part of the team after being demoted.
“I can’t say anything that will make a difference right now,” he says. “But from the time I got hurt I thought I was headed to injured reserve, and yet I still busted my butt, attended every meeting and missed no workouts to get myself back as quickly as I could. That’s all I can do right now.”
That has been four weeks, and only a baby step for those expecting more from a 23-year-old franchise quarterback. Put off continually by his sullen and unapproachable attitude, and loved by almost no one within the Charger organization, there is at least universal acknowledgment that Leaf has attacked his rehabilitation with vigor in the last month.
Unable now to help win games, there will be no quick fix with his teammates, who have grown weary of Leaf’s propensity to draw negative attention his way. And now there is a serious rift between Leaf and General Manager Bobby Beathard, who sounds at times like a man who has given up on his young quarterback, going so far recently as to publicly call him a liar.
“I have not helped the situation,” Leaf says, the test of time now measuring everything he has to say. “I may not have said anything against the organization, but my actions have spoken just as loudly and have hurt it. I can understand their frustration.
“I also think I have come across with some of the comments I have made that everybody is out to get me, but I know that’s not true. There have been a lot of people in my same position. Peyton Manning is as young as I am and he handled things a lot better.”
Leaf’s litany of embarrassing public miscues, while none being criminal, has been compounded by an apparent inclination to lie when cornered by accountability.
Missing local workouts, he told the media he had been working out with his Orange County trainer, who told reporters he had not seen Leaf in a year. Confronted, Leaf amended his remarks and, without blinking, suggested what he meant to say was he had been using the trainer’s program.
It’s all clear in his head, but too often emerges as a lot of mumbo- jumbo.
“There are tons of stories out there about me and all very believable because of some of the things I have done,” he says.
The San Diego Union-Tribune reported recently that Leaf had a run-in with a waiter at the Del Mar Turf Club. The waiter, as the story goes, advised Leaf that he had to put on his sports jacket if he was going to remain in the club, prompting Leaf to say, “Do you know who I am?”
Leaf shakes his head. “I’ve never been to Del Mar,” he says, and just one creditable phone call to 1-800-LATIMES from someone in the public who has seen Leaf at Del Mar, and the rest of this story can be thrown away.
He apologizes now--almost a year later--for yelling at a reporter in the Charger locker room, and then over the next three days solidifying his reputation as a spoiled baby.
“Take that week and show it at the rookie symposium and you have a great example of everything you’re not supposed to do,” he says.
Before reporting to his first training camp, he hung around Kerry Collins, a quarterback with an admitted drinking problem, who has just about hit bottom, dropping from starter in Carolina to backup with the New York Giants.
“I know there is a perception out there that I have [a drinking problem],” Leaf says. “But it’s absurd. No, I didn’t conduct myself in the proper way [with Kerry], but you can say from early on to the day I met my fiancee I was not professional and acting poorly. But that’s changed.”
The list of public blunders continues, however, and instead of throwing himself at the mercy of the court, the excuses creep up again, the spots on the leopard still there.
It was his little brother, he says, who yelled at students outside a bar in Pullman, Wash., “I can buy all your fathers.” It was his friend who created a disturbance in a convenience store resulting in Leaf being asked to leave, a former college roommate who poured beer over the head of a bar patron, although Sports Illustrated reported it was Leaf.
“My roommate has called Sports Illustrated to tell the magazine it was him and they won’t take his call,” Leaf says.
He hasn’t burned $100 bills, as has been reported on the radio. He threw 100 balls every other day rather than every day as he had said earlier before injuring his shoulder, and said it was three friends staying on his credit card who trashed a Montana hotel room.
This makes him the most misunderstood, picked-on football player in American history, or someone so convinced he can never be wrong that hooking him up to a lie-detector wouldn’t slow him down for a second.
Separate each and every incident and the explanations are both plausible and believable. Add them all up, do some homework, and there is a pattern that threatens the credibility of anything he says about most anything.
He was fined $10,000 for wearing the shirt of his sponsor on the sideline rather than that designated by the NFL. He said he had been in a quandary because of his endorsement obligations, and no one in authority had told him differently, although admitting the equipment manager had made it clear what he should do.
Said Beathard later, “If he says that, he’s a liar.”
He likes to say there has been “miscommunication,” using that line several times in the past rather than just pleading guilty. He cannot stand tall on his own, and to date it may be more damaging to his image than any misguided pass he has thrown.
For some reason, there also seem to be accomplices to every caper. As an example, he admits to sleeping in a team meeting and being chastised by former Charger coach June Jones, but he cannot help himself, continuing, “other players fall asleep and they don’t . . . “
Stop. There will be no resurrection, no joining the players’ fraternity or ever becoming the people’s choice until he can eliminate the word “but” in every so-called apology, explanation and defense of his actions.
“There’s still an attitude adjustment that needs to be made,” he says. “But I’m a lot different than I was a year ago.”
Not all that much. In the past week, Coach Mike Riley and Beathard have walked past him, saying “hello,” and neither one of them received a reply. Ryan Leaf, in need of every friend he can find, should be more approachable than anyone else.
“Let’s begin with my teammates,” he says. “That’s the kind of thing that gets me down because I’ve let them down. They are frustrated because a guy was brought in to do the job and he’s not doing well. And he’s not handling things well, and that frustrates them more and makes their comments more potent because they feel like he’s hurt us. I totally understand that.”
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There is still a gnawing reluctance to accept the idea that almost overnight he suddenly gets it. Today’s righteous words, in fact, are in conflict with yesterday’s.
” . . . there’s a lot of people that don’t make comments in the newspaper that support me,” Leaf says in the San Diego Union-Tribune, the newspaper now laid in front of him to remind him of his own misguided words. “The few who do say something [negative] aren’t the majority.”
The record needs to be set straight. Go anywhere in this football country, and mention Ryan Leaf’s name and there is almost universal condemnation: He’s a bust; he’s immature; someone ought to kick his butt.
“No one has ever talked to me like that. Maybe I come off as being intimidating, but people are supportive and say good things to my face.”
Where were his parents, and what were they saying? His agent, his bosses? Why hasn’t anyone grabbed him by the scruff of his neck and advised him to get his act together?
“Everyone pretty much sugarcoats things,” he says, and it has been the suspicion of many for some time that Leaf has never been accountable for anything, but rather treated like the star athlete he has been much of his life.
For every six letters to the editor condemning him for his juvenile behavior, there are three more excusing him because of his age or blaming his missteps on others. Today’s athlete.
Walking onto the field at Qualcomm Stadium on Friday night before the Chargers’ exhibition game with the Chiefs, a trio of fans shouted to him, “Hang in there, Ryan, don’t let the media get you down.”
There you go, Leaf says, “You’re saying these people are in the minority?”
Hard to believe, he’s told, but the only three fans in San Diego still behind Ryan Leaf have gathered in one place at the same time.
Leaf laughs, and it is a revelation.
“No one knows my personality,” he says. “I haven’t let them. The only thing they see is me on the news, one bad thing after another.”
And still he can laugh, and as a sign of sincerity, he is wearing his cap forward rather than his trademark bad boy backward after it’s suggested that he might want to blend in with everyone else until he throws more touchdowns in a season than interceptions.
“I can do that,” he says.
It will not be as easy to turn around his reputation. He could have owned this city, a 10-year promissory note of ultimate success, but in the shortest time imaginable he has placed himself on the brink of emblazoning his name in sports lore as one of football’s all-time busts.
“Humility. I read it from a book my father gave me and I say it every day to myself. Humility doesn’t make you think less of yourself, it just makes you think of yourself less.”
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Off to a Bad Start
Ryan Leaf, the second player selected in the 1998 NFL draft behind Peyton Manning of the Indianapolis Colts, did not have a good rookie season with the San Diego Chargers:
Games started: 9
Record as starter: 3-6
Pass attempts: 245
Completion percentage: .453
Quarterback rating: 39.0