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Infamous NFL Bust Ryan Leaf Hired by ESPN

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The 1998 NFL Draft is remembered for the Indianapolis Colts selecting future Hall of Famer Peyton Manning with the No. 1 pick. It was also remembered for being the draft where the San Diego Chargers took one of the biggest busts in NFL history with the No. 2 pick, Ryan Leaf.

Leaf’s rise at Washington State and meteoric fall in the NFL — and beyond — has been well-chronicled, including by Leaf himself in a 2017 article in The Players’ Tribune. But his story took a positive turn Sunday when ESPN hired Leaf to be a college football game analyst. Leaf will be paired with play-by-play announcer Clay Matvick, calling games mostly on ESPN2 and ESPNU, the Associated Press reported.

When Leaf learned that he had been hired about a month ago, he was overwhelmed.

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“I had to pull off the side of the road. I was really emotional,” Leaf told Ralph Russo at the AP. “Five years ago sitting in a prison cell, I would have never imagined that I was going to be part of ESPN and the Disney Corporation. If you would have told me that I would have said you are absolutely crazy. And I can’t believe it. I lay my head down every night with a ton of gratitude.”

Leaf was an All-American at Washington State and finished third in the Heisman Trophy balloting behind Michigan’s Charles Woodson and Tennessee’s Manning. There were many pundits who thought Leaf would be better than Manning and thought the Colts should pick him.

Leaf, of course, only played four uneventful seasons in the NFL — three with the Chargers and one with the Cowboys — before retiring. In a riveting account called “Letter to My Younger Self” that Leaf penned for The Tribune in 2017, he detailed his struggles in the NFL.

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“You’ll miss the 1999 season with a shoulder injury. The following year, you’ll be named the starter again. But after two games, you’ll get benched, and you’ll basically turn into a petulant child, arguing with the head coach and ignoring veteran teammates who will try to help you.” Leaf wrote.

“Junior Seau and Rodney Harrison will try to take you under their wings and teach you how to be a professional, but your ego won’t allow it. Like I said, you think you have all the answers, so you won’t think you need their help.”

But his problems were just beginning. He got hooked on painkillers, which led to what he described as the worst day of his life — April 1, 2012.

“You’ll wake up that morning at your house in Great Falls, Montana, with no painkillers. You’ll be on probation, out on bail after having been arrested two days earlier for breaking into a friend’s house and stealing pills. You’ll be back in the national news. All the negativity will come rushing back into your life. Everybody will be talking again about how you were a failure as an NFL quarterback. Now, they’ll also be talking about how you’re a failure as a criminal,” Leaf wrote in the Players Tribune.

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“And a failure at life.”

Leaf was arrested in 2012 and spent 32 months in jail for burglary, possession of a dangerous drug and theft. Leaf, now 43, had no choice at that point but to get clean and sober. He left jail a changed man and worked on getting his life together.

“I had a broadcast journalism degree from the Murrow School at Washington State, so I had the ability to do it. Or at least the know-how. I just didn’t know what I was going to do,” Leaf told the AP.  He credited broadcasters Joel Klatt, Brady Quinn, Jay Glazer and Kirk Herbstreit for helping him in the industry.

“I realized two things: I really wanted to do it and I really felt like I could do a good job at it,” Leaf said.

He got a job last year broadcasting games on the Pac-12 Network and co-hosting a show on SiriusXM’s Pac-12 Channel. That led to his new gig at ESPN.

“Ryan has experienced the highs and lows in the game of football, putting him in a position to relate to a wide range of situations players can find themselves in,” Lee Fitting, ESPN’s vice president of production, told the AP. “He will be able to rely on those experiences — including an unbelievable college career where he was an All-American and Heisman Trophy finalist — in his analysis, making him a tremendous asset for our team.”

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Dave is a lifelong sports fan who has been writing for The Wildcard since 2017. He has been a writer for more than 20 years for a variety of publications.
Dave has been writing about sports for The Wildcard since 2017. He's been a reporter and editor for over 20 years, covering everything from sports to financial news. In addition to writing for The Wildcard, Dave has covered mutual funds for Pensions and Investments, meetings and conventions, money market funds, personal finance, associations, and he currently covers financial regulations and the energy sector for Macallan Communications. He has won awards for both news and sports reporting.
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