Leaf has footwork to move from QB to coach
CANYON, Texas -- Ryan Leaf's eyes are bloodshot and his hair is matted after a 17-hour workday.
The new quarterbacks coach at West Texas A&M sets aside his Styrofoam tobacco spit cup and pauses to check the upcoming schedule.
It will be another long day all right, with practice, meetings and plenty of time stuck in his cramped office. Leaf estimates he spends at least 70 hours a week in his new job at this Division II school -- all for no paycheck.
Yes, this hardworking volunteer coach is the same Ryan Leaf who was supposed to take the NFL by storm but instead just stormed around. The same guy who was taken second in the 1998 draft, behind only Peyton Manning, then retired after four seasons best remembered for dreadful play, injuries and clashes with coaches, teammates, reporters and fans.
So, how did he end up here, at a campus much closer to Amarillo than the Rose Bowl or NFL stardom? And what's he doing teaching kids?
"I think the failure in the NFL has humbled me in the fact that I don't think I'm the best," Leaf said. "I think I have some knowledge that can help."
Leaf's unlikely journey to Canyon began in late 2003, when his post-football life had hit rock bottom.
He was unhappy in his 9-to-5 financial consulting job, which threw him into such an unhealthy, inactive rut that he ballooned to about 50 pounds over his playing weight, or "close to three bills." He rarely left his house and, even when he did, didn't feel comfortable in the city where he blundered most.
"The people in San Diego did not move on," said Leaf, who was booed and benched regularly while losing 14 of 18 starts with the Chargers. "They would never say anything to my face. It was always behind my back, or little punches in the paper."
While he was eager for distance from his NFL past, in November 2003 he realized how much he missed college football. He called his former coach at Washington State, Mike Price, and they devised a plan to get him back into the game.
Leaf started by going back to college at WSU and finishing his degree. Price, now the coach at Texas-El Paso, encouraged Leaf to apply at West Texas A&M and recommended that coach Don Carthel give him the job.
"We all know, just as Ryan knows, that he messed up when he was younger," Carthel said. "But in the right environment, Ryan Leaf can use his good qualities and really help somebody achieve some great things. That's the Ryan Leaf that we're all looking for."
The quarterbacks he would coach didn't know what to think when he arrived in February.
"I was wondering who found him and where he was and how they got ahold of him and got him here," backup Keith Null said.
Starter Dalton Bell said "never in a thousand years would I have thought he'd be my quarterbacks coach." Having seen Leaf's infamous meltdowns on television, he thought, "Man, maybe this guy could be a jerk."
"But," Bell said, "he's a really good guy."
And a decent coach, too.
Bell and Null said Leaf immediately improved their fundamental throwing motion and helped with their timing, pocket presence and reading defenses.
It's not like those things were terrible before. West Texas A&M led Division II in passing offense last year by averaging 364 yards and 40 points per game, prompting Baylor to hire away the offensive coordinator and quarterbacks coach. That opened the job Leaf filled.
Bell said Leaf has plenty of patience and advice. He said Leaf told him: "Any time you're feeling down and out, you can come to me because I've probably been there."
Leaf saw the best of football as an often unstoppable quarterback for Washington State in 1997, averaging 331 yards a game and leading the Cougars to their first Rose Bowl since 1931. He finished third in Heisman Trophy balloting, then became part of a debate over whether he or Manning should be drafted No. 1.
Time has proven the Colts made the right choice. The Chargers had an inkling they'd made the wrong one at No. 2 by Leaf's third game, when he was 1-of-15 for 4 yards with three fumbles and two interceptions in a loss at Kansas City.
The next day, Leaf went on an obscenity-laced outburst toward a reporter who had written about an obscenity-laced outburst from Leaf the day before. That videotaped meltdown is still a staple of sports shows.
By the time San Diego cut him after his third season, Leaf's woes included a cursing tirade toward general manager Bobby Beathard, a missed season with a shoulder injury and a confrontation with a heckling fan. He finished his career with Tampa Bay and Dallas, winding up with career totals of 14 touchdowns and 36 interceptions.
"It was the worst five or six years of my life, but I wouldn't be the person I am now without going through it," Leaf said. "I don't feel bad for myself. I don't pout about it.
"It's so over. I don't even think about it at all. Everybody's got some things that have happened bad in their past. Mine was just very public."
Some Web sites continue to joyfully chronicle his fall, and he's a regular on "biggest draft bust" lists. He says it doesn't bother him, although he doesn't consider himself the biggest bust.
"So if you come in the league and you're a backup and never start a game for 15 years, do you have a successful career?" he wondered. "I started. I started in the NFL. But if you didn't play a down, is that successful? I played. I tried."
Trimmed back to 245 pounds, the divorced Leaf, 30, is content in his little office with mostly barren white walls and stained burgundy carpet.
He doesn't even seem to mind his banged-up wooden desk or a goofy setup that forces him to plug his laptop into the opposite wall, leaving a black cord hovering awkwardly over his lap.
"There's no pay and it's work, but I like what I'm doing," he said. "Collegiate football with me was the greatest time in my life, and that's why I'm doing what I'm doing."
And if this coaching thing really takes off, could he one day return to the pros?
"I don't want to coach in the NFL," he said. "I don't want to be anywhere near the NFL."
Copyright 2006 by The Associated Press
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