Ryan Leaf is an advocate for those struggling with mental and behavioral health issues and encourages audiences to transform the way we think about mental health issues and addiction. Ryan works to destigmatize mental and behavioral health illnesses and says, “asking for help is a sign of strength, not weakness”. The strong presence Ryan holds in a room is not just due to his 6-foot-6 frame, but the impassioned commitment he has made to serve those who are struggling. Before working with Transcend Recovery Community he was one of the most promising collegiate football players of his time, and rivaled Peyton Manning for the Heisman trophy. During the 1998 NFL draft, Ryan and Peyton Manning were considered the top contenders. Ryan was ultimately selected second by the San Diego Chargers as their franchise quarterback. As Program Ambassador for Transcend Recovery Community, Leaf shares his life’s narrative as a former football star who had a tumultuous and public struggle with drug addiction, but has now gained a life of purpose and peace through recovery. Ryan travels across the United States speaking to communities about his story of recovery – how he reconciled the failures of his past to develop into the person he is proud to be today. Ryan’s mission is clear and unwavering. He works every day to transform a publicly flawed past into an opportunity to inspire positive change in those around him. Ryan’s story captures the transparency and authenticity that Transcend Recovery Community is founded upon.
Growing up in Great Falls, Montana, Ryan describes his upbringing by middle-class parents as idealistic, loving, and supportive. With his athletic build and natural talent, the pressure to become a successful athlete began to build at a young age. Ryan worked hard to meet the expectations of his family and community. After leading Charles M. Russell High School to a 1992 Montana state title, and then as a college football star, leading the Washington State Cougars to the 1998 Rose Bowl, Leaf was destined for football stardom. By all reason, the combination of his athletic talent, and the unbridled encouragement from his family, should have resulted in a smooth and secure ascent to success. During his professional career, he played with the San Diego Chargers, Tampa Bay Buccaneers, Dallas Cowboys, and the Seattle Seahawks. Life doesn’t always follow expectation though. The pressure to perform on such an elite level was more than he was prepared to deal with and Ryan’s performance on the field suffered greatly. His inability to cope healthily with the stresses of the NFL, and as he puts it, “live life on life’s terms,” lead to the eventual demise of his professional football career.
The disappointment of his football career weighed heavily on him both emotionally and mentally. 10 months after his official retirement from the NFL in 2003, Ryan began to abuse prescription opiates. Ryan found solace in the emotional escape that substances provided from his pain. Though he was in the beginning stages of his addiction at this time, Ryan resumed classes at Washington State University and earned a Bachelor of Arts in Humanities in 2005. He then traveled through Europe for three months and soon took a coaching job with the West Texas A&M football team in 2006. To the unknowing outsider, Ryan seemed to be moving on from his previous life as an NFL football player. Below the surface though, he was struggling greatly. Unresolved insecurities and profound emotional turmoil instigated Ryan’s substance abuse. Without the knowhow to cope with his issues in a healthy way, substances provided a temporary reprise. In 2008 he was given a prescription to Vicodin for a previous football injury and within 7 months, he began soliciting pain medication from West Texas A&M football players. He was eventually caught stealing from the home of one of his players in order to feed his addiction to pills, and lost his coaching job thereafter. His personal problems began to mount and Ryan was given the opportunity to seek help.
In November of 2008 he moved to Vancouver, British Columbia to treat his substance abuse, and for the first time, Ryan felt like he fit in. He developed a strong and supportive sober community in Vancouver and was doing well in his recovery. His life was stable. However, in May 2009, Leaf was indicted on burglary and controlled-substance charges in Texas for crimes he has committed prior to entering treatment. He was required to leave the network of support he had built in Vancouver and return home. The tools he had learned in recovery allowed him to deal with his legal troubles sober though. He left the network of support he had built in Vancouver, returned home and dealt with it sober. Unable to return to Vancouver, Ryan went home to Montana. Ryan was not able to build a strong recovery community in rural Montana and eventually relapsed on prescription drugs in 2010. He entered drug treatment again in January of 2011 in Montana and with the added support of Vivatrol injections, got sober again. In May of 2011, two months after leaving treatment, doctors found a mass in Ryan’s brain. It took a 14-hour surgery, which Ryan went through without pain medication, for doctors to remove the tumor. Though he was sober, Ryan still had not built a strong recovery community – something that is crucial for long term sobriety. Ryan found a friends bottle of prescription Hydrocodone towards the end of July 2011. He relapsed, and by 2012 he was breaking into people’s homes to feed his addiction, had lost faith in himself and his future, and even contemplated suicide to end the profound hopelessness he felt. His battles with depression and addiction eventually lead to a thirty-two-month stint in prison in 2012.
When Ryan first entered prison, he had no motivation or desire to build himself into a better person. That changed when he was given a roommate who unintentionally killed someone in a car accident while he was under the influence. This man urged Ryan to use his prison time as an opportunity to accomplish something of greater importance; to get honest with himself, self-reflect, and discover what is truly meaningful. Ryan took the advice of his roommate and started to work on himself. He then began helping other inmates learn to read, and eventually, his time in prison became a turning point in his life. He describes it as a time of spiritual growth and humility, and admits, “I had to be humbled to that point of being on a jailhouse floor in a suicide scrub outfit.” Ryan left prison a renewed man with a more developed sense of self, and moreover, a deeper understanding of humility. Though he left prison with thirty-two months of sobriety under his belt, he sought inpatient treatment ninety days after returning home to Montana. He still had work to do in building a solid foundation for recovery. His first job thereafter was as a driver for Transcend making $15/hour. The once multi-million dollar NFL football pro was now driving residents to meetings and appointments. Though this position did not use his athletic skills or college degree, he was aiding others in their recovery journey and he found purpose in it. He was finally accountable to someone other than himself, and the benefit to others his services provided extended into own health, happiness, and well-being as well.
Today, Ryan Leaf is a voice for the recovery community. His mission is to reach anyone in need of hope. At one time Ryan felt completely consumed by his mental health issues and the only way to pacify his pain was with drugs. Out of that desolation, he hopes to inspire others to begin their road to recovery. To see that happiness and health can always be achieved or regained no matter how far away one may feel from it. He devotes his time to helping others who are struggling with addiction and is a vital part of Transcend Recovery Community. He’s giving back to his community and facilitating sobriety in others. Reaching out to those who are struggling helps Ryan stay humble and gives his life true meaning. He often uses this analogy, “as a lighthouse serves to guide ships to safety, my mission is to use my voice to remind those who are struggling that hope always exists, and that with guidance, we can always find our way back to the life we desire.” He chooses to share his story dealing with mental health issues and substance abuse over and over again in order to reach the person who cannot yet imagine a better life for themselves. Ryan’s wish is to be an example that a better life is always possible.
Today, Ryan measures happiness and success by the positive effect he has on the world around him. He chooses to value humility over pride, and willingly calls upon his recovery community for support. Ryan is someone who acknowledges his mistakes, but focuses on the lessons he has learned in them. The work he has done in his own recovery has gifted him a life worth living. He enjoys spending time with his partner Anna, movies, golf, fishing, and taking hikes with his miniature dachshund Oscar. Ryan Leaf’s closing message remains clear, that he’s always willing to lend a hand when it appears like someone could use his help.