Time to Reframe the Narrative of Ryan Leaf
Every football fan has heard of Ryan Leaf. Not always in the best of ways either. In fact, many consider him to be the single greatest Draft Bust in NFL history. But the one-time Heisman finalist is more than a failure on the biggest field in sports. Much more.
Oh, it didn’t come easy. Not by a long shot. Before there was more there were jails and prisons and rehabs — and of course enough opioids to bring down a former all-star NFL prospect. But there’s also been a drive to do what’s good and true and right, for himself, for those in his orbit, and beyond. It’s the same kind of drive that made Leaf such a success at Washington State. And it’s the same kind of drive that’s making him an utter inspiration now.
A Star is Torn
The Ryan Leaf story has everything you’d expect in a classic tragedy. It’s “centered on human suffering for the purpose of evoking feelings of pity or fear,” just as Aristotle ordered. (And just as Actively Learn so actively explained.) It’s also centered around a hero who possesses all the characteristic traits prized by the Ancient Greeks.
Here’s how Actively Learn breaks it all down:
1. Noble Birth
Most tragic heroes come from a place of elevated status in society; this ensures that tragic heroes experiences an even more dramatic “fall from grace” than the common man.
Leaf might not originally “come from a place of elevated status”, but he most certainly entered the NFL from a rather lofty perch. After all, Leaf was the second pick in the First Round of the 1998 NFL Draft, just behind Peyton Manning. And that definitely ensured “an even more dramatic ‘fall from grace’ than the common man.”
2. Excessive Pride / Hubris
Despite being warned over the course of the tragedy, tragic heroes are too proud (and too stubborn) to heed the advice of those warning them.
The AP’s Rob Maadi says Leaf didn’t start accepting advice from others until he was locked up in a Montana prison. And even that took some doing.
“Ryan Leaf spent most of his time in prison alone and angry,” writes Maadi, “until a military veteran persuaded the former No. 2 overall NFL draft pick to stop self-loathing long enough to help fellow inmates learn to read.”
3. Tragic Flaw/ Hamartia
Tragic heroes all have a weakness in character, or a tragic flaw, that cause the character’s fall from grace.
“I was good at two things, athletics and lying. I was always worried about what others were thinking about me or how I was being perceived … soon lying, to make the story more about who I wanted people to think I was, ultimately won out.”
Leaf wrote those words in 596 Switch, the first of a reported three books he’s been contracted to pen since his release from prison. Those words also were cited by Danny O’Neil in the Seattle Times, who used the passage to help propel his keen-eyed look into Leaf’s fall from grace. Leaf may have other fall-contributing flaws of course, but chronic lying will kill grace dead every time.
4. Reversal / Peripeteia
All tragic heroes experience a sharp turning point in their journey as a character. Being noble from birth, this reversal changes the path of the character and shifts him closer and closer to doom.
Leaf’s reversal came about at the hands of the above-mentioned inmate veteran. “He got on me one day about how I didn’t understand the value that I had,” Leaf told Maadi, “not only to the men in there but for when I got out and he confronted me on it.”
5. Self- Realization/ Anagnorisis
Once the climax in the plot has occurred, the tragic hero will experience a realization that he, in fact, has caused the central suffering of the tragedy. Despite this anagnorisis or self-realization, the character is unable to change his tragic fate at this point in the story.
Leaf’s self-realization of course occurred while wearing a prison red jumpsuit, so he was a bit limited in how much he could then change his fate. Nevertheless, the realization that he “was being of service to another human being for the first time in [his] life” did give him “the foundation of who [he was going to have to be when he] got out or nothing was going to change.”
6. Excessive Suffering causing catharsis
The suffering that the tragic hero experiences during the tragedy is extreme and brutal, causing an emotional reaction from audience. Traditionally, it was believed that if an individual were to view a tragedy, the fear and pity that he/she would experience while watching the suffering of the tragic hero would be a way to release personal emotions that were bottled up.
One can easily imagine a sober Ryan Leaf looking upon his days washing out of the NFL, as well as the ensuing tsunami and shuddering from all the suffering he endured. One can also easily imagine all the fear and the pity Leaf would have for the earlier Ryan Leaf. And that, good friend, gives Leaf a perfect showing on the tragic hero index.
Ryan Leaf: A New Narrative
While a flashbacking Ryan Leaf might indeed be able to spare some fear and some pity for the old Ryan Leaf, it might take a minute for the new Ryan Leaf even to recognize his old self. Oh, it’s not that he’s forgotten where he came from. It’s just that he’s come so far as to be almost unrecognizable.
More than a few million members of the general public might also have trouble reconciling the old Ryan Leaf with the new one. Why? Well, after Leaf received that prison reality check, he was blessed with the help of a few influential friends in the NFL Legends Community. Some influential friends Leaf wasn’t even sure he still had.
“I didn’t consider myself a legend. I felt like a failure,” Leaf said, recounting his first interaction with the NFL Legends. “So I was a little hesitant but I went and I walked into the lounge with my wife and immediately I saw three of my former teammates. I saw Donnie Edwards and Chad Pennington, who were both Legends coordinators, and they came right up to me and put their arms around me and made it very clear that I was part of that group.”
When Leaf was invited to speak to quarterbacks at the 2017 NFL Combine he jumped at the chance. When he saw that the group included Patrick Mahomes, Deshaun Watson, Mitchell Trubisky, Nathan Peterman and Davis Webb, he was awed. Leaf liked what he saw. A lot. Then NFL executive Tracy Perlman reached out with an offer to become an NFL Legends Community coordinator and, well, as Maadi so clearly points out, Leaf’s career had come full circle.
What a grateful blessing that turned out to be,” he told Maadi, “because now essentially what I was doing in the recovery world, helping others, I now get to do it at the level that I played. The NFL is really trying to step up by putting this program in place, and I’m really happy to be a part of it.”
“The NFL Legends Community is the epitome of service,” Leaf adds. “This isn’t about promoting you anymore. It’s about promoting something bigger than you. And that’s exactly what that young veteran and prison afforded me when I needed it most.”
Yes, that young veteran, prison, and the NFL Legends Community did do much to help Ryan Leaf. But one other person was also extremely instrumental in this complete turnaround: Ryan Leaf.
Healing Properties believes it’s unfair to keep defining Ryan Leaf by a single parameter. Sure, the NFL Bust is an integral part of Leaf’s narrative. It always will be too. Yet, that narrative needs — heck, deserves — an update. After all, Leaf has more than lived up to the potential people saw in him back at Washington State. And he’s more than lived down (and out-flanked) the demons that followed.
Wouldn’t you agree?
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(Image from the great good folks at ESPN E60 — Watch.)