Their careers were on parallel planes. Peyton Manning and Ryan Leaf were possibly the best one-two quarterback punch ever to come out of college football.
Leaf was so perfect, he could have been created in a laboratory. He was tall, 6 feet 5, and strong, and could burn a hole through the Great Wall of China with his taut spiral.
Leaf’s arm compared favorably with Manning’s. In fact, his passes were prettier. There was a wobble to Manning’s throws. They always seemed to find their receivers, but if a judge were awarding style points, Leaf’s ball would win every time.
Chosen second, behind Manning, in the 1998 NFL draft, the world belonged to Leaf every bit as much as it did Manning. But Manning succeeded and Leaf failed. Manning still is having one of the most prolific careers in NFL history. He’s still at the top of the game.
Leaf arguably is the most colossal bust in his sport’s history. And now he’s at the bottom of his world.
Some people will think this is a result of Leaf’s bad karma. At Washington State and in the NFL, he treated most people the same way — poorly. He was a jerk to many of his fellow WSU students. He had disdain for the sports writers who covered him and he wasn’t a particularly good teammate in the NFL.
Manning will be remembered for his Super Bowl ring, his playoff appearances and his multiple trips to the Pro Bowl. Leaf’s NFL career will be remembered for one volcanic locker-room eruption.
While Manning is known for his easygoing grace and his pitch-perfect comedic timing, Leaf is known for that one temper tantrum that still is occasionally played on SportsCenter.
Manning is a star. Leaf is a cautionary tale. Manning is looking forward to another trip to the Super Bowl. Leaf is facing burglary and drug charges in Randall County, Texas.
Manning is grounded. Leaf has been ground up.
What happened to Ryan Leaf?
The easy answer? He left the womb-like comfort of Washington State and collapsed under the pressure of great expectations. He went to San Diego and thought he could take the easy route to stardom. He never put in the time, or did the heavy lifting it took to get great.
And when the San Diego Chargers’ fans unleashed their fury on him, he never knew what hit him.
Leaf played at San Diego, Tampa Bay and Dallas. He was undistinguished at all stops. He never fit in. He knew what people were saying about him. And he never found a way to deal with that disappointment.
In 2006, five years after he left the game, it appeared Leaf had found the ideal place and the ideal job, becoming an assistant football coach at tiny West Texas A&M, about as far from the spotlight as an All-American can get. He also was the golf coach.
But apparently he couldn’t hide from his real problem.
Leaf left West Texas A&M last November, after being investigated for drug crimes.
At 33, he should be preparing for another NFL season. Instead he’s preparing for court. This should be the prime of his life.
Ryan Leaf never was an easy guy to like. But knowing what we know now, all we can do is root for him, this one last time. Hope he stays clean. And hope he can find the kind of peace and fulfillment off the field that Peyton Manning has found in and out of the game.