Twenty-six yards stood between heartbreak and nirvana in the 1998 Rose Bowl, and it was all going to ride on 596 Switch.
Asked if he would have thrown the game-winning TD had those two seconds stayed on the clock, Leaf won’t bite. He's not a brash 21-year old anymore. He chooses his words carefully.
"I don't know if it would have worked -- they had a good defense," Leaf told CF.C in an exclusive, wide-ranging phone interview from his office in British Columbia. "But I would have loved the opportunity. I would have loved the opportunity to have at least tried."
He is wistful when he adds that 596 Switch is a difficult play to defend. It's a five wide receiver-formation, with double corner routes and a post.
Chris Jackson and Nian Taylor had 8-yard smash routes on the outsides, while Shawn Tims had the corner route on the left side. Kevin McKenzie would run a post over the middle, and Shawn McWashington would take the corner route on the right side.
It's nice to play what-if. But Leaf, tempered by years of public battering since that day, is all about reality.
The Cougs shouldn't have been in the situation in the first place, he says, pointing the finger at himself for Heisman Trophy winner Charles Woodson's first-half interception in the Michigan end zone. That snuffed a Cougar drive that had the crimson faithful drooling at the notion of a 14-0 halftime lead. There were other miscues as well, such as not getting out of bounds on the final drive hook-and-ladder.
Still, he says, "We felt like we gave everything we could so it was hard for us not to have felt cheated in a way -- that we didn't have that final opportunity to win that game for everyone associated with Washington State. To win it for all of the Cougars would have been that much more special."
Leaf finished third in Heisman Trophy voting in 1997 and was named Pac-10 Offensive Player of the Year after passing for a conference record 33 TDs and 3,968 yards.
TODAY, LEAF IS FAR removed from the football spotlight. But he's back in the Pacific Northwest and reconnecting with his Cougar roots. For a long time, he said, he tried to keep an arm's length from the Cougar Nation because, "I felt like I let everyone down with my pro career."
In retrospect, that distancing was a mistake, he said. He's come to realize that the Washington State family is an embracing one -- particularly in troubled times. "Cougar alums and fans are so nice to me -- I can't think of one time where a Cougar was anything other than positive with me."
That's not something you run from. It's something you run to. And Leaf is doing his best to make up for lost time.
He made several pilgrimages to Pullman for various games and events in the past year. On Feb. 12 he'll be one of the featured guests at the King County Cougar Club's annual football dinner. From June 26-30 he's hosting a "Cougar Legends Fishing Adventure." Thirty spots in this derby-style quest for trophy-sized King salmon are set aside for WSU fans.
As the business development manager of Vancouver-based West Coast Resorts, Leaf is bringing together a Who's Who of WSU quarterbacking luminaries for four days of fishing. West Coast Resorts specializes in corporate retreats and guy's weekend events structured around five high-end fishing lodges in the most pristine parts of British Columbia.
Leaf, Jason Gesser, Jack Thompson and Mark Rypien will be there for sure. He's hoping Drew Bledsoe's schedule will allow him to attend as well, and possibly Alex Brink and Leaf's cousin, Matt Kegel.
"I'd like to make it an annual get together -- a really fun outdoors event and some great, great fishing -- that brings together alums and former players," said Leaf.
If you're interested in joining them, contact westcoastresorts.com.
CF.C TALKED WITH LEAF at length. He comes across as completely accessible and at times laugh-out-loud funny -- it’s a picture wholly different than the media caricature so often depicted of him. Leaf graciously answered every question, plus some that weren’t posed. He talked about things that happened more than a decade ago, and that he's explained hundreds of times before. And whether the question was a tough one or a pleasant memory, he was forthcoming and matter-of-fact.
Ryan Leaf shows off some of what awaits in June for the Cougar Legends Fishing Adventure.
One of his biggest regrets, he says, was leaving WSU when he had another year of eligibility remaining.
"I would have definitely done things differently. I would have stayed that last year. I was too young to go to the NFL. I may have been 21-years-old but my maturity level was too young. I would have listened more to the people who unconditionally loved me. I got myself with a group of people who were ‘yes people’ and weren't going to tell Ryan no. And that's what I needed," said Leaf, now 33.
IT'S SURPRISING IN A sense that Leaf even does interviews anymore. He's been burned time and time again over the years by reporters across the land. Leaf says there have been times he's spent two hours in an interview, putting real perspective on issues that were twisted beyond recognition, yet the subsequent story would contain almost none of the conversation.
When a reporter calls, Leaf said he first wonders why, because he's been out of football for eight years. His second thought is to be defensive and apprehensive.
"I'm working on that, though, it's definitely something I'm working on. But I still see it rear its ugly head sometimes. I haven't been perfect in my life but what's portrayed in the media is so misrepresented. I don't even recognize the person I'm reading about. What keeps getting put out there is a caricature from 12 years ago. But there were (also) reasons I didn't succeed back then -- because of my old behavior and attitude," said Leaf.
Much of that was borne out of a fear of failure.
"I had never failed at anything, and I didn't ask for help... Even at Washington State, I must have been so hard to handle at times, the way I sometimes treated people, how I wanted things my way... but I don't think people understand that you grow up," said Leaf.
Leaf says his focus is about looking forward and not back. And Washington State, he says, is a big part of his future.
"I want people to have an understanding about how much I care about that school," says Leaf. "I want them to know how much I care about those people and how much they've meant to me."
After a pause, his voice drops slightly, and he opens up some of that ancient history.
"And I want them to know how disappointed and embarrassed I felt after retiring," said Leaf.
LEAF LEFT THE NFL in 2002. He returned to Pullman a couple years later and completed his degree in 2005. But even while there in Pullman, he kept a distance from Cougar football.
"For the longest time since I retired from the NFL, I stayed away because I was so humiliated and embarrassed. I just felt like I let everyone associated with Washington State down by not being successful, for having not portrayed myself in a better light. I was so damned immature. It was a costly deal to have to go through. But going through it was something that had to be done on my part. But that's why I was never around," said Leaf.
It's important to note here why his NFL career ended: A wrist injury called scapholunate dissociation. It was originally misdiagnosed, which set him back even further. But the worst part? He was cleared to return too early.
Leaf was the No. 2 overall draft pick in 1998. He spent three injury-plagued seasons in San Diego and then one in Dallas. In all, he appeared in 25 NFL games, starting 21, and throwing for 3,666 yards.
Indeed, the shock absorbed off the very first snap he took after he returned to the practice field exacerbated the injury and signaled the beginning of the end.
Still, Leaf continued to try and play for years after, but the damage to his wrist was done. All that remained was for Leaf to accept it.
"I probably could have been a perennial backup forever. But I didn't know how to do that. I know people dream of being in the NFL but my dream was to be a starter and star in the NFL. And I could not compete and play the way I used to after the injury to my wrist. It took me a couple years to figure that out. At that minicamp in Seattle, I finally realized I was always going to be competing for the third and second spot from now on. That bothered me, I couldn't come to terms with that. For me, the best thing was then to walk away from it," said Leaf.
LEAF HAS FOUND A LARGE measure of satisfaction, success and peace in Canada, he says. He works with good people, and he truly enjoys his job. Following the much-publicized legal woes last year in Texas, where he was an assistant football coach and golf coach at West Texas A & M, his brother Brady suggested he apply with West Coast Resorts.
"This was right after I left my rehab facility in Vancouver, and it was an opportunity right here in Vancouver. You start living right and good things happen. I sent along my resume and before I knew it I was interviewing and accepting the job. It's a neat job, I work with a great group of people and it's in the Pacific Northwest – and that's allowed me to get back into Cougar activities, which is amazing," said Leaf.
Leaf says the legal situation in Texas, which stemmed from his addiction to Vicodin for the long-ailing wrist injury, is nearly resolved and will be permanently behind him shortly. Despite that, Leaf calls 2009 "a great year." One of the biggest reasons why? No more reliance on Vicodin, for sure. But perhaps even more so is the reconnecting with Washington State and fellow Cougs. He attended three WSU games this past year. It was his first time back in Pullman since ’05.
"The hardest thing in the world is to ask for help, especially to someone who thinks he can do anything. It's a shame that's how it had to come about but it also put me where I'm at today, and I have the best relationship with my family that I've ever had. I'm getting back into a relationship with my fellow Cougars, and it’s amazing. So I'm thankful for that," said Leaf.
It's also worth mentioning what Leaf accomplished as the quarterbacks coach during his three years at West Texas A & M.
Both starting quarterbacks he mentored led the nation in passing. One, Dalton Bell now plays professionally for Sasketchewan in the CFL. The other, Keith Null, started the final four games for the St. Louis Rams this season.
Keep in mind this is little ol' Division II West Texas A & M we're talking about here.
THIS PAST FALL IN PULLMAN, Leaf for the first time met a recipient of the scholarship he endowed at WSU 12 years ago. That's something else that you almost never see reported about Ryan Leaf -- Leaf established the Andrew Rypien Memorial Football Scholarship back in 1998. It's named after Mark Rypien's little boy who died from cancer.
In the 1997 Apple Cup, Leaf passed up a storm to secure WSU its first Rose Bowl berth in 67 years.
Every year since, a Cougar student-athlete has been awarded his scholarship because of Leaf. This year it was Terrance Hayward.
"Amazing young man and a great story," says Leaf of the Cougar defensive back. "Mark (Rypien) was very helpful to me when I was getting into the NFL and the loss of Andrew was something that touched me. I thought it was something that could live on and on there, and it has. That's something I can be proud of forever."
At the Seattle and Homecoming games this past season, Leaf said he finally understood that any trepidation he might have felt about how he would be received by the Cougar Nation was misplaced.
"You never know how much you affected these people because you were in it. But the way they tell the stories, with so much passion, that's awfully special. I've realized that me being tentative was absolute BS. These people are so supportive, they want me to be happy. I walked through the tailgating during homecoming this year and I had never done that. The support I felt was unbelievable, and everybody has their stories from my years there. And it pleases me to no end to hear them," said Leaf.
AT TIMES, LEAF says, there aren't enough words.
"It's hard to express how much their support means to me,” said Leaf. “And if it never got expressed from me the way it needed to, I apologize. They need to know that. I am so proud to be a Cougar. Washington State is a very special school. When people talk about the family atmosphere of WSU, I'm here to tell you it's real and it's unique.
“And I want them to be proud that I am a Cougar. I always worried that they weren't but I've found that's not true...I was nervous about going back there last year and meeting all the people. But it's been nothing but the greatest," said Leaf.
Bonus reading on CF.C:
Recruiting: How Ryan Leaf came to Pullman
Leaf picks the most unsung players and favorite WSU memories
Storytelling: Two Cougar tales from the 1998 Rose Bowl
2010 Cougars: Leaf's take