From Failure to Future: The Ryan Leaf Story on Addiction Recovery

Quarterback Ryan Leaf was the second pick in the 1998 NFL draft, behind Peyton Manning. After a successful career at Washington State, Leaf entered the rough and tumble professional football world under the spotlight of millions of fans. It did not go as he planned. Under the enormous pressure to live up to his own expectations, Leaf failed. And addiction followed. Here is Ryan Leaf’s story.

Leaf told his story recently at the 2018  National Association of Behavioral Health conference. The spiral is familiar to those of us who treat mentally ill and addicted patients. Take one phenomenal child athlete whose talent convinces adults and peers to overlook and excuse bad behavior then launch him into a collegiate and professional sports career he is not mentally resilient enough to handle. Provide him some public humiliation and failure, along with easy access to prescription pain medication. While Leaf “never met a drug dealer until I went to prison,” he was prescribed Vicodin after orthopedic surgeries and found it easy to convince physicians of chronic pain issues well after his football career had imploded. He became “emotionally addicted” to the opiates that let him quiet the haters and ignore the sports pundits listing him as one of the “worst draft busts of all time.”

It is not surprising that he attempted suicide, was arrested for possession of Vicodin without a prescription and burglary, and imprisoned. But, Ryan Leaf’s story did not end there.

There was no drug treatment or mental health treatment in prison, and Ryan kept to himself and stayed depressed and withdrawn. Near the end of his sentence, something changed. His roommate, himself an Iraqi war veteran, “dragged” Leaf to the library to help other inmates learn to read.

“It was the first time I was in service to anyone,” Leaf said.

After he was released, he did seek drug treatment, with a grant from the NFL. He then began a new career as a driver for Transcend Recovery Community, a sober living community of nine homes throughout Los Angeles, New York and Houston. He realized that many people want treatment, but can’t afford it, so he started his own foundation, Focused Intensity. Through partnerships with leading treatment centers across the US, donations to the foundation go directly to scholarships for applicants willing to take an active role in their own recovery.

So, what lessons can healthcare providers learn from Leaf’s story?

One, we need mental health and addiction treatment in our prisons. Recently, the American Correctional Association (ACA) and American Society of Addiction Medicine (ASAM) teamed up to recommend that we support “correctional policy makers and correctional healthcare professionals in providing evidence-based care to those in their custody or under their supervision who have an opioid use disorder.”

“We know that release from jail and prison is associated with a dramatic increase in death from opioid overdose among those with untreated opioid use disorder, and providing treatment access during incarceration and warm handoffs to community-based care upon release can help save lives,” said Dr. Kelly Clark, ASAM president.

TelePsychiatry seems a natural fit for delivering mental health and addiction treatment in prisons. “Telemedicine is perfectly designed for prisons,” said Marc Stern, a former assistant secretary for health services for the Washington State Department of Corrections who now consults with corrections systems on telemedicine. The physicians are safe from potentially violent patients and the prison saves money, resources and time that would potentially be spent on transport. Most importantly, the inmates get treatment that may limit their drug-seeking criminal behavior when they are released, as well as lower their recidivism rate.

Two, we need to fund more independent research on preventing addiction and finding alternatives to opiates to treat pain. The National Institutes of Health (NIH) has just launched the HEAL Initiative, which doubles funding to accelerate scientific solutions to stem the national opioid epidemic. The two-pronged program will increase research in both preventing addiction through enhanced pain management, and improving treatment for opioid misuse disorder and addiction.

In The Role of Science in Addressing the Opioid Crisis, an article in the July 27, 2017 issue of the New England Journal Of Medicine, authors Nora D. Volkow, M.D., and Francis S. Collins, M.D., Ph.D. discussed the landscape of scientific research on the topic. Their graph, Scientific Strategies for Combating the Opioid Epidemic is an illuminating look at current research:

Graph of current opioid research


And finally, we need to create a culture of empathy for those struggling with mental health and substance abuse issues. We can destigmatize mental illness by showcasing stories like Leaf’s (please share this blog) and by encouraging people to seek help. Audience members cringed at the video that introduced Leaf at the conference, with sports journalists denouncing Leaf as “a failure”, “washed-up”, and a “huge disappointment”. While health professionals see the patient behind the disease or addiction, we need to educate others in our schools, workplaces and worship houses to do the same.

Ryan Leaf, by his own admission, will always be an addict. But, he blames no one else for his problems, saying it was an “inside job.” He closed his story with an appeal to anyone struggling with mental health or addiction problems to seek treatment. Leaf said that the reason he continues to tell his story is to reach others, even when it isn’t easy to relive it with every speaking engagement.

If you are interested in understanding how SOC Telemed can help your hospital, nursing home, prison or other facility use telePsychiatry to treat vulnerable populations, please contact us.


Please note: The National Association of Behavioral Health is the new name of the National Association of Psychiatric Health Systems (NAPHS).