Excerpt from Ryan Leaf’s new book
WHY IS THIS ALL HAPPENING?
I knew it was a bad idea and my clammy palms were telling me as much.
It was February of 2010, and a typical winter night of cold and
drizzle in Seattle. As I walked into the Westin for the annual dinner
celebrating Washington State?s newest class of recruits, I really,
truly had an urge to turn around and go home. I hadn?t been to a WSU
event like this in over a decade. The public meltdown of my pro career
left me embarrassed to be around Cougars because I felt I had let them
down. To make matters worse, my addiction to prescription painkillers,
when I was coaching at West Texas A&M, had been all over the news in
the last year.
?Cougs are a very forgiving bunch,? Jack Thompson, the legendary WSU
quarterback, told me. He was one of the people who convinced me to
come to the dinner. Jack is someone I admire immensely. He?s smart,
caring, a great family man, and probably the best goodwill ambassador
WSU has ever had. When Jack talks, I listen. But now that the day for
the dinner had arrived, I was wishing I hadn?t. What would people
think when they saw me? A lot had happened since I was on top of the
Cougar world at the 1998 Rose Bowl. Now it was a dozen years later,
and I wondered if people would even want to say hello. Would there be
sideways glances? Whispers?
There was a social hour before the dinner and I made sure I stayed
close to Jack and other folks I knew pretty well. Hanging out in the
crowded foyer seemed safe. Going into the ballroom with 400 or 500
people you had let down was risky. So I stayed in the foyer as long as
I could, long after Jack and the rest went inside. Ian Furness, the
outstanding Seattle radio commentator, was the emcee that night. Once
his formal spiel was underway, I figured I?d head inside. Everyone
would be focused on Ian, so I could just find my seat and be safe for
the night. I wasn?t even halfway to my table when Ian said, ?. . . and
the next person I?d like to introduce is just now walking in ? right
over there . . .? He pointed my way. ? . . . our quarterback, our Rose
Bowl quarterback ? Ryan Leaf.?
As the spotlight swung in my direction, I froze and then sheepishly
waved my arm, hoping there wouldn?t be any muffles of ?What the hell
is he doing here?? Dead silence probably would have been worse than
anything. But people clapped, and it was like a weight being lifted
from my shoulders. As Ian said a few nice things about me, the
clapping grew louder. I started to navigate toward my seat and the
spotlight followed and the applause grew louder. My eyes started to
well up. And then everyone was on their feet cheering.
Never in my life have I fought so hard to fight back tears. Jack was
right ? Cougars are a very forgiving bunch. If someone had asked me to
say anything at that moment, I don?t think I could have even uttered
my name. I was really choked up. This was like a dream. How did I get
here? Why was this happening? I was surrounded by successful
businessmen and women, plus some of the greatest names ever in Cougar
football, and I was receiving an ovation. Ryan Leaf, the NFL bust.
Ryan Leaf, the PR train wreck. Ryan Leaf, the cocky jerk. Implausible,
surreal, I?m not sure what adjective to place on it all but I was
overwhelmed. And then there was clarity ? a calm clarity that came
over me and transported me back to Pullman so many years ago. The
people, the spirit, the culture. The memories of four special years
were racing through my mind. Keith Jackson once said of WSU, ?The
place gets in your blood and you never let go.? He was right.
The thoughts, memories and emotions of four unforgettable years in
Pullman poured over me. I stood there in amazement. All these people
were applauding me, but I should have been applauding them for staying
in my corner all these years. The room quieted down and I spent much
of the next two hours in a blissful daze. I wanted to call my mom and
dad and tell them this turned out to be a night I?d never forget. I
spent the rest of the evening talking with, but mostly listening to,
Cougar fans. They shared their stories about games we had in common.
And it was eye-opening to me. I had experienced it all from the field,
sidelines and locker room. They had experienced it from the stands,
from their living rooms and from their favorite bars. This was like
one of those movies where they play the same scene over and over but
from the vantage point of different characters, so your perspective
changes and grows. People would tell me what they were doing, the
friends they were with and the pride they felt when Leon Bender and
the Cougar defense held UCLA at the goal line, when Shawn McWashington
leveled the block and Kevin McKenzie scored at USC, when Steve Gleason
de-cleated Cam Cleland in the Apple Cup, when the Cougs came running
out of the tunnel before the start of the Rose Bowl, and on and on. My
Cougar teammates and I had created an indelible, joyous mark in the
hearts and minds of so many people. I just didn?t realize it at the
time. And now, all these years later, the stories were like a warm
blanket being draped over my shoulders.
One would have to know my story to fully understand what an amazing
gesture that evening was to me and why it meant so much at that point
in my life. But this wasn?t about me. It was about the Cougar Nation.
This was about the people who made, and make, WSU such a special
place. This was a statement about shared experiences, loyalty and
friendship. Being a Cougar means you?re part of a family. Walk down
any street in America with a WSU t-shirt or hat on and at some point
in your day someone?s going to say ?Go Cougs!? to you. There?s a bond
that is unlike any other. Being a Husky, Duck, or Trojan just doesn?t
carry the same level of spirit and caring. I made a decision when I
was 17 years old to attend Washington State. At that time I had no
idea what a monumental decision it truly was. It was a decision that
would shape me ? and embrace me ? for the rest of my life. The saying
goes, ?Once a Coug, Always a Coug.? There are as many examples of the
meaning of that phrase as there are Cougars. You?re about to read
mine, and the life lessons of loyalty, love and persistence that come
To purchase a copy of 596 Switch by Ryan Leaf go to www.596witch.com.