GREAT FALLS – Former NFL quarterback Ryan Leaf returned to his Montana hometown and delivered a speech about dealing with mental health and substance abuse, a report said.
Leaf appeared Thursday at C.M. Russell High School in Great Falls for the first time in more than 20 years, The Great Falls Tribune reported Friday.
In a speech titled, “Lying to Myself,” Leaf discussed his football career as a star at Washington State University, Heisman Trophy finalist and second-overall pick in the 1998 NFL draft by the San Diego Chargers.
Four years later he was out of professional football and became addicted to prescription pills, which led to burglary and drug charges and a prison sentence, Leaf said.
He recalled attending a boxing match in Las Vegas in the time shortly after hanging it up in the NFL and being booed loudly by the crowd as the announcer recognized celebrities in attendance.
At an after-fight party, he took a Vicodin, and for the next eight years, kept trying to chase that high, he said.
“I was a drug addict long before I ever took a drug,” Leaf said. “I didn’t know any better.”
Leaf’s goal in telling his story was to connect with the audience and “try to give back to a community that I took so much from and victimized,” he said.
He also spoke about the need for more discussion of mental health issues in Montana.
“There is a mental health epidemic in this state,” Leaf said. “We need to come together as a community.”
He does not practice a specific religion but spoke of spirituality, community and accountability.
Leaf found his calling working as an assistant to a substance abuse counselor in prison, he said.
He is now a program ambassador for Transcend Recovery, an addiction treatment center in Los Angeles where he worked after getting sober.
As a pro athlete, “I was making $5 million a year and was miserable,” Leaf said. “Now, I was making $15 an hour and felt valued.”