The first time former NFL player Ryan Leaf ever felt like he was of service to another being, he was in prison.
Leaf began his career with the San Diego Chargers before going on to join the Tampa Bay Buccaneers, Dallas Cowboys and Seattle Seahawks. But, as Leaf told an audience at the Sage YMCA in Crystal Lake on Friday, he started becoming depressed and unable to get out of bed – a problem that eventually ended his NFL career.
After Leaf’s retirement, he began to abuse prescription opiates and eventually had a 32-month stint in prison after breaking into a home to steal drugs.
It was while he was in prison that a roommate took him down to the library to help teach prisoners who didn’t know how to read.
“I walked into this room where there were these men, in a place where you’re supposed to show no vulnerability ever ... [and a man walked up to Leaf and asked], ‘Can you help me?’ ” Leaf said. “I don’t believe I’ve ever had a man walk up to me and say those words: I’m struggling with this, can you help me? It shifted my thinking significantly.”
Leaf shared his story of addiction, mental illness and eventually, his redemption at the Sage YMCA Community Breakfast on Friday morning.
Leaf walked out of prison five years ago, on Dec. 3, 2014.
“If you’d have told me this is what my life would look like right now, I would have told you you were crazy,” he said. “I had no idea what was going to happen that morning when my parents picked me up.”
When first released from prison, Leaf said he couldn’t “rub two pennies together.”
But eventually Leaf went to treatment and landed a job at Transcend Recovery Community as a driver, making $15 an hour. That job later turned into a program ambassadorship.
“I decided I had goals I wanted to achieve,” Leaf said, adding that he began seeing a therapist. Despite growing up around the “cowboy culture” of Montana, where it was hard to open up about his feelings, Leaf was able to be vulnerable and transparent. Leaf said he also started taking accountability for his actions, something he wasn’t able to do before.
“I own everything I did,” Leaf said. “My life is littered with poor choices, bad behavior, consequences ... but it’s also built from recovery, hope and an unbelievable comeback.”
“We’re all the same, a lot of human beings trying to be better every day,” Leaf told the audience. “The fact that you’re here, trying to make a difference, be part of the solution, that’s commendable.”
Jordan Bley, executive director of the Sage YMCA, said Leaf’s background, especially with his mental health issues and drug addiction, is relatable to people in the county.
“I think they understood from Ryan’s message the importance of being a community, and that’s why the [YMCA] exists,” Bley said.
The YMCA sold 300 tickets for the breakfast. Through sponsorships, the organization raised $35,000.
The money from the breakfast goes to the YMCA’s Financial Assistance Program, which helps people participate in programs and obtain memberships in times of need.