The words Ryan Leaf bring many swift reactions from sports fans. Whether it's NFL bust, drug addict or convict, most of the reactions are negative.
That was the old Ryan Leaf. Since hitting rock bottom in 2009 -- after breaking into a player's house and stealing prescription pain medication while coaching at West Texas University -- Leaf finally sought the help he so desperately needed.
Leaf's failures are well documented. With all the talent in the world, Leaf decided to forgo his senior year at Washington State and enter the NFL draft. With the second pick in the 1998 draft, the San Diego Chargers chose Leaf to be the face of their franchise. When hit with adversity early in his rookie season, Leaf snapped, lashing out a reporter and taunting a fan during practice.
After four injury-filled seasons, Leaf retired from the NFL. A wrist injury left him unable to perform, but his attitude was the real problem.
The talented quarterback had always been the best at everything. At Washington State, Leaf's performance on the field led most to turn a blind-eye to his shortcomings. He was immature and arrogant, but as long as he performed on Saturdays, it didn't matter.
Like many that hung around Washington State football, I have my Ryan Leaf stories. I remember his 1997 season and run to the Rose Bowl. I listened to the 1998 draft on the radio and heard his name called second to Peyton Manning. As a kid, I looked up to Ryan Leaf. He was the best quarterback I'd seen as a young Washington State fan.
With the good comes the bad, however. As a sophomore at WSU, I met Leaf and talked to him for a bit. By that time,he had already flamed out of the NFL and was in a downward spiral headed to its low point. He wasn't pleasant to be around and it left a bad taste in my mouth.
What we see today from Leaf is different than even five years ago. He's living with his parents in Montana, working as a business development manager and, in his free time, writing for Washington State fan site Cougfan.com. It was in his writing for Cougfan that he finally opened up, sharing a story of tragedy from his playing days and what WSU means to him.
The legions of Cougar fans may not have embraced him all the time since his playing days, but he's been grateful for the support that Cougar Nation has given him.
The truths that I had once forgotten about what it means to be a member of the Cougar family are on vivid display when I think of Jason. If the world is getting you down, Cougar Nation is always there. I know that time won't ever steal our souls, we are never broken and you can always come home. So today I believe the saying "Once a Coug, always a Coug
Now, I see Leaf roaming the sidelines at almost every Cougar football game. He was in Pullman last weekend, wearing his trademark backwards hat, laughing and joking with other former players. He looks like he's genuinely enjoying himself again, putting the negative past behind him while working to change his image.
Like many others, I'm proud to call Ryan Leaf a Coug. His shortcomings of the past are a cautionary tale, but the way he's dusted himself off and worked to become a better man makes me proud.