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Agent: Manning was first pick in '98 draft because Ryan Leaf sabotaged the process

Ryan Leaf and Peyton Manning at the 1998 NFL draft. (Jamie Squire/Getty Images) Ryan Leaf and Peyton Manning at the 1998 NFL draft. (Jamie Squire/Getty Images)

The main story of the 1998 NFL draft was, of course, the decision by the Indianapolis Colts to select Tennessee quarterback Peyton Manning over Washington State quarterback Ryan Leaf with the first overall pick. Team president Bill Polian and head coach Jim Mora found it a tough decision -- which seems laughable in retrospect -- because back then, Leaf may have had more physical upside.

But Leaf showed up for the scouting combine overweight and claimed that he'd be heading off to Las Vegas if he was taken first overall. Manning, meanwhile, told the Colts that he'd spend the next fifteen years kicking their butts if he went anywhere else, and Polian and Mora wisely selected Manning. Leaf was the NFL's most incendiary bust, while Manning is on his way to his third Super Bowl -- not with the Colts, but it's safe to say that the organic choice of Manning turned Indy's franchise around.

At least, that's what we all believed until an excerpt from sports agent Leigh Steinberg's new book, The Agent, was released this week. Steinberg, one of the most successful agents of all time and Cameron Crowe's inspiration for Jerry Maguire, was Leaf's agent back then, and he now says that his client preferred to play in San Diego, whose Chargers had the second pick.

So, according to Steinberg, agent and player hatched a devious plan (via For the Win).

It was not until several months before the draft that I realized Ryan might present challenges I didn’t anticipate. By then, it was too late.

“No way do I want to play in Indianapolis,” he told me, referring to the Colts, who owned the No. 1 pick. Instead, because of the exceptional weather and the more laid-back lifestyle, he preferred the San Diego Chargers, who would go second.

“That’s fine,” I warned him, “but the way to achieve this is not exactly going to help your image. You’ll get a lot of criticism.” Ryan didn’t care about his image, though, only his destination.

Making his wish come true would not be easy. The Colts leaned toward choosing Ryan. Many scouts also saw him as a better prospect than Peyton Manning. Hard to believe now, isn’t it?

I told Ryan it would do no good to approach Colts GM Jim Irsay. Irsay saw the sport the same way he viewed his other passion, rock ’n’ roll. Just as musicians tended to be a bit eccentric, so did football players, and that did not stop him from drafting Jeff George or trading for Eric Dickerson. “Leigh,” he used to say, “it’s about the freaking talent.” If someone is that gifted, in Irsay’s opinion, you simply find a way to deal with his personality.

Instead, the case needed to be made to the Indianapolis coach, Jim Mora, and it couldn’t come from anything Ryan said. It had to come from what he did, or, rather, did not do.

“If you go to the combine,” I told Ryan, “but fail to show up for a meeting with Mora, that should do it. Jim is a real prideful person who has a tendency to explode. I am not recommending you do this, but if you are desperate to go to San Diego, this is the way.”

Ryan approved, but I first cleared the idea with Chargers general manager Bobby Beathard, lest San Diego also question my client’s reliability. Beathard went along with the ruse. If he’d had a problem, Ryan would’ve shown up for his meeting with Mora. Some purists argue players should not have the right to dictate where they start their pro career, but aren’t college graduates who don’t play football allowed to choose where they want to work and live? The draft was not handed down by Moses as part of the Ten Commandments. The draft, let’s be honest, is a control mechanism designed to prevent college athletes from exercising the same freedoms everyone else takes for granted and to limit their leverage in contract negotiations. It is important to separate the honor of being selected from the concept of not being given the freedom of choice. Just because athletes are well compensated doesn’t change the underlying principle.

Once Ryan was a no-show, Mora, as anticipated, went ballistic. I defended my player, naturally, dismissing the coach’s response as another Mora meltdown. As I’d anticipated, Ryan was criticized, but the plan achieved its purpose. The Colts took Manning. Something tells me the folks in Indianapolis have never regretted that decision.

Well, Steinberg was right about the challenges Leaf would present. But Polian vehemently disputed Steinberg's account of this plan when he spoke with ESPN's Mike Greenberg and Mike Golic about it on Tuesday.

“Agents cannot manipulate anything in the draft,” he said, via Pro Football Talk. “Leigh and other agents for years and years have told kids that they can get players drafted by a certain club at a certain spot, and nothing could be further from the truth. That assumes that we on the club side are idiots, that we’re able to be manipulated, that we don’t do our homework, that we don’t watch the tape, that we don’t go all the way back to the junior high school coach and high school principal, teachers, doing our due diligence. It’s just the kind of hubris that existed among agents years ago where they told kids flat-out, ‘I can get you taken here, I can get you taken there.’ Nothing could be further from the truth.”

Bill Polian talking about hubris? You don't say. In any case, Polian did confirm that Leaf missed a meeting, and that Steinberg lied about the reason after the fact, claiming that he and Leaf had been given the wrong time for the meeting.

“I remember Leigh telling the press that we had blown it because we hadn’t given him the right time,” Polian continued. “I knew that was false because I made the call. I’m glad after 16 years he’s finally told the truth.”

Former Chargers general manager Bobby Beathard, who pulled the trigger on Leaf with that second pick, said in response to Steinberg's claims that "we absolutely wanted to draft Peyton," and that when Leaf showed up to play, he was so out of shape, he couldn't even complete the warmup jog around the field. He was out of pro football for good after the 2001 season.

These days, Leaf has more time to stay in shape -- he's serving a seven-year prison term on burglary and controlled substance charges.

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