Recharged San Diego quarterback Ryan Leaf seems to have put his tumultuous first two seasons behind him and is flashing the talent that made him the second pick in the 1998 draft

September 03, 2000

He came, he saw, he conquered his demons, and then Ryan Leaf
raised his arms in triumph as San Diego rejoiced. With one
feathery flick of his right arm last Friday night, Leaf, the
Chargers' resurrected starting quarterback and Qualcomm
Stadium's unlikeliest fan favorite, created a buzz among the
crowd of 42,403 that belied the game's preseason context.
Fireworks detonated, Gary Glitter's power chords blasted through
the balmy August air, and a giddy Leaf basked in the moment. The
cause for the commotion was a quick, impromptu toss to rookie
wideout Trevor Gaylor, whom Leaf alertly had noticed was
uncovered on the left side of the field. Gaylor made the catch
and zipped in for a four-yard score, helping the Chargers to a
24-20 victory over the Arizona Cardinals in the teams' preseason
finale and cementing Leaf's astounding ascent from pariah to
possible standout pro passer.

The pass to Gaylor was so easy that Ryan O'Neal could have thrown
it, but the symbolic significance of the moment could not be
overstated. This was Leaf's first touchdown pass in San Diego
since last November, when he played in an infamous flag-football
game at Robb Park without the Chargers' permission. Thanks to
local newscasts, tape of that play quickly became San Diego's
Sorriest Home Video: When the scoring throw reached the waiting
hands of--who, Joe the insurance adjuster from Chula Vista?--Leaf's
excited reaction looked like the last pathetic act of perhaps one
of the sports world's biggest busts. At that point Leaf, already
burdened with a bum throwing shoulder and a four-week suspension
for conduct detrimental to the team, was viewed as an
embarrassment, even in his own locker room.

Now, if not the toast of the town, Leaf at least has emerged as
an underdog backed by a hopeful fan base, not to mention a large
faction of forgiving teammates. Fourteen-year veteran Jim
Harbaugh calls Leaf, the man who took his job by shining in four
preseason appearances this summer, "as good a guy to be around as
any quarterback I've had as a teammate. He's really into his
fiancee, he's got a dog, and he likes kids and animals. He's come
a long way, and the thing I like is that nothing was handed to
him this summer. He's earned it."

Fred McCrary, the chatty fullback whose caustic comments about
Leaf's flabby physique last March sent Leaf into hiding, now
insists, "I have nothing bad to say about the guy. There's a big
difference in his behavior. You can tell he wants to earn the
players' respect and lead by example, and he's keeping his mouth
shut and playing his ass off. This time nobody gave him
anything."

Even former Chargers general manager Bobby Beathard, who's
perceived to be the 24-year-old Leaf's biggest enemy, says he's
in Leaf's corner. "Hey, I'm rooting for him, too," says Beathard,
who traded a king's ransom so he could make Leaf the second pick
in the 1998 draft and whose retirement in April seemed hastened
by two years' worth of Leaf-related headaches. "I know Ryan
thinks I don't like him, but all I ever wanted was for him to do
well. It's no fun to see a guy fail, and if he really has turned
the corner, the people around here will jump on his bandwagon."

Pardon the rest of the football-watching nation if this all seems
fishier than one of San Diego's trademark mahimahi tacos. Yo,
Ryan Leaf has a bandwagon in San Diego! What's next? Janet Reno
Boulevard in Little Havana? The fans' cheers for Leaf last
Friday--he completed 8 of 13 passes for 97 yards, with one wobbly
interception thrown into double coverage--seemed to be sincere.
It's as if Leaf, by doing so many things horribly for so long on
and off the field, had created an ideal backdrop for his
coronation as an object of sympathy.

Leaf is entering this phase of his career cautiously. "Football
is just a game," he says. "Everybody takes it so much more
seriously than it is, but there are many more important things in
my life. I haven't really thought about the fan reaction, and I
probably won't. It's been here [he places one hand at eye level],
and it's been here [the hand moves to waist level]. If it could
just stay here [chest level], I'd love that."

Yet in matters concerning Leaf, there has been no middle ground.
At the start of his rookie year Leaf showed promise but soon
became more disoriented than Anne Heche after a bad breakup. He
was benched midway through the season and finished with two
touchdown passes, 15 interceptions and a league-low quarterback
rating of 39.0. Then, on the first day of training camp in 1999,
Leaf fell on a fumble in practice and suffered a torn labrum in
his throwing shoulder, which led to surgery and a long
rehabilitation. He spent the year as San Diego's third
quarterback, was inactive for 11 games and didn't play a down.

Equally maddening for the Chargers and their fans was Leaf's run
of miserable behavior. He yelled threateningly at a photographer,
a reporter and a heckler at practice. In the act that led to his
suspension, he unleashed a barrage of f-bombs at Beathard and
strength coach John Hastings. He was caught lying about why he
hadn't been following his prescribed off-season workout program
and said it would be best if he left San Diego. Fans resented him
for all that his presence in a Chargers uniform represented: The
trade up in the draft to get him cost San Diego three early-round
picks and two starters; his contract (five years, $31.25 million)
and fat salary-cap figure made it virtually impossible to cut or
trade him; and he seemed bent on bringing down the franchise
instead of sustaining it. The Chargers watched a fierce but aging
defense waste exceptional efforts while struggling to a 5-11
finish in 1998 and an 8-8 record in '99.

While Leaf's recent run of humility and impressive play has gone
a long way toward making amends in the locker room, star
linebacker Junior Seau, the most influential Charger, remains
unconverted. "We're seeing more growth from Ryan in these past
seven months than we did in the previous two years, and that's a
positive," Seau says. "What he has been able to do is to stop
destroying himself off the field and start concentrating on
football. But in this business, the only way to gain respect is
to start feeding the families of the people in the locker room.
With our defense and special teams, we're not asking the guy to
be an All-Pro. Just throw one interception a game, and we'll be
fine."

The apparent end of Leaf's "adolescence," as Seau calls it, came
after he received the grade-school-style upbraiding from McCrary,
who chided his teammate for being fat and out of shape. "You
don't need to be going to this and that [function]," McCrary told
Leaf during an off-season workout last spring. "You need to be
here, busting your ass like we do every day."

Says Seau, "That was a loud cry saying, 'Get right,' because a
lot of guys in here were fed up. We're not as political with one
another as we are with the media. Some people can handle the
truth, others can't."

Leaf reacted by going into a self-imposed exile. He stopped
showing up at the Chargers' practice facility and told coach Mike
Riley that he feared his shoulder would never fully recover. Leaf
decided to travel to the Birmingham clinic of James Andrews, the
renowned orthopedist, who instructed him to stop throwing for
several months.

When he finally picked up a football, on June 8, Leaf stood
inside a mechanics laboratory at Andrews's clinic and zinged
passes at an unlucky staff technician. "Eventually he just ran to
where I wanted to throw it and let the balls fall into the net
behind him," Leaf says. "I banged his hands up pretty good, but
he couldn't really tell me if my velocity was all the way back."

While visiting Idaho's Coeur d'Alene Lake a few weeks later, Leaf
threw to childhood buddy Curt Brown, who had trained with Leaf
during the summer before his freshman season at Washington State.
"Curt said it looked like I was putting too much of my arm into
the ball," Leaf says. "Before the injury I would just fling it,
and it looked like my arm didn't even move."

When training camp began in July, the La Jolla air was filled
with whistles--from Leaf's spirals and from his awestruck
teammates. Remember, many scouts regarded Leaf as more physically
gifted than the man drafted ahead of him, Peyton Manning, now an
All-Pro for the Indianapolis Colts. As camp began, Leaf was
viewed by Riley as an afterthought in an expected quarterback
battle between aging incumbent Harbaugh and third-year backup
Moses Moreno, but he overwhelmed the competition with his
superior physical skills, even though he still lacked polish.

"He looked a lot better than I expected," says cornerback Ray
Buchanan of the Atlanta Falcons, against whom Leaf completed his
first nine passes (and 14 of 20 overall, for 167 yards and a
touchdown) in an Aug. 18 game. "He's got great skills, and in
terms of demeanor, he seemed like a totally different guy than
what I'd seen and heard."

Beathard says the 6'5", 235-pound Leaf "is what you look for in a
quarterback. He's a big guy who can be oblivious to the rush, and
he's amazingly accurate when he's pressured. I know it's the
preseason, but I've seen him go through his reads nicely and make
throws that others can't."

The scary thing is that Leaf's arm isn't all the way back yet. He
says his velocity is "85 to 95 percent of normal. The more I
throw, the more I'll work the arm back into shape. But as long as
my footwork's good, what I've got now is good enough. The injury
has helped me make better decisions. Before I had this arrogance
that I could just put the ball in the smallest of openings."

Leaf appears to have shed some of his off-field cockiness as
well. He lauds his offensive linemen at every turn, raves about
the talents of Harbaugh and Moreno, and praises Riley and Mike
Johnson, his new quarterbacks coach. He says things like, "I just
want to play football and help the team win," and teammates say
he's trying hard to be one of the guys. Once boastful and
defensive, he's now benign and boring. Won't the real Slim Shady
please stand up?

Soon there will be revelation. This Sunday, when the Chargers
open the season against the Raiders in Oakland, the vanilla
defenses of the preseason will be gone. How Leaf holds up against
the rush--not to mention the media blitz that will follow his
every setback--will determine whether his rehabilitation is a
miracle or a mirage. Under pressure, will he indeed turn the
corner? Or will he return to being Boy Blunder?

"I've been amazed by the guy's composure," says veteran guard
Kevin Gogan, who signed with San Diego in the off-season, "but
the real question is, How will he react when the stuff hits the
fan?"

The next chapter should be especially compelling. "Ryan's
situation can be an example for a lot of young athletes," Seau
says. "For the first time he's focusing on what he needs to do
right, rather than on justifying what he has done wrong. If he
stays humble and allows this city to embrace him for the way he
performs, instead of letting the focus be on the way he acts,
the sky's the limit--because the guy has a great arm. You've got
to credit growth, but it's still too early. Judgment day is
coming on Sunday."

COLOR PHOTO: PHOTOGRAPH BY PETER READ MILLER COVER Back from the Brink Now starting at quarterback for the San Diego Chargers...Ryan Leaf! COLOR PHOTO: PHOTOGRAPH BY JOHN W. MCDONOUGH NEW LEASE ON LIFE An afterthought heading into camp, Leaf forced the Chargers' hand with solid play in all four preseason games. COLOR PHOTO: ROBERT BECK OUCH! About all Leaf had to show for his rookie year was an NFL-low 39.0 passer rating and one image-tarnishing incident after another. COLOR PHOTO: PATRICK MURPHY-RACEY [See caption above] COLOR PHOTO: PETER READ MILLER GOOD ENOUGH Leaf says that he still doesn't have all his velocity back, but even at 85% his rifle arm is better than most.

"I've seen him go through the reads nicely and make throws that
others can't," says Beathard.

If not the toast of the town, Leaf has at least emerged as an
underdog backed by hopeful fans.

HOLE YARDS PAR R1 R2 R3 R4
OUT
HOLE YARDS PAR R1 R2 R3 R4
IN
Eagle (-2)
Birdie (-1)
Bogey (+1)
Double Bogey (+2)