Thrill of Victory

My friend Joe and the Manti Te'o problem

As Manti Te’o’s crazy story reminded us last week, sometimes, people’s lives take turns that no one expected. Nobody needs to be reminded of that more than San Diego Charger fans, who probably got an unwelcome flashback as their former quarterback Ryan Leaf popped up in the news again recently for the wrong reasons.

Last spring, Leaf was twice arrested for entering the homes of his neighbors in Great Falls, Mont., and stealing prescription pain killers. Last summer, Leaf had been sentenced to prison for five years, but the first 15 months were supposed to be in a drug rehabilitation facility. Had things gone well there, the sentence would likely have been shortened considerably. Things didn’t go well, and last week, the treatment program kicked him out and sent him straight to jail.

Younger readers may not remember this, but just before the 1998 NFL Draft, there was a great debate as to whether the Indianapolis Colts should select Leaf or Peyton Manning with the draft’s first pick. Manning was more polished (he had an extra year of college that Leaf didn’t) but Leaf’s stronger arm and better athleticism was thought to give him more upside. After the Colts took Manning, San Diego general manager Bobby Beathard took Leaf with the next pick. When Leaf started and won his first two games as an NFL quarterback in 1998, he became the first man to do that since John Elway in 1983. A star was born.

Or not.

Starting with the next game, it fell apart. Leaf threw two touchdown and 15 interceptions that season. He skipped workouts and film study. He made enemies of teammates, the media, and the front office. He hurt his shoulder, and missed all of the next season, but came back for the 2000 season. He hurt his wrist, floundered again, and got benched.

NFL teams like to wait as long as they can before admitting they made a mistake, especially when that mistake gets paid the largest signing bonus in NFL history at the time, and particularly when the team also trades the third overall pick of a draft, another first-round pick, a second-round pick, and a three-time Pro Bowl player (Eric Metcalf), as the Chargers did for said mistake. Leaf was so bad, the Chargers made no effort to save face and cut him. He eventually got shots with three other teams, but they quickly went away for reasons you can guess.

Sadly, Leaf’s addiction to painkillers has made his post-football life just as big a train wreck. At the hearing last summer that sent Leaf to rehab, he made an interesting confession. “I’m lazy and dishonest and selfish. These were behaviors I had before my addiction kicked in,” Leaf said.

Leaf’s words make the reason he failed seem so obvious, but of course Leaf wasn’t so forthcoming about this before the 1998 Draft. NFL teams spend millions of dollars to scout prospects and mine every corner of their lives and didn’t appear to uncover anything they thought would be fatal to his career. Chargers’ GM Bobby Beathard, who was responsible for the Leaf pick, took four different teams to seven Super Bowls, which his teams won four times. Some consider him the greatest GM in NFL history.

If anyone was equipped with radar for recognizing disaster ahead of time, it should have been Beathard. There were some signs there like Leaf’s arrogance and a pre-draft weight gain, but other players have had worse issues before maturing later and becoming great players, though I doubt that was much sympathy for Beathard in the years following Leaf’s selection.

This brings me to a story about my old friend from college, Joe (not his real name), who was about the same age as a rookie-aged Leaf when I first met him. Unlike most of us then, Joe seemed to know exactly where his life was headed. Joe met his wife-to-be in his first year at school and fell fast. While the rest of us were busy playing pick-up basketball and playing residence-hall pranks, Joe was working part-time, studying hard to become an accountant, and spending what free time was left with the woman he planned to be with the rest of his life.

That made it hard to know Joe, but everyone liked the glimpses they got. He was quiet, but thoughtful and polite. He had a good sense of humor and a quick smile. Predictably – and if Joe was anything, he seemed predictable – Joe moved on with his life and we lost touch, but many times, I thought, “I wish I’d known Joe better.”

Flash forward nearly 20 years to a day when Joe’s wife and I connected briefly on Facebook after many years. I asked how Joe was doing, and she responded, “You haven’t heard?”

Turns out that Joe had gotten into a few things he shouldn’t have, found a girlfriend, left his wife and kids for her, and even got into some sort of confrontation that landed him in jail for a night or two. And that was just the part she knew about. By this time, Joe had more or less vanished, and didn’t even want to have contact with his kids.

To borrow a line from Christmas Vacation, when Joe’s now ex-wife finished the story, I couldn’t have been more surprised if I woke up the next morning with my head sewn to the carpet.

That prompted a bunch of questions. Was the Joe I knew very real, and he just changed over time? Did something happen that made him snap? Or was it not a case of “snapping,” but that he quit caring about his image and wanted to give in to the dark side of his double life? We’ll probably never know.

Back to Leaf, let’s play a case of “what-if” for a moment. NFL Draft guru Mel Kiper still refers to Leaf as one of the best prospects in history while simultaneously acknowledging how ridiculous that sounds now. Perhaps if Leaf had an in-your-face coach like a Bill Parcels, someone could have gotten through to him earlier. Maybe if the Chargers didn’t have a lousy team doctor who mis-diagnosed Leaf’s wrist and shoulder problems, he’d have succeeded on the field.

Te’o, on the other hand, is more of a Joe problem since we really don’t know who he is. Even if the Chargers didn’t know what the issues with Leaf were at the time of the draft, they should have known them pretty well by the time they cut him. Notre Dame sold Te’o to us as an Eagle Scout, but all his answers about his supposed relationship just poked more holes in his story. Is he a serial liar, or a gullible, unstable person? Or is he maybe both at the same time? We have no idea.

At least with Leaf, we knew where the minefields were, even if nobody could successfully deal with them. By the time Joe’s now ex-wife knew what Joe’s problems were, he was out of sight for good before anyone could really deal with them. I wonder, too, if Te’o’s career might play out the same way.