Monday, January 5, 2015

Before 2012, There Was 1998

As published in The County Times (

By Ronald N. Guy Jr.

Not so long ago – April 2012, to be exact - quarterbacks Andrew Luck and Robert Griffin III lit up the NFL Draft as the first and second overall picks of Indianapolis and Washington, respectively.  Luck’s star had been on the NFL’s radar for some time and his all football, low profile demeanor seemed a perfect backfill for Peyton Manning.  Griffin, meanwhile, took college football by storm in 2011.  He won the Heisman Trophy and through the draft process displayed an electric confluence of athletic skills that was part Michael Vick, part Aaron Rodgers.  Luck and Griffin were different players and personalities, but their collective talents earmarked them as destiny’s darlings.  Pro Bowls were a lock.  Super Bowls were a distinct possibility.  And a decade-plus of jaw-dropping moments was a virtual certainty.

The brochure was half right.  Luck is a star and, barring injury, is on an arc to the Hall of Fame.  Griffin…yeah.  The gory details are well known and the dumpster fire continues to burn.  Griffin’s precipitous fall from grace would have been implausible two years ago when he won the 2012 NFC Offensive Rookie of the Year award – but it shouldn’t have been.  Highly touted college quarterbacks flop in the NFL all the time and their collapse is often swift and complete.  So while the details are unique to this situation, the fact that Luck has boomed and Griffin has busted is routine.  In fact, the widening divergence between their careers isn’t even close to the greatest chasm of the last twenty years, much less league history.  

Before Luck and Griffin in 2012, there were the top two selections in the 1998 NFL Draft: quarterbacks Peyton Manning and Ryan Leaf.  Manning, the NFL’s all-time leader in touchdown passes and one of the league’s classiest players, is concluding his seventeenth season and is poised for another Super Bowl run.  Leaf, his one-time peer and talent equivalent, was just released…from prison. 

Emotional immaturity, injuries and poor play ended Leaf’s career in 2002 at the age of 26.  After the NFL, he earned his degree from Washington State and eventually returned to football as a college coach.  It appeared to be a commendable soft landing from a disastrous NFL tour.  However, prescription drug addiction soon shattered his post-NFL life.  Since 2009, he has been indicted multiple times on various burglary and drug possession charges in the states of Montana and Texas.  He is now out on parole and the next negative headline seems an unfortunate certainty. 

Excuses shouldn’t be made for Leaf.  His story is a human infomercial for the consequences of poor decisions.  He was a complete boob during his NFL tenure - spoiled, arrogant and disrespectful.  If Manning is the poster boy for the link between hard work and dedication to craft and success, then Leaf is the counterpoint, the warning label and the disclaimer. 

The bright lights and visceral criticism of the NFL’s fishbowl revealed fissures in Leaf’s psychological makeup but his biography is now less about a failed quarterback and more about a life in the balance.  He isn’t just a football punch line anymore.  He’s nothing to laugh at or dismiss.  His problems are undoubtedly real, beyond his control and, in a society struggling with the proliferation of prescription drugs and the addictive properties of painkillers, not uncommon. 

The band Hole’s song “Celebrity Skin”, a raw account of fame’s perils, contains the following lyrics: “Oh look at my face; my name is might have been; my name is never was; my name’s forgotten.”  Ryan Leaf is an NFL “might have been” and “never was” but he isn’t forgotten.  He is a famous and sadly recurring example of the destructive powers of addiction and the fragility of success.  He is also a challenge, in this holiday season, to be more sensitive to human struggles and appreciative of our personal successes.  While navigating life, every person strives to emulate Peyton Manning and seeks to avoid troubles like Ryan Leaf’s.  The truth is, a little bit of both quarterbacks – the excellence of Manning and the flaws of Leaf – resides within each of us.  Be well.   

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