'I was miserable, and I don't ever want to feel that way again'

'I was miserable, and I don't ever want to feel that way again' »Play Video
Ryan Leaf has set a lot of records for Washington State University. Even though the Cougars barely lost at the '97 Rose Bowl, Leaf's success as quarterback prompted him to leave WSU and become a first-round draft pick in the NFL.

He bombed, was booed and benched.

"For that reason, I stayed away from WSU and Cougar nation for a long time -- for all the wrong reasons," he said. "What I should have done was run back to the family that always supported me. And I pushed them away, because I was embarrassed."

Leaf will be the first to tell you he did not know how to focus his intensity or handle his failure to win.

"But for sure, it was an embarrassing moment in my life at 21 years old," he said. "But I think a lot of people do embarrassing things when they're 21 years old. And if that's my truly embarrassing moment at 21, I'll take that one over some of the other stories I've heard.

"I just think everyone grows up and everybody changes in their time. Mine just happened quite publicly -- a lot of it."

His disappointing personal behavior and failure in the NFL only deepened the pain that led to an addiction to prescription pain pills.

"All my life, whenever I had surgery, they gave me prescription pain killers for the physical pain you have. So when I had this emotional pain, or this other pain I couldn't define, this was the only thing I ever knew that worked," he said.

Leaf hit rock bottom when he was convicted for stealing pain pills from injured kids he coached. He finally entered rehab. It would be the beginning of his metamorphosis.

"The self-centeredness, the dishonesty, the inability to be social and be a good person - all those things that change when you become happy - are such a bigger and better highlight," he said.

Leaf was learning a new, more positive outlook. He says that helped him deal with his next challenge.

"When he said it was a brain tumor, it never once crept in my mind that it was cancerous. I said, 'OK, who do we get to fix it and how do we do that?'" he said.

Leaf had surgery for the benign tumor. Though it's not the same tumor as mine, doctors were not able to get it all, because, like mine, it wrapped around some critical nerves. He'll know after an MRI next month if the tumor is growing and he needs radiation.

Through it all, he did not take medication for pain.

"Going through a of days of pain and discomfort in a hospital bed is well worth it, than feeling the way I did for three years previous," he said. "I remember what it was like. I was miserable, and I don't ever want to feel that way again."

At 35, Leaf says he's changed for the better and is looking forward, not back.

"My life for the next 35 years will be defined by how I become a better person and help people. I think I'll have a much more drastic affect on people's lives than I ever would have had as a football player," he said.

Leaf thinks college athletes should get paid to play. He'll tackle that issue when he comes out with the first of three books this October about the greatest four years of his life at WSU.