Ryan Leaf -- Former Cougar Star Under Fire In San Diego -- Boy Blunder

SAN DIEGO - Ryan Leaf swears he's learning, and changing, and growing. It's all getting through his admittedly thick hide, he assures - the hard lessons about life in the spotlight and one's obligation to stay out of compromising situations and to show respect even to people he might feel don't deserve it.

(Not to mention the equally hard lessons about picking up the blitz and throwing into coverage and mastering the nuances of a new offense).

But don't think he has been beaten down, either, as humbling as it will be to return to Washington on Sunday (barring a lineup change) as Craig Whelihan's clipboard toter when the San Diego Chargers play the Seahawks. Of course, it can't be any worse than his last junket to Washington, which started out as a charitable mission to donate $200,000 to Washington State University's athletic program and ended in a storm of allegations about his boorish behavior at Pullman taverns.

Leaf has had a career's worth of adversity already, much of it self-inflicted, and his first NFL season isn't even in the books yet. In San Diego, where fans have watched Leaf self-destruct before their eyes, they're calling him "Boy Blunder" and wondering if the Chargers committed the drafting faux pas of the ages when they used this year's second overall pick on the quarterback from WSU.

But while Leaf's self-styled brashness seems to be in remission and his starting job is on hold, he says he is as confident as ever

"I don't feel any stress," he says, relaxing in front of his locker after a recent practice. "It's the weirdest thing. Everyone else gets all this built-up stress. Me? I go for a long drive, or swimming at night, it's gone. I'm one of the most stress-free people in the world, I guess."

San Diego's stress test

Funny, though - he's been awfully good at causing it. He has stressed out Charger fans so much that at one home game they booed when his image appeared on the television screen at QualComm Stadium - in an ad for the Make-A-Wish Foundation.

Lee Hamilton, the Seahawk radio announcer who still resides in San Diego and hosts a four-hour nightly sports-talk show there on XTRA, calls Leaf "an embarrassment to himself and to the organization. It's obvious to me he has no respect for authority - not his coaches, not his general manager, and not the owner who gave him $11 million."

According to Hamilton, "He's lost this community."

Leaf has stressed out the San Diego media so much that Union-Tribune columnist Nick Canepa wrote recently, "Ryan Leaf has been a bust on the field and a complete jackass off of it. . . . Ryan Leaf has been a jerk and now he's reaping the rewards of being a jerk. He's being sent to his corner, where he can pout."

And he has stressed out General Manager Bobby Beathard, the man who made the decision to trade up for Leaf at the cost of the Chargers' first- and second-round draft picks in 1998, their first-round pick in '99, wide receiver Eric Metcalf and linebacker Patrick Sapp. At the time of Leaf's demotion as starter last month, Beathard said, "A whole career could be crumbling if he doesn't wise up and understand he isn't handling things the right way."

Beathard, who handed Leaf an $11.25 million signing bonus, also said, "A lot of his teammates are fed up with him, and he can't be successful if he doesn't have his teammates in his corner."

Leaf is asked now if Beathard's comments hit home. He smiles. "No, I thought that was kind of absurd. I think he was trying to make a good punch, wake people up. . . . I know what I've got to do."

What he has to do, it seems, is pretty much the opposite of what he has done since he left his college haven in Pullman.

Fast start fell apart

At this time last year, Ryan Leaf owned the world. His WSU Cougars were preparing for the Rose Bowl, and Leaf, having decided to forego his senior year, was preparing for a future as an NFL superstar.

His pro career started well enough, with a decent preseason and victories in his first two NFL starts.

"Everyone thought at that moment he'd be the exception to the rookie quarterback struggling and be like (Dan) Marino his rookie year," Charger President Dean Spanos said. "I think his turnaround on the field surprised and shocked him. Then he had some off-field incidents. I think it had an effect on him psychologically."

The slide began Sept. 20 against the Chiefs, when Leaf completed 1of 15 passes for 4 yards and had two passes intercepted in a 23-7 loss. After the game, he cursed a TV cameraman standing in front of his locker and then went into a tirade the next day against the reporter who wrote about the camera incident. The latter eruption, in which he screamed obscenities, was captured on camera and received nationwide play.

The following week, Leaf threw four passes that were intercepted in a 34-16 loss to the New York Giants and said afterward, "Games like the last two kind of leave you wondering if you're good enough to play at this level. It kind of feels like someone ripped my heart out of me."

Two weeks later, Charger Coach Kevin Gilbride was fired, largely because of the ineffectiveness of the Leaf-led offense. He was replaced by June Jones, highly regarded for his work with Brett Favre and Jeff George when they were young quarterbacks.

Jones immediately simplified the offense, and Leaf responded with his most productive game as a pro, completing 25 of 52 passes for 281 yards in a 27-20 loss to the Seahawks on Oct. 25.

But the next weekend, a Charger bye, Leaf infuriated San Diego management with the allegations out of Pullman, which included reports he was thrown out of at least two establishments for rowdy behavior. It was alleged to include throwing beer on two students, spitting at the window after he left one place, and telling numerous people he could "buy" them. .

Jones says now, "Even if 50 percent of it was true, that's too much."

Leaf started the next game, against Denver, but after a 4-for-15 outing that yielded just 26 passing yards in a 27-10 loss, he was benched in favor of Whelihan, who last year was 0-7 as a starter over the final seven games.

"He had a rough time brought on by himself, some of the things he said and did," Jones said of Leaf. "He paid the consequences for his actions. . . . I think he's learned and will mature through that."

22 going on 15

Maturity is a word that crops up often when Leaf's name is invoked. Former Charger quarterback Sean Salisbury, an ESPN analyst and San Diego talk-show host, said of the 22-year-old, "I love Ryan, but he's immature mentally. Off the field, he has to realize he's probably 22 going on 15 - and I don't mean that in a bad way. We've all been there."

Added another former Charger quarterback, Hall of Famer Dan Fouts: "I think he needs some maturity. He's getting a real dose of humility now, being on the bench. In the preseason, it looked like he was handling things well, but the jump from college to NFL preseason is not that big; the jump from NFL preseason to regular season, you just can't imagine. Once these defensive coaches get a grip on a player, man, they go right for the throat."

At the time of his demotion, Leaf had 13 interceptions and two touchdown passes. He hasn't played since. His quarterback rating stands at 39.9, worst in the NFL.

So how do all the turmoil and setbacks settle with him?

"It's been life," Leaf said with a shrug. "Everybody lives it. Mine's just publicized."

And exaggeratedly so, he claims. Asked about the Pullman incidents, he replied, "None of that happened. I mean, there were situations. Me and my buddies were up there, and my buddies stuck up for me, things like that."

He acknowledged, "Anything that happens, I'm associated with. That's the trade-off I have to deal with. You know, I shouldn't have put myself in situations like that."

Leaf then added quickly, "But it's what I've done in college the last three years. When I was at WSU and I'd go out, I was just a student like everyone else. I thought when I went back there, it felt like it was the same habitat, and I felt like I'm the same person I was. And I'm viewed a lot differently now. I didn't want it to be that way. But that's the way it is. I just have to accept that. I walk into a place, it's Ryan Leaf, San Diego Charger quarterback now, not just a guy they went to school with, I guess.

"That's a tough trade-off, but you have to sit back and say, `If you have to sit out those places and not be associated with them and wait until everything boils over, then that's what you've got to do.' "

A much different version of those nights is painted in newspaper accounts and by Bob Enslow, the 52-year-old owner of the Corner Market, a convenience store at Adams Mall on WSU's fraternity row.

According to The Daily Evergreen, WSU's student newspaper, Leaf was asked to leave The Coug, a tavern, on that Friday night because of unruly behavior.

It also was reported that on Thursday, Leaf had been involved in an incident at Shakers, a tavern in the same mall as the Corner Market. Leaf reportedly was upset with a WSU student he felt had made "mocking" comments about him during a cable-TV show.

One report, denied by Leaf, had him throwing beer on two of the student's friends. The report said he was asked to leave Shakers as well. Shakers owner Tony Boydston downplayed the incident, telling the Spokane Spokesman-Review, "He wasn't doing anything any worse than I've seen a lot of other people do. If he had any altercation, it wasn't here."

The incident spilled outside Shakers, where Leaf's companion, former WSU teammate Ryan McShane, had words with the student. That's when Enslow became involved.

Enslow said McShane climbed a fire escape in pursuit of the student, who had gone into a neighboring fraternity house.

When Enslow was summoned outside his store to check the commotion, he encountered Leaf.

"Ryan was defiant," Enslow said. "Although he was a nonparticipant, he was encouraging (McShane). . . . He said, `Who the hell do you think you are? I can buy your store. I can buy your dad and their dad.' He said that to everyone. He's been doing it for years. I said, `Well, you can't buy me.' "

Asked about those supposed comments, Leaf scoffed. "I would never say anything like that because the money is not the reason I play this game. It has nothing to do with it. I think my gesture that weekend (donating the money) shows I'm not interested in having it."

Enslow gained much media attention after the incident when he posted a sign in his store's window that said, "Ryan Leaf has been 86ed from the Corner Market."

"It's a shame," Enslow said, "because people here would like to see him succeed. He has the talent. If he would go about life in a more mature fashion, he could be a Michael Jordan."

Team support

Leaf's problems are hardly surprising to Jon Kasper, a sportswriter for the Missoula (Mont.) Missoulian, who was a teammate of Leaf's at C.M. Russell High School in Great Falls, Mont.

"I figured something like this would happen, just because that's the way he's always been," Kasper said. "No one ever sat him down and said, `This is what you can and can't do, what your attitude has to be.'

"Sitting on the bench, hopefully it will sink in and he'll realize the mistakes he's made."

That's also the fervent wish of Leaf's Charger teammates, who say they are standing behind him.

"Sometimes, you have to get bit by the snake in order to learn," offensive lineman John Jackson said. "He's been bitten. Hopefully, he'll learn."

"I think the trials and tribulations he's going through, that's going to help him," Whelihan added. "Everyone goes through it. There's not one quarterback that hasn't gone through what he's gone through on the field. I feel like he's going to pull out real well."

And what Leaf has gone through off the field?

"That's his world," Whelihan said. "He's going to have to deal with that. I think maybe that comes with age. I think he can learn from his mistakes off the field, too. He's going to be another year older next year, know what to do, and what not to do, on and off the field."

There are signs that Leaf is working to upgrade his image. He showed up recently, unsolicited, at a Pop Warner game to watch and sign autographs, Salisbury said. Leaf was described as a "prince" by the organizer of a benefit he attended for the family of the late Leon Bender, former WSU teammate.

"He knows what he has to do," Spanos said. "I think if he continues the way he has been, which we couldn't ask for more, it all goes away."

The same goes on the football field - where Leaf hasn't stepped for the past four games and may not again this year.

"He's doing everything the right way," Jones said. "He's trying to sit back, pay attention and learn, watch how things are done. That's part of growing as a quarterback. He's a good kid; he's tough. He's going to be a fine player one day."

"It will be amazing what happens if he throws three touchdown passes when he comes back," Salisbury said. "They'll forget. The boos will turn to cheers in a heartbeat."

Salisbury talks of Leaf's "great bright future," pointing out that "Latrell Sprewell gets a second chance. . . . Ryan hasn't killed anyone or broken a bottle over anyone's head. He's cocky, but that can be one of his great strengths, too, as long as his cup doesn't runneth over. You don't want to be cocky enough for 47. Not the whole team. But it's OK to be cocky enough for three."

Tough to know

Leaf said earlier this year that he wasn't a very likable person, which he says was intended as a joke. The truth is, he says, people don't know him, largely because he doesn't let them.

"I've always been like that, because I don't really trust too many people," he said. "It's kind of tough to. You don't know whether they're befriending you for who you are, or the fact that you're this. Now that things like this happen, it makes it a lot more difficult, even, to be approached by anyone, because you don't know what their hidden agenda is.

"Sometimes, that's tough, because there could be a lot of real good people out there you want to meet, and they want to meet you. It's a tough situation. It's a tough way to begin any relationship, whether it's with males or females."

Leaf is asked if he thought, in those high-flying days last winter, that his rookie year would be a smooth ride, free of the turmoil that has burdened him.

"That's the way I wanted it to be," he said. "But you know there's going to be bumps in the road. That's how it's been my whole life. It's never been the easiest thing. You look back and regret things that happened this year, things that happened two years ago and three years ago. But in the long run, you realize they made you a better person.

"I'm a very stubborn, hard-headed person," he added. "Sometimes I have to throw that interception to know - you know what? - I can't make that throw. But before I threw it, I thought I could. That's the way I've always been."

The same goes for his attitude, he says.

"It may have been a tough lesson to learn, but I think I've learned it. Some people don't agree with some methods. I have to compromise just as much as other people have to compromise. That's the way the world is. You know, I'm learning. It's all going to be good."


A number of events on and off the field led to Ryan Leaf's benching Nov. 9.

Date Incident Sept. 20 Completed 1 of 15 passes for 4 yards in loss to Kansas City;

cursed cameraman in locker room after game Sept. 21 Caught on camera screaming at reporter in locker room Sept. 27 Threw four interceptions in loss to New York Giants; wondered publicly whether he was good enough for NFL Nov. 1 Allegedly ejected from two Pullman establishments for boorish behavior during charity visit to WSU Nov. 8 Completed just four passes in loss to Denver