GRIZ GRIT: Redemption for Athletes in Trouble

By MICK HOLIEN for the Flathead Beacon

We are a country that loves stories of redemption.

A person can engage in dog fighting and kill the animals when they have outgrown their use, explaining as his excuse that he grew up in that kind of culture.  Then he serves a prison sentence and returns to the pay-for-play ranks as one of the league’s highest paid athletes.

Or a person can carry heat into a New York nightclub and go to prison after accidentally shooting himself, but is then welcomed back to the league because he can still catch a football.

Those are the stories of Michael Vick and Plaxico Burress, but there are many other similar stories, as we are a country of forgiveness, warranted or not.

And that’s the case with a quarterback from Montana who might wear the moniker of “the worst high school draft choice in history” forever.

Drafted No. 2 in the 1998 draft after taking Washington State to the Rose Bowl, Great Falls native Ryan Leaf was a Heisman Trophy finalist who was a bust in the professional ranks.

While he made numerous attempts to get on his feet, an addiction to painkillers after a series of injuries and numerous surgeries continually seemed to pull him to the depths.

At what was probably the deepest of those depths he pleaded guilty to seven drug charges in Texas where he was indicted after breaking into the home of West Texas A & M player to steal prescription drugs.

He was fined but instead of jail time he was sentenced to 10 years probation.

Leaf, who was drafted just behind Peyton Manning, also was not the easiest guy for the media to get along with.  In college his ego and pompous attitude tuned off journalists who soon decided, even with his success, they’d prefer to cover the Cougars without him.

And WSU Coach Mike Price had his share of challenges dealing with a guy who led the Cougars to a rare win over the Huskies and the school’s first Rose Bowl bid in 67 years.

But ironically it is Pullman, the home of the Cougars, where leaf has landed, returning to the college roots.  He said recently he should have rediscovered these roots earlier.

Leaf says he is working on his 12-step program and is now in the midst of additional redemption as he travels the country promoting the first of three autobiographical books, “596 Switch: The Improbable Journey From the Palouse to Pasadena”.

And while early sales figures haven’t yet surfaced, the posts on his Facebook page indicate there is no shortage of people interested in his story.

Leaf has received extensive national publicity, including a recent appearance on the Dan Patrick Show.

Though he has sometimes shunned his Montana roots, even after leading CMR to a state title his junior year, he’s assured me he’d be glad to join us for an interview during a Grizzly game.

While some in the media re hardly flocking to his side, I’m one who believes redemption is a grand thing and I look forward to the interview.

What are your thoughts on redemption? And in particular, redemption of athletes in trouble?

We’d love to hear from you.

Like this GRIZ GRIT Blog by Voice of the Griz Mick Holien?  Check out his Griz Grit Archive.


Now in his 27th year of broadcasting University of Montana football or basketball games, award winning journalist Mick Holien has a unique and insightful perspective on collegiate athletics.