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On Monday night, Ryan Leaf posted a raw, desperate plea for help — to the NFL, to the NFL Players Association, to anyone who can provide it — after getting the news that another former player, one of his brothers as he calls them, had died way too soon.
Not long before, the world had gotten the grim report that Vincent Jackson, the former Chargers and Buccaneers receiver, had been found dead in a Brandon, Florida, hotel room, just 38 years old.
“I don’t know what to [expletive] do anymore,” Leaf says. “My NFL brothers continue to die and ... nobody’s doing a goddamn thing about it. The NFL just doesn’t [expletive] care. They don’t care. They’ll write condolence letters and [expletive] like that, but if they were invested, they’d actually put some money behind the [NFL] Legends community and the mental health and substance abuse side of it.
“Once you’re bad for the brand, the 'Shield,' they could give two [expletive]," he says, in part.
Leaf didn't play with Jackson or know him particularly well, but hearing of his death struck something within him. He wouldn’t normally post something so emotional, with tears and curse words and anger, but he knows so many of his brethren are hurting, and he doesn’t believe enough is being done to help them.
“I just think I could relate. I could visualize myself, you know, eight years ago, nine years ago, alone in a hotel room, dying,” Leaf told Yahoo Sports on Wednesday. “So there was this empathy that — I just, I felt so sad for him because you’re alone in a hotel and you’re dying.
“I was really emotional and I was angry and I don’t usually do stuff like that anymore, where I let anybody see it, but maybe it was the best thing to do, to let people know it’s OK to feel feelings like that ... so I did.”
Leaf has been candid about his own struggles with mental health and substance abuse, which contributed to multiple arrests and a stint in prison in 2014. In the time since, he’s made connections with dozens of former players or their significant others, offering an ear and whatever help he can. That doesn’t mean phone numbers and websites — “I hate that,” he said — it means getting on a plane and going to the man in need, to be there and show that someone cares.
Jackson’s death, and Leaf’s plea, have opened dialogues between other former players, a reaffirmation that the brotherhood has to take care of one another.
Yet as Leaf acknowledges, the challenge is in following up and maintaining the dialogue. Not just checking up when one of their own dies, but as often as possible.
Benefits for retired players are collectively bargained with the NFL and Players Association, and Leaf said he hasn’t spoken to DeMaurice Smith, the head of the union, in years. And current players, who are at the bargaining table with league negotiators during CBA talks, aren’t attuned to the real needs of retired players, Leaf believes.
(As we’re talking, Smith calls. Leaf sends him to voicemail.)
“The current players never hear you and they never think they’re going to be 38 in a hotel room dying alone, so they never think that way when they’re collective bargaining,” Leaf said. “So I get that, but I just think more can be done.”
Leaf has ideas, tangible things he wants to see done that can help. He brings up the Legends program again, which is run by an NFL marketing executive. There’s a community, but no support staff.
He’d like to see a dedicated, sustained transitional therapy program for players upon leaving the league.
“Understanding what [life after the NFL] looks like, what it could look like,” Leaf said.
And he offers a fresh idea.
“Former-player-only facilities, because a ton of these guys see big struggles — life, physical, substance abuse — as a weakness, and we keep it quiet. We don’t want anyone to know because we lived this public life. If you had a place to go where it was just your peers, just your former players ... how much money do you think they pump into the Pro Football Hall of Fame, keeping things in a museum? Imagine if there was a facility somewhere [to offer support] to the fragile minds of the people that laid the bricks in this league and are getting help and can live amazing lives. Those are things I think about all the time.
“I set up a foundation to pay for people to get treatment, but I’m awful at it; I’m terrible at fundraising, and every dollar that comes in I’m always turning it right back out to help somebody. We all have these thoughts, we all have these imaginations on what could be, but when you’re a billion-dollar industry, there’s ways to go about it that could be helpful. And I can’t tell you how good it feels to be of service to another human being, especially a brother or peer of yours; that is incredibly satisfying.”
Leaf is careful to note that in his video plea, he wasn’t blaming the NFL or the NFLPA for Jackson’s death or other players who have died, like Leaf’s former teammate, Junior Seau.
But as he points out, in the entire 101-year history of professional football, there have only been 27,000 players; the NFL’s smallest active arena, Soldier Field, seats more than twice that many. Doing the right thing to get the ones who are still living needed resources and care shouldn’t be a big ask.
“It’s a small number. When I got out of prison, I had a saying: Ryan, you’re here because of what you did, nobody else. I’ve lived that truthfully for six years,” he said. “I want their help. I want us to work together so that kind of thing doesn’t happen again.”
And he has words for the NFL.
“You have the ability to change lives. Like, save lives,” Leaf said. “You already give them this unbelievable opportunity because of the business you run, now after they’ve helped do great things to build it for you, help them to have a sustainable, powerful impact in life.
“I totally believe they can do that. But I also understand they’re a multibillion-dollar corporation, about making money, and a lot of people who are very, very rich make a lot of money, and money exacerbates character defects in a lot of people.”
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