Ryan Leaf talks to Deadspin about CTE, substance abuse, and Vincent Jackson's tragic death

Former QB Ryan Leaf, who has also battled addiction, was heartbroken by Vincent Jackson’s death, calling for action from both the NFL and NFLPA.
Former QB Ryan Leaf, who has also battled addiction, was heartbroken by Vincent Jackson’s death, calling for action from both the NFL and NFLPA.
Image: AP

We’re getting a little more clarity on the death of former Chargers and Buccaneers wide receiver Vincent Jackson, and it’s a sad yet familiar story. According to Florida police, Jackson suffered from chronic alcoholism and his family feared that he showed signs of brain trauma stemming from his football career. Former NFL quarterback Ryan Leaf took to Twitter after Jackson’s death with a tearful, heartfelt message, pleading for the league and the NFL Players Association to act. I spoke with Leaf about the NFL’s response, or lack thereof, to Jackson’s heartbreaking death.

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“I think they can do more, that’s the point. I was hyperbolic and said the league doesn’t care — of course they care, but actions don’t necessarily represent that. They have the resources. I just want more. I just felt like I had to express myself, because my brothers — there’s only 27,000 of us ever, and they’re disappearing.”

The NFL has made steps forward over the years when it comes to assisting former players who are struggling, but it isn’t enough. Between the NFL and the NFLPA, Leaf said that the process of getting help is difficult, and full of red tape.

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“The NFLPA has the Player Assistance Fund (PAF), which helps financially for things like therapy, but they’re in control and dictate who gets that help,” he said. “When I got out of prison and applied for a grant to go to treatment, I was told it was declined and they ‘weren’t going to throw good money after bad,’ is the way they put it to me.”

If the NFLPA wants to help their former players battle their issues, that’s a hell of a way to show their support.

As part of the new 10-year labor deal that was agreed in March of 2020, the current players signed off on an increase in pensions and annuities for retired players, while cutting disability benefits by the amount of money they receive from Social Security, further showing a need for voices from retired players to be present during these negotiations.

The league, meanwhile, needs to dig deep into their conscience and determine what they are going to do. Either make plans to assist your former players or not — and they most definitely should — but attempting to play both sides with a “gone too soon, RIP” tweet just simply isn’t going to cut it. You’re either in, or you’re out. And it needs to start with the collective bargaining agreement between the NFLPA and the NFL.

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“I think there’s a responsibility from our union and from our former employer to make sure guys aren’t dying when they’re 38,” Leaf said. He also raised the point that there are no former players that are a part of the collective bargaining negotiations, and that he believes it’s important for former players with big voices to be part of those discussions.

“It’s pretty difficult when you’re the league, the organization that has blatantly denied that brain trauma comes from playing football, to then after the fact say we’re going to help these people deal with something that isn’t football-related. That’s got to be a tough thing to sell,” Leaf said. “You have to expect that that pretty much everyone that has played football in the National Football League is living with some kind of CTE, but it can’t be diagnosed until after death.”

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And Jackson’s family fears precisely that, according to police. There is currently no way to diagnose CTE until the brain is studied postmortem, but there are certainly observable symptoms — one of which is substance abuse. It’s an issue the NFL has continued to downplay, and it may have contributed to Jackson’s death.

Leaf, meanwhile, feels fortunate that he was able to see his own symptoms before it was too late.

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“Luckily for me, the symptoms showed very clearly — depression, substance abuse, a traumatic brain tumor — so I was able to address it. Other guys, they see what they’re going through and they’re confused, they feel weak, there’s the stigma that exists — we don’t see men that are vulnerable and transparent enough, and we’ve lived in a culture of locker rooms, where you suck it up for the whole of the team. If things aren’t going well, if your ankle is hurt, you suck it up. When you have a mental illness, you can’t see it so you’re like ‘I’m fine, there’s nothing wrong here. I’ll suck it up and get through it.’ It’s just incredibly sad, that’s all.

“When you don’t know what’s going on, when you don’t want to feel anything anymore, you self-medicate,” he continued. “For me, it was Vicodin. It was introduced to me by the doctors in the NFL and after surgeries. Alcohol wasn’t the big thing for me. For Vincent, it was. If that’s the only thing you know, you know something’s wrong, but you can’t figure it out, and you think, ‘I can’t be open and honest about it because I’m the big tough football guy that does good for the community and for my family,’ and stuff like that, then you self-medicate.”

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It is in this space where the NFL must stand. They must provide resources, a voice, and the support in every sense of the word to former players that struggle with these feelings of confusion and pain. When I asked Leaf what it would ideally look like for the NFL to tackle this issue, he responded by saying that it would look like how they jumped into the social justice issues this last year.

“It has to be action, it can’t be talking. Real apologies are changed behavior. We need to see the resources going into mental health. A stand-alone facility to me is the minimum that should be done. There also has to be transition training for when a player leaves, that’s mandatory. I don’t know how you mandate that, maybe collectively bargain that, but when you leave, this is the training you get. Thirty days after you decide to retire, this is what it looks like. I don’t care if you’re a 10-time Pro Bowler and five-time Super Bowl champion, or if you played half a year, this is how it’s going to work, because guess what, all of our identities are wrapped up in being football players, and that changes.”

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The NFL needs to step into the void, to hear the pain and the anguish of the former players currently without a voice in negotiating their own well-being long after their playing days are over.

“It’s all a matter of if the NFL wants to do it,” Leaf said. “That’s all it comes down to — whether they want to save lives or not. And if they don’t, if they say ‘we’re a cash printing business, and we play violent, smash-mouth violent football,’ then hey, I get it. Then it’s our responsibility, and I’m willing to take up that mantle with my brothers, because for some reason I’ve been expecting the NFL to be more involved, for whatever reason. What’s the line? ‘When someone shows you who they are, believe them’? Maybe my optimism and my hope has been too much in all of this.”

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Rashaan Salaam won the Heisman Trophy in 1994 as a running back at the University of Colorado. That year, he ran for 2,055 rushing yards and 24 touchdowns, making him only the fourth college running back ever to top 2,000 rushing yards, joining Marcus Allen, Mike Rozier, and Barry Sanders. One year later, he was selected with the 21st overall pick in the NFL Draft by the Chicago Bears. He ran for 1,074 yards during his rookie season. In his second year, he started only six games because of knee and hamstring issues. In his third year, he broke his leg and tore a ligament in his ankle. That offseason, the Bears tried to trade him to Miami, but he failed his physical. He was released, and his NFL career was over. In 2016, Salaam killed himself.

“I just don’t want my brothers to keep dying,” Leaf said. “That’s all I want. I don’t want anything from anybody, I just want my brothers to be able to live a full life and not be gone at 38 years old. You know, like a former Heisman Trophy winning running back, Rashaan Salaam, to be gone. People are living to 80, 90 years old. I have a 3-year-old boy, I want to be around as long as I can, and I want everyone else to. That’s my only plea here.”

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It’s time for the league to address this, to stand in the gap, and to take care of its former players. As Leaf said, it’s all a matter of want. They can take care of their former players, and they currently are choosing not to.