GREAT FALLS — Great Falls native Ryan Leaf is the subject of an upcoming E:60 feature set to broadcast on ESPN Sunday, May 21 at 7 a.m. (MST). A 90-minute version will air Thursday, May 25 at 6 p.m. (MST) on ESPN2.
ESPN producer John Minton along with reporter Tom Rinaldi and the E:60 team have spent the past year and a half following Leaf, conducting interviews with people close to him and chronicling the various stages of his life and career.
Minton spoke with MTN Sports about the upcoming feature:
MTN SPORTS: First of all – what makes Ryan Leaf’s story so compelling?
John Minton – ESPN Producer: “It’s an interesting question. I think your viewers being from Montana where Ryan grew up in Great Falls were really there at the ground floor with how everything started with him. He was such a success story coming out of Great Falls from a football standpoint, being heavily recruited across the country and making his way to Washington State in Pullman, then becoming the No. 2 overall pick in the NFL draft.
“His story at large is just so Shakespearean. There’s so much life that Ryan Leaf has lived, more so than most of us he’s lived a life that is probably equal to 10 people’s lives. The highest highs and the lowest lows. The story arc of Ryan Leaf’s life is really unlike any subject I’ve ever pursued before. There’s just an innate interest to speak to somebody who has seen such heights and experienced such lows and to be able to tell a viewer how he managed life through all of those.”
MTN SPORTS: Ryan has been in the media a lot lately and I think it’s safe to say most sports fans in Montana and beyond are already familiar with his rise and fall. What makes this E:60 profile different from what we’ve seen before?
JM: “I’m not sure that there has ever been a presentation like we’re prepared to present this Sunday on ESPN. A 60-minute version on at 9 a.m. Eastern and then on Thursday on ESPN2, a 90-minute edition. I’m not sure there’s ever been a presentation that is so comprehensive on Ryan and his story. We really identified early on the various chapters of Ryan’s life that would be of interest, starting from his time in Great Falls through his journey in Pullman. There were stops in San Diego through his time in prison in Shelby, Montana.
“We tried to talk with people from various chapters of Ryan’s life with Ryan being the primary voice through all of it. What makes it different is experiencing the journey through video and through Ryan and through as many complementary, secondary characters that we could find: from teammates in high school to teammates and coaches at the NFL level, all the way through Ryan’s cellmate in prison, who we sat down and interviewed for this project. I just think that there’s a tremendous amount of perspective not only from Ryan but from the people that were closest to him including his mother, Marcia, who offered a tremendous amount of perspective that will really separate this treatment from anything that you’ve heard in the past.”
MTN SPORTS: From the previews of the piece ESPN has released it’s striking to me how candid everyone is talking about the difficulties from his past. Were you surprised by some of the answers you got during the interview process?
JM: “To be honest, the honesty started first and foremost with Ryan. There was nothing that we learned from anyone else that we didn’t first learn from Ryan. He was tremendously honest during interviews. We’ve interviewed Ryan for cumulatively over six hours over the course of the last year and a half when we started following Ryan’s story. And the honesty always started with him.
“As far as being surprised by the honesty, I think Ryan is in a place now that is really inspirational to the people who have been alongside him through various points and chapters, certainly from some who were there during the low points compared to where he is now with his recovery. I think the timing was just right for people to look back and reflect, knowing that the honesty and the message that they put forward now could potentially impact somebody else who’s struggling.
“The addiction problem in the country right now is certainly one that hits home to a lot of people, and I think Ryan has taken upon himself to have a lot of people close to him to shine a light on that and to be a light of hope or an example of what could be if you seek help. “
MTN SPORTS: Ryan has been on a redemption tour before. I believe he was actually in the middle of promoting his book ‘596 Switch’ when he was arrested here in Great Falls. Why should we believe he’s sincere this time? Was there a rock-bottom moment where he decided to turn things around?
JM: “He had. What was really amazing to see and to hear from Ryan was that when he was arrested for the second time in 48 hours in Cascade County – he woke up two days later. He was high on pain medications at the time and woke up on the jail room floor at the Cascade County Sheriff’s office not knowing where the last two days had gone. Ryan exhibits that as the rock-bottom moment for him and he also credits that as his sobriety date, ironically enough.
“This spring Ryan told us that he celebrated five years of sobriety, but the turning point from a behavioral aspect was just a couple of months later in prison. The relationship that he developed with his cellmate, Joshua Pol, who is featured in the film, was an incredible moment and turning point in Ryan’s life that I think really, as Ryan says, turned everything around.
“Ryan started tutoring people in prison who didn’t know how to read. He became an addictions counselor and a teacher’s assistant while spending time in prison. And by the time he was released he really found a new purpose and a new pursuit that led to his latest chapter of his life, which is where we caught up with Ryan and began filming. We just had some incredible access to some of the things that he’s doing now working with Transcend, a recovery group based out of Los Angeles that he’s the program ambassador for.”
MTN SPORTS: What sort of perspective and insight did his cellmate Joshua provide?
JM: “When Ryan arrived in prison, Joshua speaks to his mental state. Ryan was in a very self-loathing state at the time. He speaks to the fact that Ryan was getting some letters from people who care deeply about him and Ryan was not necessarily in a place where he was ready to receive that from people. He wasn’t taking mail from people, he had only had visits from his parents. Just upon arrival Ryan was in bad shape.
“But I think over time and the relationship that he built with Josh and in the time they spent together I would imagine there was a lot of reflecting in prison. And Ryan certainly grew with Josh and just found that he was going to get out and what was going to happen when he got out. And I think he really started to develop a life of service behind the prison wall. And he’s since continued since he’s gotten out.”
MTN SPORTS: There’s a lot of goodwill toward Ryan in Great Falls but there are still some who will never accept that he’s changed. Did Ryan give any sort of indication that he wants to make amends with his past and have a better relationship with Great Falls?
JM: “I can’t speak to what Ryan hopes for in the future with regards to his relationship with his hometown. I know that he still has people, including his family, that he’s obviously very close to and are home there. Ryan was very accountable to us with regards to us with why the relationship he had with Great Falls growing up maybe wasn’t the best at times, including with the people that we spoke to.
“I think Ryan was young. He was certainly competitive as he says in the film and a lot of times his competitive nature rubbed people the wrong way. I think there is a lot that Ryan has learned over the years. One of the things he says most often now is what he would change looking back. The one thing that he does say that he would change is that he wishes he was a better person at times. That’s a big statement that most of us can probably relate to.
“So I don’t know exactly where Ryan wants his relationship with his hometown, but I know he speaks of just trying to be a better person and I think we can all draw inspiration from that.”
MTN SPORTS: Was there anything he wouldn’t address? Anything that was off limits while you guys were following him?
JM: “Nothing was off limits. Nothing. He was incredibly open and honest about everything. He was ready, ready to share his story, and it’s one of the most compelling projects I’ve ever been a part of but nothing was out of bounds, nothing was off limits.
“Ryan took us everywhere. He shared the story, knowing that the honesty was what was going to set his story free in a way and allow it to have an impact on people. And we really think that it will.”
MTN SPORTS: I know there are countless hours that go into these projects behind the scenes – how rewarding is it for you to share this story?
JM: “These projects are large in scope, they’re large in commitment, but they really start with the subject allowing us to come in and tell their stories. That starts with Ryan, but it continues with everyone that’s been involved. We try to work as hard as we can to present the best story, the most accurate story, and the most accurate portrayal of one’s life. But it’s a privilege to work on one like this. We’re incredibly proud of the effort our team at E:60 has put together and we’re really excited for people to see it and to see the type of impact that Ryan’s story can have on people.”