GREAT FALLS — If you tune in to Westwood One’s radio broadcast of the FCS national championship between Montana and South Dakota State on Sunday, you’ll hear a familiar and polarizing voice calling the game.
Great Falls native Ryan Leaf will serve as the color commentator for the game alongside play-by-play man Ted Emrich and sideline reporter Taylor Davis.
Leaf’s life and career have been well documented. He was a star quarterback at Great Falls CMR High School, a Heisman Trophy candidate at Washington State and became the first and still only Montana native selected in the first round of the NFL Draft when he went No. 2 overall to the San Diego Chargers in 1998.
From there Leaf dealt with myriad mental health and addiction issues and is widely considered the biggest NFL draft bust of all time. Following his playing career he spent two years in the Montana prison system on burglary, theft and drug charges before he was released in 2014.
Since then, Leaf has committed to sobriety, became a motivational speaker and is an advocate for mental health and addiction awareness. As a second act in college football, Leaf has become a successful and sought after broadcaster and host. Leaf and his wife, Anna, recently welcomed their second child in November, a daughter named Claiborne, adding to a family which includes 6-year-old son MacGyver.
Leaf spoke with MTN Sports this week to discuss a wide range of topics including the FCS title game, his Cat-Griz allegiances, complicated relationship with Montana and history with Griz head coach Bobby Hauck.
MTN SPORTS: Ryan, thanks again for taking time to chat.
RYAN LEAF: "Of course, can you hold on a second? I have to run this pacifier over to my wife.”
*Leaves and comes back*
“Sorry about that.”
MTN SPORTS: It’s alright, that was actually going to be my first question. I appreciate that you took the time to speak with us because I know time is at a premium with a newborn. Not sure how you have time to do anything these days. How is life with two kids?
RYAN LEAF: “Thank you. It’s crazy, but we make it work. Sunday morning my boss at Westwood texted me at 8:25 a.m. and said, 'Hey, any chance you can get to a plane and get to Minneapolis and call a Packers-Vikings game?' I was feeding the baby and I looked at my wife and I said, 'Do you think I can get there in time, can I go?’ And my wife gave me the nod and I was in the car at 8:55 a.m. and on a plane at 11 a.m. and in Minneapolis calling the Packers-Vikings game that night. So she's super supportive and she just knows how much I love it. Diapers are expensive I guess is the way we look at it.”
MTN SPORTS: And the diapers from the baby shower run out quick. I get that. Anyway, there was a big response when you tweeted about calling the FCS title game. Personally, I thought it was cool there was a Montana connection.
RYAN LEAF: “Oh, I'm so excited. I got the game like in August right before I went on my speaking tour where I go around the country and speak to college football programs, and Montana State was one of them. And Coach (Brent) Vigen asked me to come speak and and I remember putting it into my speech when I was talking to the guys, I was like, 'Hey, I just got the FCS championship. I hope you guys get back there and I hope I get a chance to call it because I grew up a Bobcat fan.' My dad's a Bobcat. My aunt and uncle are Cats. And I was 8 years old when they won the 1984 national championship. So that's like right in my development of my love of football. My dad took me to some games down in Bozeman, and (quarterback) Kelly Bradley was like a God. You know, a quarterback won a national championship from Montana. So, I've been a diehard Cats fan for forever. And I think it influenced my decision to go to Washington State rather than to Washington, because I associated Montana and Washington in the same way. But then Dave Dickenson ended up being essentially my guiding star for growing up there in Great Falls and playing quarterback. He went to the University of Montana. And so those were my two heroes growing up. My heroes of quarterback play come from the state of Montana flat out. Terry Bradshaw from the Steelers as a pro and Kelly Bradley and Dave Dickenson, they guided that aspect of things for quarterback play for me."
MTN SPORTS: On that note, I imagine you were on the radar of much larger schools early in your recruitment. But I'm sure the Cats and the Griz made their pitches. Could there ever have been a world where Ryan Leaf was a Cats or Griz quarterback?
RYAN LEAF: “Well, it would have been Montana State for sure, and then I would have played basketball, too. If I was going to stay in state, I was going to play all sports. That would have kept me there. When I went over for my unofficial visit to Missoula, Dave Dickenson came out and met us at a restaurant that night and he kind of pulled me aside and asked me, was I even going to consider staying local? Because if you're not, they're going to move on and do other things. And that made sense. But I did like the fact that even though Montana State knew that, they kept recruiting me, when Montana stopped. You know, it was practical. It was pragmatic. But yeah, I didn't have a lot of fond memories growing up in Great Falls or in Montana. And I didn't want to stay there. I wanted to go do my own thing and try to be a professional athlete. So, in steps Washington State, ultimately, and Mike Price made the offer and it ended up being the best, best decision I ever made."
MTN SPORTS: You mentioned not having fond memories of Montana. And I think that’s always been the narrative that you don’t claim your home state. It has certainly been the site of some low points in your life. As your life has changed in recent years have you found love for Montana?
RYAN LEAF: "In a way I do have love for Montana. My family's from there. They continue to live there. I think that doing all the work that I've done now on myself through therapy and dealing with the PTSD and mental illness, you revisit a lot of the things. And the one thing I could just never get over or just don't understand is how adults treated a kid. Now, I get it. When you come back as an adult and I victimized the community then and all bets are off, right? This kid, he's not a kid anymore. We can be judgmental and righteous because that's what I did. I came back and victimized my community with my addiction. And so looking back on that, I just could never get over how people or adults could treat a child that way. And so that's the thing that haunted me, I think, for a long, long time and what made me, frankly, not want to be associated with Montana. And then when I walked into Washington they just embraced me. I think Montana wanted a great professional athlete. And instead they got me. And unfortunately who I was was not what they wanted. And I resented that. And so I did the only thing I knew how to do, and that was to just compete, to embarrass people, and that just never works for anybody. It got me to the highest possible level but didn't allow me to really enjoy or have any success because of it.”
MTN SPORTS: Let’s talk football for a little bit. I know you’ve done your homework on the FCS title game. Have you watched FCS football much this year and what do you know about these two teams coming into Frisco?
RYAN LEAF: "Yeah, I follow all college football. I've watched every possible game for games that I have to deal with and associate with. And the FCS is important to me. It just is. I remember we were in Week 2 and I had the ESPN+ app on my phone while we were sitting in the back at halftime of the game I was calling. I think it was at TCU, I forget where I was at. And MSU dropped the pass in the end zone at South Dakota State. I just screamed, 'You dropped it!' I was invested in it. And then a couple of weeks later Washington State beat Oregon State while Montana for some ungodly reason went to Northern Arizona, a winless team, and got beat. And I just couldn't believe it. And then the Cats won. So it was like the best day in the world, right? Cougars and Cats win and the Griz get beat. But it's been a magical year for coach (Bobby) Hauck and and this team. To watch them go through what they did and become the team that they were this season, taking on Montana State and crushing them in the Brawl. When the team hangs 55 on you the year before that wears on you and for Montana to dominate in such a fashion in that game to earn themselves the home field advantage, it's a huge reason why they're in the national championship because the teams they beat were very good and Washington-Grizzly Stadium is an atmosphere like no other. It just is. It's an unbelievable atmosphere for FCS college football and it certainly was exactly that. It was home field advantage for this team and and it was pretty pretty great. I'm a huge Bobby Hauck fan. I've known him for a long, long time. I'm happy that he's got a team that has worked their butts off to get to where they're at.”
MTN SPORTS: You make no secret about your allegiances in Montana. Your tweet the other day joked about confusing Montana and Montana State led to some back and forth chirping with Griz fans on social media. Do you enjoy the back and forth and the banter?
RYAN LEAF: “Well, I started it. I said, ’See you in Frisco,' but I can tell you they can’t take a joke very well. They take things incredibly seriously. I mean, I get it. A chance at a national championship, it's pretty special. I was afforded that opportunity in college, too, so I know what it's like. But yeah, like social media for me is an avenue to help people if they're in need. That's what it's for. But it’s also for me to just talk some smack. And it's just not real, you know, none of it's real. It's social media. So it dumbfounded me sometimes just the seriousness in which fans of teams take it, to a point where they're incredibly personal with their comments. But yeah, I've been having a pretty good go at Grizzly fans over the last few weeks. I get a kick out of it. I think it's hilarious. I don't take myself seriously at all. I think one guy even thought I was doing the broadcast for ABC or ESPN rather than the national radio call. And so he wanted to petition ESPN to get me off the call. And I told my boss and we laughed pretty hard about it. So, yeah, I'm very good at what I do. I've been doing it for a while. It’s the reason why I was employed by a bunch of different broadcasting companies. I’ve called a Washington Husky game. I dislike the Huskies greatly. But I love calling football games. It's my favorite thing. You could throw me in a parking lot with kids, just running around playing seven on seven and I'll call it. I got a little four-week-old daughter and we were watching the Washington game last night, and she's just laying on my chest and my wife's looking at me and I'm doing the color commentary. Kind of like Tom Selleck in "Three Men and a Little Baby". Reading Sports Illustrated, voice, and it's practice. And I love calling games, so I'll be incredibly professional. I have no allegiance as to whether or not Montana wins or loses this game. I hope it's a good one. I think these are two incredible teams. And if Montana fans don't like the fact that I'm calling the game, I mean, that sounds like a of them problem, not a me problem.”
MTN SPORTS: There are plenty of options to watch and listen the game whether on ABC or Montana radio stations. I know you’re working with some veterans in Ted Emrich and Taylor Davis. Why should folks tune in to the Westwood One radio broadcast?
RYAN LEAF: "Well, I just think the radio is such a different experience. TV is an entertainment show, it is. I mean, you get to view it. My family and a lot of my friends, what they do is they just pull up the radio app and time it with the kick off and just have the radio commentary go with the TV version so you can do that. But I will say this, the TV broadcast team: Roy Philpott, Roddy Jones and Taylor McGregor, I've worked with all of them. They're incredible broadcasters. They'll do a great job. So you're going to have a really good television broadcast team as well as a national radio broadcast team. Taylor Davis, our sideline reporter, is awesome. Ted Emrich got to call his first NFL game the other night, the Lions-Cowboys game. And he was through the roof. I’m really, really proud of him. And we all had a chance to work with him a bunch. So we're excited. I'm excited. It's a national championship game. As a broadcaster that's something you put on your resume that other people don't have. And broadcasting is something I'd like to do for a long, long time. I feel like I'm really good at it. I put a lot of time and effort into it. So being able to put a national championship on my broadcasting resume, I think is substantial. And it's something that I jumped at when I was offered it in August.”
MTN SPORTS: You've always talked about gratitude and how grateful you are to be where you were at. Given your path to get where you are now, are there times you still have to pinch yourself a little bit that you get this chance?
RYAN LEAF: "I'm amazed. I'm amazed at what this life has allowed me to do and what it's given me. It was Sunday night on New Year's and we just finished calling the Vikings-Packers game and we're in the hotel eating pizza. And we're just sitting there and midnight rang and I was trying to think back. Literally 10 years ago, I was sitting in a prison cell. So if that doesn't give you perspective and fill you with gratitude, I mean, I just don't know what will. And it also it reminds me constantly that it just doesn't matter what has happened in the past. If you do something differently today that you didn't do before and do the next right thing, amazing things happen. For me, there's something to be said about the work ethic it took to get to the NFL level. But it also means I know how you still could burn it down to the ground, too. But then to get back to where I'm at right now, I think the work ethic still exists. The guys that put you in those (broadcast) chairs, they want the best possible product out there. And they're not going to take a chance on a seven-time convicted felon, drug addict, if he's not good at it. I mean, why would you do that? It just doesn't make any sense unless you can actually bring something to the table. So it's imperative that I work my tail off for everything I've got now moving forward."
MTN SPORTS: Back to Montana for a bit. There is a good portion of the population here that will never forgive you or believe you’ve changed. Has your relationship with your home state improved over the years? And do you ever see a time where you can come back to Montana and be celebrated for the advocacy for mental health and addiction you're doing now rather than what happened in the past?
RYAN LEAF: "I mean, I don't need to be celebrated for anything. I don't do this for me. I do it for the individuals that still struggle. When you make it about other people, your life gets better, which is crazy. Me growing up as a narcissist, I assumed and thought that to make my life better, it had to be about me. And that's just not the case. So I don't like coming back to Montana for a myriad of reasons. One is just you get off the plane in Great Falls and you drive right by the Cascade County Detention Center. It's a very palpable memory for me and my addiction and driving around looking for homes to steal from to feed that addiction. So there's just a lot of trauma there. And then I just find myself surrounded by a ton of people that want to remind me of my worst days, my worst moments in life because to them that's my identity. And so, no, I don't like coming back. That said, I want my son and my daughter to be able to see how beautiful Montana is. And we've sent my son back to Montana and for like six weeks with my parents. And, it's unfortunate, but hey, I think we're both in really good places. The state of Montana, I think is in a great place without me. And I'm in a really great place without it. So I don't know why any of us would want to rock that boat since everything's going so great.”
MTN SPORTS: Montana is certainly having a moment. We got “Yellowstone" — and even though it feels like most of us don’t watch it, we feel the effects.
RYAN LEAF: “Everyone asks about 'Yellowstone' when they hear I’m from Montana. But there are certain things I’m proud of. The opening line to all my speeches is a cool anecdote that still is hard to believe is true. In the modern era, I am the only Montana native who's ever been drafted in the first round of the NFL Draft. I just, I can't even fathom that. And so that is my opener when I talk about it, to show the size and the scope of things and in comparison to, let's say, the Manning family, who has had three first-round draft picks. So I guess if anything, it's allowed me to use that as an anecdote for my speeches to cut the tension and make everybody laugh and get moving in a conversation about some very serious topics. But I guess that it lends itself to the idea that I don't take myself very seriously because I know what's important.”
MTN SPORTS: Let's go back to Sunday. How do you see the game playing out? Montana has never lost to South Dakota State and SDSU is on a 28-game win streak. What are your predictions for Sunday's championship game?
RYAN LEAF: "I'm surprised Montana is such a heavy underdog. I really am. I mean 12.5 points is significant for a team that's been thoroughly competitive all year long no matter who they played. I go back to what I think the biggest win for Montana this year was, the win at the Kibbie Dome against Idaho. The Idaho Vandals were a very good football team. I called their game the year before against Washington State when they probably should have won, and I saw how they improved and that was for me the defining win for Montana where I kind of thought that Northern Arizona game was a fluke on the road. And these guys are for real because to go in there and win is a big deal. And then watching Montana State on the other side of that coin not be able to go into that game against Idaho and win. That meant to me that the Cat-Griz game in Missoula was going to be a much different scenario. It's probably going to be a top-five matchup which I think was the first time that was ever a top-five matchup for the Brawl. And I think Bobby Hauck just committed to (quarterback) Clifton McDowell for better or worse in terms of what they did offensively. It wasn't gonna be flashy, they weren't going to throw for 300 yards a game. They were going to go about their business and do what they had to do. Whether (McDowell) had to use his legs or if he was a 50-percent completion guy it didn't matter. This was going to be the way they were going to do it. They're going to win by playing great defense. I mean, the third in the country in total defense just so happens to be going up against a team that is first in total defense. The Jackrabbits are allowing under 10 points a game. So I mean that's going to be problematic. If I was a betting man out there, I'd probably take a look at what the total was on this game and venture towards the under. There's very good defensive play in this matchup.”
MTN SPORTS: You mentioned you had a relationship with Bobby Hauck. What’s the relationship and what have your interactions been like with him over the years?
RYAN LEAF: “He had some time at Washington, of course. And then I played against his brother (Tim Hauck) in the NFL. And when Tim was with the Philadelphia Eagles, I think I was with the Chargers and the Cowboys at the time. And then when I got into coaching Bobby was a pretty good sounding board and offered guidance. I went to a couple coaches conventions and Bobby pulled me aside and talked me through it. I was somebody who played professional football and probably had a lot of entitlement to the idea of what coaching is going to be like. He told me it would serve me well if I walked into these meetings while I was there and say, 'Hey, I will get your coffee, I will do all those things.’ And he was absolutely right about what I did when I went and got into coaching down in West Texas. I went to a (NCAA) Division II school and got to work with quarterbacks and got paid like $500 a month. You know, if I hadn't been so sick, that may have been a path for me. And I will say that Coach Hauck really had kind of a firm hand on how to go about that. Ironically, I think I was angling at the time when he was at the University of Montana to try to get a job. And he just had some great advice for me and I was really proud when he got an opportunity to go to UNLV and to see him come back to Montana. It just kind of it feels like it's a fit there in Missoula for him and how well he has performed and what these teams have accomplished.”
MTN SPORTS: Thanks Ryan, final thoughts on the game?
RYAN LEAF: "You look at common opponents for Montana and SDSU and it’s Montana State and North Dakota State. South Dakota State had a problem with Montana State at home, where they had less of a problem with North Dakota State mid-season. And vice versa for the Griz. They dominated the Cats and then had to find a way to get it done and sneak by against against North Dakota State. So if I'm looking at this matchup, I'm saying this is a pretty darn even matchup. And don't count the Griz out by any means. They are clearly capable of defeating anybody on any given day. And the fact that it's on a neutral site, I think really lends itself to Montana. And I want to tell all your Grizzly fans out there, you're going to love it so much better if you despise the fact that I'm on the call when I say, 'Your Montana Grizzlies are the 2023 national champions.’ It’s got to be special because you're going to believe that you made me have to say that and that's going to take you to another level in 2024."