(Editor’s note: MTN Sports began recognizing some of the best football players in Montana history on July 2 with the launch of the #MTTop40. The series started with defensive backs and will run eight weeks, featuring one position each week, concluding with quarterbacks the week of Aug. 20-24 to coincide with Montana’s high school football season opener. We’ve wrapped up the defense, also profiling the defensive linemen and linebackers, and started the offense with the offensive linemen, tight ends, wide receivers and running backs. This week we focus on quarterbacks, two each day — one from the modern era and one who played pre-1980s.)
Quarterbacks: No. 5 — Paul Petrino, Helena Capital and Bob O’Billovich, Butte; No. 4 — Brock Osweiler, Kalispell Flathead and John Leister, Great Falls CMR; No. 3 — Tyler Emmert, Helena Capital and Ty Paine, Billings Senior.
No. 2 quarterbacks — Ryan Leaf, Great Falls CMR and Gary Fox, Billings West
Following impressive careers on Montana’s Class AA football fields, Ryan Leaf and Gary Fox would re-write program records at the quarterback position at Washington State and Wyoming, respectively.
Ryan Leaf stat sheet
Leaf was one of the most physically talented high school athletes Montana has produced, though he didn’t become the starting quarterback at Great Falls CMR until midway through his junior season. The move paid off for then-coach Jack Johnson and the Rustlers, as Leaf guided them to the Class AA state championship, a 20-11 win over Helena Capital in 1992. CMR was knocked out of the postseason the following fall, Leaf’s senior year, after a potential Rustlers’ touchdown was called back. Despite his athletic talents, Leaf never earned all-state accolades, keeping his photo from appearing in the Great Falls CMR football wall of fame at CMR Fieldhouse. Leaf was an all-conference and all-state selection on the basketball court, earning team MVP and a selection in the Montana-Wyoming all-star series his senior year.
Highly recruited on the football fields, Leaf turned down offers from the likes of the University of Miami, choosing to attend Washington State University. He appeared in nine games in 1995, throwing for 654 yards and four touchdowns. As a sophomore starter in 1996, Leaf completed 194 of 373 passes for 2,811 yards, throwing 21 touchdowns and rushing for six more. He became a college football household name his junior year, setting a Pac-10 single-season record with 33 regular-season passing touchdowns. He completed 227 passes for 3,968 yards and was named a Heisman Trophy finalist, finishing third in the voting behind Michigan’s Charles Woodson and Peyton Manning of Tennessee. Leaf would meet Woodson and the Wolverines in the 1998 Rose Bowl, Washington State’s first appearance since 1931, and despite throwing for 331 yards and a touchdown, Leaf and the Cougars fell 21-16. Michigan was named Associated Press national champion at the season’s end.
Leaf was named the Pac-10 offensive player of the year, as well as first-team all-American, and declared for the NFL Draft, where he was considered a potential No. 1 pick. The Indianapolis Colts selected Manning with the first pick, as Leaf was taken with the No. 2 selection by the San Diego Chargers, earning a four-year, $31.25 million contract with an $11.25 million signing bonus, the largest ever for a rookie at the time. Leaf won his first two starts in the 1998 season, but struggled in a 1-15 performance on the road against the Kansas City Chiefs, throwing two interceptions and losing three fumbles. After a four-interception game in his fourth outing, Leaf was benched by the Chargers. He finished the 1998 season completing 111 of 245 passes, good for 1,289 yards, but finished with only two touchdowns, compared to 15 interceptions, a quarterback rating of 39.0. Leaf was placed on the injured reserve list before the 1999 season, undergoing shoulder surgery from an injury suffered in training camp. He returned to the starting lineup in 2000, appearing in 11 games with 1,883 yards and 11 touchdowns, while throwing 18 interceptions and being sacked 31 times. San Diego started the season 0-11 and finished 1-15.
The Chargers released Leaf in February of 2001, after he won just four games in his two years as the starting quarterback. He was claimed and ultimately released by the Tampa Bay Buccaneers in March of 2001, signed with Dallas, but failed his physical and was let go. The Cowboys re-signed Leaf in October, where he appeared in four games, with 494 yards, but only one touchdown and three interceptions. He was set to join the Seattle Seahawks for the 2002 season, but retired from football prior to training camp. Leaf finished his NFL career with 21 starts and 25 games played, completing 317 of 655 passes for 3,666 yards and 14 touchdowns. He also threw 36 interceptions and was sacked 65 times.
After earning his degree from Washington State in 2005, Leaf eventually joined the West Texas A&M coaching staff as a volunteer quarterbacks coach, but was placed on leave in 2008 after being accused of burglarizing a player’s home in search of prescription pain medication. He was arrested in his hometown of Great Falls in March of 2012 after breaking into a home to again steal prescription pain meds. After another arrest in April 2012, Leaf would spend 32 months in prison, eventually being released in December 2014. Now a motivational speaker and Program Ambassador for Transcend Recovery Community, Leaf and his fiancée, Anna, have a near-one-year-old son, McGyver.
… on Leaf
Former Great Falls CMR head coach Jack Johnson: “Ryan was unbelievably talented. I think a lot of people, the thing that people have forgotten about Ryan, for me at least, I thought he was a fierce competitor. Ryan competed hard, he played hard, he hated to lose. I don’t know if he lost that down the road or something, I didn’t get to see him play in the pros, other than on TV, but for us, he was very talented and hated to lose. He would give it all he had.
“He was 6-foot-4 and a big, strong kid. He could hum the football, there’s no doubt about that. I’m just disappointed that he didn’t have the career we all wish he would have, but those things happen sometimes.
“I think that he probably got thrown in to the fire a little too early. Things just didn’t go well, but I think he’s doing good now. He’s married, has a little one and hopefully things wind up good in the long run for him.”
Former Great Falls High head coach Dale Pohle: “I could see right away when he played as a sophomore that he was the real deal, also. He was going to win. I just think of one game when it was really, really cold and he singlehandedly, we had a pretty good sophomore team, but he took the game over and pretty much won it by himself. I just thought to myself right then, ‘This kid is going to be around a long time.’
“I watched him play basketball a few times where he would take one dribble from the free throw line and dunk the ball. There aren’t a lot of people doing that. It’s not an every day occurrence.
“I kind of knew (Leaf could play at the biggest stage) because I watched him and (Dave) Dickenson grow up, they were in the same block as I was. I watched them as little kids, junior high kids, whatever. My oldest daughter was about the same age. You could just see it coming right there, but at the time, I never thought that they would end up like they did.”
Gary Fox stat sheet
An all-state quarterback at Billings West in the late 1960s, Gary Fox was selected for the 1968 Montana East-West Shrine Game, earning MVP honors after leading the East to a 27-8 victory. Fox played with fellow #MTTop40 selection Pete Lazetich, the No. 4 defensive lineman, in the Shrine Game, before beginning his college career at the University of Wyoming.
Fox was a three-year letter-winner with the Cowboys, beginning in the 1969 season, which saw him appear in 10 games and complete 69 passes for 800 yards and five touchdowns, including a 10-11 performance the Air Force Academy, the highest single-game pass-completion percentage in program history at 90.9 percent. Wyoming won the game 27-25. He also rushed for four scores in a backup role. Fox again played in 10 games the following season, completing 26 passes for 297 yards and a pair of touchdowns. But it was 1971 when he would re-write the Cowboys’ record book.
The team captain and starting quarterback, Fox went 171-328 for 2,336 yards with 14 touchdowns. Fox holds the Wyoming single-game average yards per pass completion, 25.4, after throwing for 305 yards on 12 completions against Arizona, and became the first Cowboy quarterback to throw for more than 1,500 yards, as well as 2,000 yards, an achievement he held alone until Craig Burnett threw for 3,131 in 1987. His 171 completions in 1971 still rank in the top 25 in program history, while his 2,175 total offensive yards were No. 1 until 1979.