INDIANAPOLIS —Last October, as Peyton Manning was being celebrated by the Indianapolis Colts with the unveiling of a statue outside of Lucas Oil Stadium, he received a text message that took him back almost two decades.
On April 18, 1998 — twenty years ago today — the Colts, who had the No. 1-overall pick in that year's NFL Draft, badly needed a quarterback. After much deliberation — a process that included an abundance of film study, psychological testing, private workouts and hours and hours of meetings — general manager Bill Polian decided to pick Manning that night over Ryan Leaf, who was considered by many to be the can't-miss prospect at the quarterback position.
Manning went on to break almost every major NFL quarterback record there was in an 18-year career that also included two Super Bowl titles, one each with the Colts and the Denver Broncos.
Leaf, well … didn't quite pan out. Selected by the San Diego Chargers with the No. 2-overall pick, he would go on to play in parts of three seasons with the Chargers, and for one season, the Dallas Cowboys; in 24 games with 21 starts, Leaf would complete just 317-of-655 passes (48.4 percent) for 3,666 yards with 14 touchdowns to 36 interceptions.
Leaf tried his hand at coaching once his playing days were over, but then his life began to spiral out of control. In 2010, he was found guilty of several counts of obtaining a controlled substance by fraud and one count of delivery of a simulated controlled substance after officials said he had illicitly been in possession of almost 1,000 pain pills; Leaf was sentenced to ten years of probation.
In 2012, Leaf was accused of breaking into two homes within a four-day period in his hometown of Great Falls, Mont., in an apparent search for prescription medication. After pleading guilty to one count of burglary and one count of criminal possession of a dangerous drug, Leaf was sentenced to seven years in prison.
But in December 2014, Leaf, who had completed an "intensive chemical dependency treatment program," according to The Great Falls Tribune, was granted parole and released from prison. Since that time, he has been able to turn his life around, and now works as a program ambassador for Transcend Recovery Community, a "full-fledged community comprised of nine homes throughout the Los Angeles, New York, and Houston areas" that specializes in "helping young men and women rediscover a passion for purposeful living," according to the group's website.
But Manning and Leaf continued to stay connected in various ways over the years. In a recent appearance on the Barstool Sports podcast "Pardon My Take," Leaf said the Manning family had reached out to his family while he was in prison, and that he harbors no ill-will towards Peyton for the way things panned out.
"I'm happy for his career," Leaf told hosts Dan "Big Cat" Katz and PFT Commenter. "I mean, just because mine wasn't successful (it) doesn't mean I want others to fail because I don't want somebody to call me the biggest bust. I mean, that's just silly."
As for that "biggest bust" moniker, Leaf said it's something that no longer bothers him — but that wasn't always the case.
"It bothered me for a long time, yeah it did. And I think it contributed to my destruction of myself for a long time," Leaf said. "But now I understand what's really important. And my peers, my peers don't use those words. It's the media, it's the fans, that's a go-to word to say, 'You may have been the best one percent of the one percent, but you're the bust of that.'"
Had Leaf gone to the Colts instead of the Chargers, would his career — and his life — have turned out much different?
He doesn't think so. But he definitely wouldn't have minded having the weapons Manning did during his rookie season.
"No. Most likely not. It was me, right? It was my issues," Leaf said. "So it really didn't matter geographically where I went — though I may have had, not to put anybody down, but I would've had Marshall Faulk and Marvin Harrison my first year."
And as for that aforementioned text message? Leaf said he was sure to send a special note Manning's way during his statue unveiling — but he added a personal touch.
"I texted him and told him, 'Congratulations; such a well-deserved honor.' But I also sent a picture of my two-week-old son and me, and I said … 'My day was still better,'" Leaf said with a laugh. "But he texted back immediately and said, 'You're right.' He understands, and we understand, what's important now in our lives."