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His parents and Leaf recall his struggles to make friends back then, often buddying up to foes more than teammates. He figured if he got to know them on the field he’d know how to react to them off the field.

“When do you realize when you’re a kid that you’re going to be great and everybody else doesn’t understand that?” Leaf told The Associated Press in a rare series of interviews. “I don’t know. I just felt I could beat everybody.”

He led C.M. Russell High to a state championship his junior year; an injury early the following season caused him to miss a third of the season.

Though she saw her son’s talent, Marcia Leaf had concerns.

She remembers coming home from her job as a registered nurse when Leaf was about 4 and finding his first football helmet _ the Steelers one he’d just gotten for Christmas _ in the trash.

“And I said, ‘Ryan, what’s wrong? Why’s the helmet in the garbage?’ And he said, ‘They lost.’ At a very young age he was all about business and winning.”

His high school football coach saw it, too. Leaf was fiercely competitive.

“He just couldn’t control his emotions and let that stuff go,” longtime Russell coach Jack Johnson said.


Leaf got a scholarship at Washington State, but didn’t get his first college start until late in the 1995 season, when he nearly led the Cougars to a win at No. 22 Washington in the Apple Cup. The Cougars lost 33-30 in front of about 74,000 in Husky Stadium.

Mike Price, then the Cougars coach, said Leaf could be “flighty” and “a challenge.”

They hollered at each other more than a few times, but always put it behind them, said Price, who now coaches at UTEP. Like most anybody, he said, Leaf could have used “a few more doses of humility” and he could be brutal in how he told the truth.

“At times it got him in trouble. He had a temper,” Price said. “It wasn’t always easy but he did a great job.”

Leaf blossomed as a junior, leading Washington State to a 10-2 record, a No. 8 ranking and its first Rose Bowl in 67 years. That’s when his father realized, “Well, maybe something can come out of this deal.”

He finished third in balloting for the Heisman Trophy and gave up his senior year to join the NFL, finishing his Cougar career with 7,433 yards and 59 touchdowns.

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