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It was Manning who went first in the 1998 draft, and Leaf went to the San Diego Chargers at No. 2.

The 6-foot-5 Leaf got a four-year contract worth more than $31 million. His dream of playing NFL football was coming true.

“I was hungry,” he said. “I wanted to be good.”

And he was _ for the first two games his rookie season. Then came the game he calls “the root of all evil.” He was 1 of 15 for 4 yards, lost three fumbles and threw two interceptions in a 23-7 loss at Kansas City.

The press pulled no punches. Leaf didn’t either, unleashing profanities toward one reporter in the locker room the next day.

“I was fighting a war on two fronts. I was fighting the best defenses in professional football and I was fighting the media,” he said. “At that level you just cannot do that. You just cannot do it. I couldn’t stop it, and I didn’t try to stop it.”

He understood fans’ high expectations. He had them, too.

“You go from being the most loved player in the country to two weeks later being one of the most hated. I just couldn’t believe how quickly and out of control it got and how poorly I handled it,” he said. “And it’s been my identity ever since _ as a flop-type of thing.”

Though his family reached out to try to help him _ his father and youngest brother, Brady, drove to San Diego _ Leaf didn’t let them in.

“I just felt I needed to do this all on my own,” he said. “I didn’t need anybody’s help and I didn’t need anybody’s advice on how to do it because I’d always been successful doing it the way I knew I could do it.”

In a 15-month span, Leaf was released by San Diego, Tampa Bay and Dallas. Seattle gave him a shot but a wrist injury led him to decide to retire in 2002.

His career stats: 14 touchdowns, 36 interceptions, 3,666 yards.

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Leaf expected to be forgotten and in the first few years after the NFL he lived a low-key life. He worked as a financial consultant in San Diego, and returned to finish his degree at Washington State.

At 29, he wanted back into football. Price put him in touch with Don Carthel at West Texas A&M, a Division II school and Leaf, working for nothing, took over as quarterbacks coach at the school in Canyon, Texas.

Story Continues →