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Turning over a new Leaf in B.C. Add to ...

When failed NFL quarterback Ryan Leaf last made news, he was being arrested by customs agents at the Peace Arch border crossing in Blaine, Wash., picked up on his way out of Canada,

The so-called biggest bust in football history was becoming an off-field bust as well. Or so it appeared.

In an interview with The Globe and Mail, Leaf says that in the months preceding his June arrest, he was establishing a quiet new life in British Columbia, a place he now considers home but could be forced to leave based on outstanding drug and burglary charges in Texas. In the interim, Leaf has found anonymity in Canada, refuge from his infamy in the United States, from his addiction to prescription painkillers, and from the "pain" of football.

"It's just been a tremendous reception from everyone involved," Leaf says. "Not being associated with football, there isn't the facility for people to criticize, or to come at me from a different angle. I'm the one who controls my celebrity up here, not the sports media down in the States.

"That's ultimately what I wanted, and that may be my vacating the football occupation. I miss it in ways, but I haven't been happier."

Leaf, 33, still resembles the baby-faced giant who threw a famous tantrum in the San Diego Chargers' locker room a decade ago. The outburst, just three games into his rookie season, shattered the lustre of a 2-0 start and made him an NFL punch-line.

He won just twice more over four seasons, and was once suspended for four games for cursing at his boss, general manager Bobby Beathard, and a strength coach. Every April around the draft, analysts invoke his name in cautionary tones, the prime example of how immaturity trumps talent.

"That person is a lot different from the one that walked into a recovery centre, and a lot different from the person who is sitting in front of you now," Leaf says. "I'm so much more aware of everything, and what's gone on in the past."

Leaf possesses a temporary residence permit and is allowed to work while awaiting talks with the district attorney's office in Randall County, Texas.

Randall County District Attorney James Farren said he was aware of Leaf's progress, and that the sides will begin discussing a plea agreement in January. Canadian officials will decide on Leaf's status based on the U.S. verdict.

The native of Great Falls, Mont., has retained immigration lawyers.

Every morning, he leaves his downtown Vancouver apartment and commutes 16 minutes on the city's new high-speed rail line to a business park in suburban Richmond, near the Olympic Oval. Once handed an $11.25-million (U.S.) signing bonus, he works as a sales and marketing associate for West Coast Resorts, a fishing lodge operator who hired him in June, contingent on a positive labour market opinion, which Services Canada delivered on July 29.

B.C. reminds him of Montana, where he was born on the first day of fishing season, the grandson of a game warden. He had never drafted a résumé - and instinctively approached the CFL's B.C. Lions last winter - before visiting a career counsellor this year and determining he should pursue employment outside football during his recovery.

West Coast Resorts took a chance on Leaf, a lifelong fisherman with contacts in the Pacific Northwest, because it was revolutionizing its business model.

And because president Brian Clive and vice-president Frank Tureczek felt Leaf could help them tap into the lucrative alumni market in the United States and its financial fanaticism for college athletics.

The new employee is organizing a "legends trip" with his alma mater, Washington State University, where donors, former athletes and school officials would spend time "bonding and building relationships" at one of the company's five lodges.

"Clearly, if I was looking for a sales person, Ryan has no experience," Clive said. "But we do need to open doors that we haven't opened before. ... There are people he can pick up the phone and talk to that we couldn't."

For these fishermen, however, there's a catch - Leaf could be deported.

He faces eight drug offences and more than 20 years for the felony burglary charge. He was indicted by a grand jury in May, six months after moving north and into a rehabilitation centre.

U.S. authorities say Leaf broke into the apartment of an injured player on Oct. 30 and stole the pain-reliever Hydrocodone while coaching at West Texas A&M University in Canyon, a town of about 14,000 in the state's panhandle.

Leaf spent three years at the school but resigned in November amid the investigation. He answered to charges four months ago, and posted a $15,000 bond, which allowed him to return to B.C.

Leaf, who has no criminal record, says he has been clean since voluntarily spending 42 days at the Orchard Recovery and Treatment Centre on Bowen Island in November, and another 2½ months in an extended house. Since then, he says he has joined Vancouver's recovery community, has a support network in his sponsor and employer, and enjoys B.C.'s "soothing" environment.

"All of that is information we're aware of, and we'll take into consideration," Farren said. "But we cannot control Canada."

The addiction to Vicodin took hold near the 10-year anniversary of Leaf's NFL draft year in 1998, and he blames 85 per cent of it on his failed career. Pills were given out like candy in the NFL, and Leaf used them to mask all pain, physical, emotional, etc.

"Maybe it was 10 years where I could get through everything without speaking to anybody about the trauma I went through in the NFL," he said. "Maybe I had a shell for 10 years, and in March 2008, my shell said: 'I can't take it any more.' "

Leaf has attended more job than media interviews of late, and on this day, the self-described "country boy" is wearing brown cowboy boots and a gold jacket he purchased in his rookie year, when he bought 16 suits, one for every game.

"I was very happy with myself, to say the least," he said. "I felt entitled. But I had never failed at it, so I didn't know any other way to do it other than being this ostentatious, over-the-top kind of guy."

In 1997, Leaf was a 6-foot-5, 240-pound athletic marvel who led the Washington State Cougars to their first Rose Bowl in 67 years. He was a finalist for the Heisman Trophy, awarded to the best player in U.S. college football, and became the second pick in the draft after University of Tennessee golden boy Peyton Manning, the picture of professionalism and good manners.

Leaf, who signed a $31.25-million (U.S.) contract, was anything but. When he was flush with talent, Crying Ryan didn't have the maturity to match. And when he began figuring out the NFL a little better, a wrist injury wiped out his talent.

"I was so young and so egotistical, it was like, 'They're supposed to worship me,' " he said. "It wasn't real. It was this illusion. I can't imagine being around me and what it would've been like."

 

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