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Celebrities & Addiction: Charles R. Cross on Ryan Leaf


Back when he was a Cougar at WSU, life was good for quarterback Ryan Leaf. But since he was drafted to the NFL in 1998, nothing seemed to go right. In 2000, the Chargers lost 15 games and Leaf only won four games in three years as a starter.

An episode of NFL Top 10 ranked him as the No. 1 “draft bust” in NFL history.

Then his NFL career ended, and Leaf has spent the last couple years in and out of court and jail, on drug and burglary charges related to the pain pills he became addicted to. He pleaded guilty to eight felony drug charges in 2010.

Leaf is now in a Montana prison after being kicked out of a drug treatment program. A plea deal is in the works.

I think a lot of us tend to think people with money and fame are immune to being unhappy. That money and attention makes someone feel whole. But Charles R. Cross, Seattle author and journalist, perhaps most well known for his 2001 biography of Kurt Cobain, knows better. He’s dealt with a lot of famous people and their addictions.

“I think everybody in our society has a tendency to think that if you had fame and money, everything would be fixed. The reality is, from all the rock stars movie stars and famous literary people I’ve met in my life, fame and money only make those problems increase.”

He talked about Kurt Cobain.

“I was shocked when I found out the very first time he ever overdosed on heroin was the same night he was on Saturday Night Live. To me, in my mind set, I couldn’t figure that out. How could you overdose and do drugs on a night where it seems like you were suddenly famous and successful? But that doesn’t heal the wound that’s there from childhood. In fact, from what I know about Kurt and Jimi Hendrix, it was exacerbated by being famous. All those childhood hurts. You still have the same parents even though you’re famous and rich. You still have the same past and maybe the same addiction history in your DNA. Suddenly you’re famous and you have access to drugs you didn’t have before. That’s one of the problems that comes up again and again and again.”

He said sobering up can be harder for someone like Ryan Leaf, who’s being judged by the entire country.

“It certainly does not help when you are Robert Downey Jr. or you’re Charlie Sheen or you’re Ryan Leaf and every single thing you do gets covered in the press. There’s hounds of paparazzi when one of those guys makes an appearance in court. That doesn’t make them feel good about their addiction. It’s hard. I don’t think we can just shame people into getting better. We have to come up with real solutions to drug and alcohol addiction.”

Cross thinks Leaf’s addiction to pain pills represents a countrywide epidemic.

“Prescription narcotic pain pills cause exactly the same euphoria as heroin or cocaine. As a society we think the person who’s using heroin is somehow worse or dirtier or it’s a more shameful thing than somebody using Oxycodone. But it’s the same effect on the brain.”

He says Leaf can recover from this, but it takes major changes. Cross says Kurt Cobain went to rehab five times, with no success.

“It is a lifelong thing. It requires making major lifestyle choices. It requires either changing your career you’re in, changing all your friends, changing your profession, changing your state. For someone like him, who’s had a cycle of this, it’s not one year, it’s not falling off the wagon. We’re talking about multiple years, we’re talking about multiple crimes. Something really needs to be reset.”

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