Ryan Leaf, the San Diego Chargers quarterback, was seated in a chair on the stage of the Matthew Sherman Elementary School auditorium, playing Santa Claus. The beneficiaries of his largesse on Dec. 14 were not Chargers' opponents, for a change, but rather the students at the San Diego primary school, who received from Leaf goody bags and stockings stuffed with toys. These items, unlike the 19 turnovers that Leaf has committed this season, weren't gift-wrapped.
In another switch, Leaf wasn't booed by the hometown audience. "All the kids knew was that there was a Charger in their school," says Sylvia Soria, an instructional aide at Sherman Elementary who had arranged Leaf's visit. A loyal San Diego fan, Soria isn't inclined to give up on Leaf just yet. "He's still a young man," she says. "We have a lot of underprivileged kids here, and we tell them, 'Just because you've had a hard start doesn't mean you can't have a beautiful finish.' "
Steve Young had a hard start. Troy Aikman had a hard start. Leaf had a catastrophe, the result of having not only the worst quarterback rating (39.0) in the league in the '90s but also the worst public relations instincts. He has thrown two touchdown passes and 15 interceptions, completed 45.3% of his throws and been sacked 22 times. His rookie year has been a study in bad reads, bad passes and bad behavior. His off-field misdeeds include a profanity-laced tirade at a reporter that aired on nationwide TV and an infamous weekend of barhopping and hell-raising near the campus of his alma mater, Washington State.
Is there a beautiful finish on Leaf's horizon? "It's in his hands," says June Jones, San Diego's interim coach, who will become the University of Hawaii's head man after the Chargers' season finale at Arizona on Sunday. "His commitment in the off-season will dictate how he does." A former Rainbows player and coach, Jones says he could have remained San Diego's coach if he had wanted to and dismisses reports that one of the reasons he's walking away from the Chargers is that he doesn't believe Leaf is the type of player around whom a franchise can be built. Few NFL insiders doubt Leaf's physical attributes, but privately, those who have worked most closely with him say he won't reach his potential until he adopts a more professional attitude. Leaf, on the other hand, has no doubts about his future. "Everybody tells me, 'You're going to be fine,' " he says. "Well, I know I'm going to be fine."
San Diego general manager Bobby Beathard traded a king's ransom—two first-round draft picks and a second-rounder, plus wideout-return man Eric Metcalf and linebacker Patrick Sapp—to move up one spot in last year's draft for the opportunity to take Leaf, a junior coming out early, with the second pick. "Ladies and gentlemen, we have the player who's going to lead us to the Super Bowl," Chargers owner Alex Spanos said after San Diego had selected Leaf. Three days into training camp Leaf agreed to a five-year, $31.25 million contract that included an $11.25 million signing bonus, and shortly thereafter he was named the Chargers' starter.
However, by mid-November, when Leaf was benched, Beathard would say, "A career could be crumbling if he doesn't wise up and understand he isn't handling things the right way." Beathard now says, "There's a maturity factor with Ryan," which means that Leaf is immature. When might Leaf start acting his age? "I don't know the timing on that," Beathard says.
It needs to have happened yesterday—or so it seems if you listen to the talk in the San Diego locker room. In a game against the Seattle Seahawks on Dec. 13, Leaf relieved Craig Whelihan, who'd thrown five interceptions. Leaf, who was seeing his first action in five games, didn't exactly take the Kingdome crowd out of the game: He tossed two more interceptions and lost a fumble that was returned for a touchdown.
The day after that 38-17 defeat, Chargers strong safety Rodney Harrison and linebacker Kurt Gouveia criticized unnamed teammates for not preparing sufficiently and for taking losses too lightly. Gouveia left little doubt that one of the players he was talking about was Leaf when he said, "College is over. This is the NFL. You are expected to play well, and you are getting good money to play."
Gouveia, who returned this season after cracking a vertebra in his neck in 1997, is one of the most respected San Diego players. Three days after the loss to Seattle, he elaborated on his remarks. "I'm in the league 13 years, and I still have a sense that I'm going to lose my job if I don't play well," he said. "I approach every day with a sense of urgency. Every guy on this team needs to ask himself if he has that urgency.
"Ryan lost this team this year, and it was a tremendous loss because of the wasted effort by the defense. [The Chargers lead the NFL in total defense but have only a 5-10 record.] If we were just average on offense, who knows where we'd be? You're in the pros now. Stand up and be accountable. Futures are at stake. Livelihoods are at stake. This is not a place for kids who've got a lot of money to joke around."