He came, he saw, he conquered his demons, and then Ryan Leaf raised his arms in triumph as San Diego rejoiced. With one feathery flick of his right arm last Friday night, Leaf, the Chargers' resurrected starting quarterback and Qualcomm Stadium's unlikeliest fan favorite, created a buzz among the crowd of 42,403 that belied the game's preseason context. Fireworks detonated, Gary Glitter's power chords blasted through the balmy August air, and a giddy Leaf basked in the moment. The cause for the commotion was a quick, impromptu toss to rookie wideout Trevor Gaylor, whom Leaf alertly had noticed was uncovered on the left side of the field. Gaylor made the catch and zipped in for a four-yard score, helping the Chargers to a 24-20 victory over the Arizona Cardinals in the teams' preseason finale and cementing Leaf's astounding ascent from pariah to possible standout pro passer.
The pass to Gaylor was so easy that Ryan O'Neal could have thrown it, but the symbolic significance of the moment could not be overstated. This was Leaf's first touchdown pass in San Diego since last November, when he played in an infamous flag-football game at Robb Park without the Chargers' permission. Thanks to local newscasts, tape of that play quickly became San Diego's Sorriest Home Video: When the scoring throw reached the waiting hands of—who, Joe the insurance adjuster from Chula Vista?—Leaf's excited reaction looked like the last pathetic act of perhaps one of the sports world's biggest busts. At that point Leaf, already burdened with a bum throwing shoulder and a four-week suspension for conduct detrimental to the team, was viewed as an embarrassment, even in his own locker room.
Now, if not the toast of the town, Leaf at least has emerged as an underdog backed by a hopeful fan base, not to mention a large faction of forgiving teammates. Fourteen-year veteran Jim Harbaugh calls Leaf, the man who took his job by shining in four preseason appearances this summer, "as good a guy to be around as any quarterback I've had as a teammate. He's really into his fianc�e, he's got a dog, and he likes kids and animals. He's come a long way, and the thing I like is that nothing was handed to him this summer. He's earned it."
Fred McCrary, the chatty fullback whose caustic comments about Leaf's flabby physique last March sent Leaf into hiding, now insists, "I have nothing bad to say about the guy. There's a big difference in his behavior. You can tell he wants to earn the players' respect and lead by example, and he's keeping his mouth shut and playing his ass off. This time nobody gave him anything."
Even former Chargers general manager Bobby Beathard, who's perceived to be the 24-year-old Leaf's biggest enemy, says he's in Leaf's corner. "Hey, I'm rooting for him, too," says Beathard, who traded a king's ransom so he could make Leaf the second pick in the 1998 draft and whose retirement in April seemed hastened by two years' worth of Leaf-related headaches. "I know Ryan thinks I don't like him, but all I ever wanted was for him to do well. It's no fun to see a guy fail, and if he really has turned the corner, the people around here will jump on his bandwagon."
Pardon the rest of the football-watching nation if this all seems fishier than one of San Diego's trademark mahimahi tacos. Yo, Ryan Leaf has a bandwagon in San Diego! What's next? Janet Reno Boulevard in Little Havana? The fans' cheers for Leaf last Friday—he completed 8 of 13 passes for 97 yards, with one wobbly interception thrown into double coverage—seemed to be sincere. It's as if Leaf, by doing so many things horribly for so long on and off the field, had created an ideal backdrop for his coronation as an object of sympathy.
Leaf is entering this phase of his career cautiously. "Football is just a game," he says. "Everybody takes it so much more seriously than it is, but there are many more important things in my life. I haven't really thought about the fan reaction, and I probably won't. It's been here [he places one hand at eye level], and it's been here [the hand moves to waist level]. If it could just stay here [chest level], I'd love that."
Yet in matters concerning Leaf, there has been no middle ground. At the start of his rookie year Leaf showed promise but soon became more disoriented than Anne Heche after a bad breakup. He was benched midway through the season and finished with two touchdown passes, 15 interceptions and a league-low quarterback rating of 39.0. Then, on the first day of training camp in 1999, Leaf fell on a fumble in practice and suffered a torn labrum in his throwing shoulder, which led to surgery and a long rehabilitation. He spent the year as San Diego's third quarterback, was inactive for 11 games and didn't play a down.
Equally maddening for the Chargers and their fans was Leaf's run of miserable behavior. He yelled threateningly at a photographer, a reporter and a heckler at practice. In the act that led to his suspension, he unleashed a barrage of f-bombs at Beathard and strength coach John Hastings. He was caught lying about why he hadn't been following his prescribed off-season workout program and said it would be best if he left San Diego. Fans resented him for all that his presence in a Chargers uniform represented: The trade up in the draft to get him cost San Diego three early-round picks and two starters; his contract (five years, $31.25 million) and fat salary-cap figure made it virtually impossible to cut or trade him; and he seemed bent on bringing down the franchise instead of sustaining it. The Chargers watched a fierce but aging defense waste exceptional efforts while struggling to a 5-11 finish in 1998 and an 8-8 record in '99.
While Leaf's recent run of humility and impressive play has gone a long way toward making amends in the locker room, star linebacker Junior Seau, the most influential Charger, remains unconverted. "We're seeing more growth from Ryan in these past seven months than we did in the previous two years, and that's a positive," Seau says. "What he has been able to do is to stop destroying himself off the field and start concentrating on football. But in this business, the only way to gain respect is to start feeding the families of the people in the locker room. With our defense and special teams, we're not asking the guy to be an All-Pro. Just throw one interception a game, and we'll be fine."