The San Diego Chargers' 1998 season began like a NASCAR race: crowds, pomp, live bands, anticipation, and soaring hopes. But the season ended like a wreck on the highway: noise and carnage, with a solitary ambulance siren playing the background music. When the San Diego Chargers handed Ryan Leaf the keys to the franchise back in 1998, he did not exactly burn rubber out of the lot and into superstardom. No, he did what most people do the first time they are given the keys to a new car. He tried to adjust the seat, and the trunk flew open. He tried to put it in gear, and the windshield wipers came on. He tried to turn on the stereo, and the windows rolled down. When he finally arrived at the Chargers' training camp, he turned off the motor, pointed the car-locking control at the car, and the damn thing blew-up.
The Indianapolis Colts chose Peyton Manning ahead of Leaf in the 1998 draft. The Colts thought Manning would be more mature than Leaf. That is like saying the Houston Rockets chose Yao Ming over Spud Webb because Ming could have been taller. Leaf wasted no time in proving how right the Colts were in their assessment of his maturity. In a common professional sports prank, his veteran teammates relieved Leaf of his credit card and dined out at a lavish restaurant, charging the bill to Leaf's card. Ryan Leaf reacted the way any well-adjusted, good-natured young man out of college would react. He told on his teammates and refused to pay the bill. His teammates reacted the way any good-natured young men out of college would. They beat the snot out of him during practice. When Leaf signed for the Chargers, he said, "I look forward to a 15-year career, a couple of Super Bowls, and a parade through downtown San Diego." He almost accomplished that trifecta. So far he had already received a 1,500 debit on his credit card and a couple of beatings. Soon he would be driven out of San Diego on I-405.
The season started, and the Chargers managed to win their first two games with Leaf at the controls. This was no mean feat, because to win with Leaf at quarterback was almost as hard as winning the Kentucky Derby on a bucking bronco. However, a championship team needs an inspirational leader who can rally the troops; and Ryan Leaf's rallying cry became "Knock it off! Don't talk to me, all right?" Leaf not only talked the talk, but he walked the walk, backing up his bold words with an astounding performance in week three of the season, making good on a completion in 15 attempts, fumbling three times, and throwing a pair of interceptions. Ryan Leaf, in only his first season as an NFL quarterback, was finding that losing came to him naturally. After nine games, Leaf had doubled his touchdown total to two, and thrown 13 interceptions. The Chargers decided to bench Leaf and played the rest of the season with a life-sized cardboard cutout of Elvira at quarterback. The inspired Chargers managed to win two more games for the rest of the season, and Ryan Leaf took his signing bonus and married one of the Chargers cheerleaders who, after a couple of years of matrimony, threw her pompoms at Leaf and left.
The year 1999 offered new hope and a new beginning for Leaf, and he began it on injured reserve for the year with a shoulder injury that team doctors discovered during a preseason physical. Although the injury kept him out for the entire season, it did not protect him from the sophomore jinx. Ryan still managed to have a dreadful year by becoming involved in a shouting match with his general manager and one of the coaches, for which the Chargers fined him, suspended him without pay, and told him that he could no longer stand on the sideline holding a clipboard. A video camera later caught Leaf throwing interceptions during a flag football game at a park in San Diego. The Chargers alleged a contract violation had taken place, since they held exclusive rights to all Ryan Leaf interceptions.
With Leaf out of the picture, the Chargers rallied to an 8-8 record in 1999. Instead of building on their improved 1999 season, the Chargers brought Leaf back out to play the quarterback position. Leaf, thankful for the faith the organization showed in him, responded by mixing up his passing game and throwing at a variety of receivers, which included the turf, airplanes, and of course his favorite target, opposing safeties.
After two games, his stats were impressive: one touchdown pass and five interceptions. Leaf, for all his work, was once again handed a baseball hat and clipboard and was told to stay off the field. Leaf was brought back in week four, but, fortunately, was able to injure his wrist while throwing an interception. However, the Chargers were unable to cash in on their lucky break, and lost the first 11 games of the season. Leaf was thrown in as shark chum during week 11, and the Chargers finished with a 1-15 record. After the season, the Chargers handed Leaf a knapsack, bologna sandwich, and a Greyhound ticket to Dallas, where he would play for the football genius, Jerry Jones. The Chargers would use their good fortune to draft LaDainian Tramayne Tomlinson. Safety Rodney Harrison summed up the Leaf years by saying that if he had to go through that again, he would probably quit football. Two years later, Leaf did.
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