LEAF: Like a kid in a candy store

BEFORE I WAS A player, I was a fan. Terry Bradshaw and the Pittsburgh Steelers were my favorites, but I loved the whole game. Everything – and everyone -- about it put a jump in my step. I could talk up the Montana State Bobcats of the 1980s with the best of ‘em. Statistics, college and pro, were embedded in my mind. Two quarterbacks I put on pedestals were Mark Rypien and Drew Bledsoe.

So a couple of weeks ago in Coeur d'Alene at the first-ever Cougar Legends golf tournament and banquet, I felt much more like a fan than one of the legends because I was surrounded by what I consider royalty.

Mark was there and so was Drew. And a guy who became a tremendous mentor for me at WSU, the Throwin' Samoan -- Jack Thompson -- was on hand as well. Imagine spending the better part of two days in one of the most gorgeous areas in the nation with three of your heroes.

For a football fan, let alone a Cougar fan, this was like being a kid in a candy store.

There was also Rueben Mayes, the only living Cougar in the College Football Hall of Fame. From the late-50s and early 60s were three of the greatest players ever to roam the Palouse – Hugh Campbell, Gail Cogdill and Keith Lincoln. Between them, you have a CFL Hall of Famer, NFL Rookie of the Year, and San Diego Chargers legend.

When you turned around there were two mainstays from two memorable chapters in WSU basketball history – James Donaldson of the Raveling Era and Kyle Weaver of the Bennett Era.

That's just a sampling. The list of CouGreats who joined 100 boosters and fans for this outstanding event reached upward of two dozen.

As a fan, I was in awe. As one of the celebrities, I was honored.

When Bill Moos accepted the job as Washington State's athletic director 18 months ago, his mantra was this: Honor the past, live the present, create the future. This event in Coeur d'Alene was all that and more.

Media wasn't invited, which I believe allowed everyone to relax and just be a part of the group and be Cougars amongst Cougars.

For me, the weekend started early because I carpooled to CdA from Montana with my "little" cousin -- and one-time Holiday Bowl hero -- Matt Kegel. It's something pretty special to watch a family member attend your alma mater and pave his own path into history. Matt led the Cougars to 10 victories in 2003, the last W being that spectacular win over No. 5 Texas and Vince Young. Matt did it that season with a bum shoulder.

Matty and I both fell off the crimson radar a bit after our playing careers, but both of us have become rejuvenated by what Bill Moos and his staff are doing for the school and how they're reaching out to former players. Washington State is a special place for us, it's our second home. It's where Matt met his wife, Sara, and where I spent the greatest four years of my life. Becoming a Cougar may be the single most defining experience in my life.

When Matt and I rolled into town Friday for the banquet and auction portion of the weekend, it became very apparent that this was no ordinary fundraiser for the WSU athletic scholarship fund. It was, as advertised beforehand, a "signature event." It had first class written all over it. The Coeur d'Alene Resort, of course, is top notch in every way. And when each participant checked in, he (or she) received a gift package that included new Nike golf shoes, crimson rain gear, and golf shirt.

The Friday evening gathering was emceed by none other than Ian Furness, a proud Cougar who on weekdays holds court in Seattle on the Husky flagship station KJR. Keith Lincoln, Bill Moos and Bobo Brayton regaled the crowd with great stories and talked about what needs to be done for the future of Cougar Athletics. I got the opportunity to sit with a great group of guys from Spokane and Yakima and just laughed and shared stories of my time in Pullman as well as theirs.

The next two hours was truly memorable as Cougar boosters and fans bid on celebrities to be in their foursomes the next day. Drew Bledsoe went for a whopping $8,500 -- and it paid off because his group edged Rypien's to capture first place on Saturday! In all, more than $45,000 was raised on the evening.

As I walked to the podium to be auctioned off I looked out on the room full of my fellow alums and was given the microphone and began to explain exactly what I want all of you to hear now. For the longest time I've gone to events similar to this and I always thought it was all about me; everyone thanked me and celebrated me and what I had accomplished at WSU, but over the last three years I've come to realize that it had nothing to do with me. It was about all of you. I'm so blessed, grateful, and thankful for all of you. You all have made me feel wanted and appreciated and that in itself has healed me more than you can imagine.

I'm so thankful that I got to follow in the footsteps of great men like Jack Thompson, Mark Rypien, and Drew Bledsoe. Drew was my hero when I decided to go to Wazzu. He was a rookie with the Patriots when I was a senior in high school and his professionalism really stood out to me. To be a part of this fraternity of QBs is something awfully special for me.

And I know it's special to our current quarterback, Jeff Tuel, as well. I've gotten to know Jeff in the last year and have spent time looking at his mechanics. I can't tell you how impressed I am with him. My sincere hope is that he breaks my records – as well as Jack's, Drew's, Jason Gesser's and Alex Brink's. I want Jeff and his teammates to succeed in big ways, to feel the rush of winning in the Pacific Northwest and to feel the warm embrace of a community. This is possible with your help. The Cougs need your help to compete successfully, year in and year out, in the Pac-12.

Seasons like 1997, 2001, 2002 and 2003 can become more the norm than the exception if more members of the Cougar Nation step up to donate. I had so many people at the event come up and share their memories from the 1997 season and the sunny January day we spent in Pasadena. It's heartwarming to hear how that affected so many people in such a positive way. It puts an ear-to-ear smile on my face. We can make more of those memories if more of us are supporting the cause. So please consider a donation today.

Bottom line, the CdA event was the best one I've had the opportunity to attend since leaving Washington State. If it is evidence of what is to come from Bill Moos and his staff in the future, then the expectations are very high, and I believe they will strive to exceed them each and every time out. Just like on the field.

ON A SIDE NOTE, you may have heard that I had a recent health scare. I was diagnosed with a brain tumor just over a month ago and had emergency surgery in Santa Monica. Thank you to everyone out there for all the supportive thoughts and prayers. I could always feel them, but what amazed me was that I had over 500 Facebook messages, 200 emails and countless phone calls. And then when I arrived home, there was a mountain of get-well letters, mostly from Cougar Nation. I can't put into words what that means to me, that you would think of me during that tough time for me. I am truly a blessed man and I thank you. I'm feeling better every day, though I'm not totally out of the woods yet. I do feel like this is just another opportunity to express how much I am grateful to be alive and to be a Cougar. I'll be back on my feet soon and back out there living my life to the fullest and spreading my message of perseverance, hope, and gratitude to anyone who wants to listen, just like every Cougar I know would. Thanks so much again from the bottom of my heart.

Ryan Leaf is a Washington State graduate who quarterbacked the 1997 Cougars to the Pac-10 title, a top 10 national finish and a berth in the 1998 Rose Bowl. He shattered records, earned first-team All-America honors, and was a Heisman Trophy finalist. He later spent four seasons in the NFL, and three seasons as the quarterbacks coach at West Texas A&M. Today, Ryan still keeps many balls in the air. He has become a passionate advocate for those trying to overcome addiction to prescription painkillers, is pursuing varied business interests, writes a periodic column for CF.C and is in the process of writing a book about his four years at WSU.
You can follow him on twitter at @Ryandleaf and on Facebook at Ryan D Leaf.

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