PEOPLE SOMETIMES forget that the goal-line stand didn't seal the deal. In the season-opening win over UCLA that set our 1997 Washington State Cougars on the road to the Rose Bowl for the time in 67 years, there was still 2:48 left on the clock after that incredible stop on the two-foot-line. That meant the Cougar offense still had critical work to do.

When the 11 of us gathered in the huddle following Leon Bender's take down of Jermaine Lewis, quarterback Ryan Leaf made clear where we stood.

"Let's go fellas" he barked though his crimson face mask. "We have to finish them off. We need this first down."

Ideally, we needed to get two first downs, but first things first.

After two plays that didn't achieve much, we faced a third-down and five.


As we regrouped for that play, you could have heard a pin drop. Not in the stands, because our fans were still buzzing from the goal-line-stand. But the huddle was silent. The as-yet-but-soon-to-be-named Fat Five wasn't uttering a word. And Chris Jackson, one of my fellow Fab Five receivers, looked as calm as can be but he wasn't talking either, which was unusual because he was a chatterbox.

There was a time out, so Ryan went to the sideline to talk with Coach Price. About half way through the break, I noticed Coach Price making a gesture I had seen him do several times before. It could only be described as a rolling of the eyes and scrunching of the face.

His mental wheels in motion, Coach Price was conjuring up a scheme to put the Bruins away for good. At this point in our young season Ryan was sure to go along with whatever Coach dictated.

As a senior and team leader who got along well with Ryan and Coach Price, I jogged over to the conversation, thinking I might be able to assist in some way because I had noticed some things with the UCLA secondary on the two previous plays.

Who's to know what would have happened had UCLA gotten the ball back, but I truly think the decision on what play to run in that situation was one of the most crucial in the history of Cougar football.

Coach Price uttered an expletive, and then stated the play he wanted was a play-action pass called "Twins right 316 z post."


"Are you sure?" retorted Ryan, who wanted to run the ball.

I decided to interject. I pointed out a "bail" tendency I'd seen with the UCLA corners when we lined up with twin receivers and suggested a play that would give Coach Price a pass and give Ryan greater comfort. "Let's go with twins left 90z. If the corners play aggressive you'll get the deep pass you want, but if they don't the route converts to a 5-yard-hitch."

"Good idea," they both said at once.

Back out we went.

We gained six yards, won the game, and then went on to rack up another nine victories en route to our history-making appearance in the Rose Bowl.

So here we are more than 14 years after the fact, and you may be wondering why I feel this story is important to share at this point in time.

Here it is: Football, like life itself, is a game best played when you're surrounded by a team. Ryan Leaf's very public problems this past week reminded me of this important lesson.

That crucial first down against UCLA was the quintessential team play. The call itself was the result of input from several sources, and the execution of the play was the work of 11 guys on the field.

As remarkably talented as Ryan Leaf was, he couldn't do it all on his own.

Coach Price and the Cougar family nurtured Ryan's greatness in the 1990s. And I know he'd have had success in the NFL if Bobby Bethard had given him even a fraction of the off-field support he had at WSU.

In the last week we've learned that Ryan was calling plays in the game of life without the benefit of input from his friends and family. That's was addicts do. They go it alone, skillfully hiding their addiction, until one of three things happens: they die from their addiction; they get caught by the police; or they ask for help. That last option is the most difficult.

Ryan's life was probably saved over the weekend when he was caught by the police.

Pundits, bloggers and message board posters all over the country, including a bitter Bobby Bethard, have been lambasting Ryan for his relapse.

But what has been heartening is the fact so many Cougars and other friends of Ryan's have been talking, in news articles and on the CF.C message boards, about how he needs to be embraced, not shunned, if he's going to overcome his dependence on prescription painkillers.

More than 23 million Americans are estimated to be addicted to drugs and alcohol. Ryan is not the only person I know who falls into that group. It's all around us. Experts say addiction is the No. 1 public health threat in America. If so, then abandoning the addict must be the No. 2 threat. Though Ryan is not absolved in any of this, the plain fact is that addiction is a very powerful disease.

His use started with a wrist injury and then became a crutch for dealing with a failed pro career that, crazily after all these years since he retired, still gets him muddied on the internet and in the media on a weekly basis.

The research I've done in recent days tells me that addicts are like puppets, because they aren't in control. The drugs are in control.

At some level, though, I think Ryan reasserted his strength long enough to get himself caught. His addiction demanded he feed the beast, but somewhere in the back of Ryan's mind he knew he'd get help if he left a big enough trail.

Subconsciously, Ryan wanted to be caught. He wanted to be saved. I just know it. Hopefully now, with the support of those around him and the positive vibes of the entire Cougar Nation, he can stay in bounds and live a clean life.

The funny thing about that UCLA game in 1997 is that even though I caught the short hitch route on the key third-down play, there still was enough time left that we needed to run a few more plays to kill the clock. Sure enough, Coach Price and Ryan dialed up the original "twins right 316 Z-post."

As I recall, the play worked beautifully, too. The thing is, none of the success we enjoyed that season happened individually. We were a team, working together, collaborating together and, above all, supporting one another in the good times and bad.

Football is a lot like life that way. And Ryan's struggle with addiction really drives the point home.

THE AUTHOR is a 1998 graduate of Washington State who played a starring role on the 1997 Cougar football team that won the Pac-10 title and came within two seconds of knocking off No. 1 Michigan in the Rose Bowl. He lives in Seattle and works as an assistant vice president for the insurance and risk management firm Marsh Inc.

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