INDIANAPOLIS — Did Indianapolis Colts owner Jim Irsay privately prefer quarterback Ryan Leaf over Peyton Manning with the top pick in the 1998 NFL draft?
Leaf, the eventual No. 2 selection, says he believes Irsay did. Irsay, however, has a different recollection.
“That is a complete untruth and a complete lie,” Irsay told ESPN in reaction to Leaf’s comments on “The Dan Patrick Show” on Monday. “I was behind Peyton for two or three months before the draft … I don’t know who created that, but I wanted to unequivocally make sure the record is straight, because that’s not true.”
Leaf, who has called college football games for ESPN, has been doing a series of interviews as the 25th anniversary of the 1998 draft approaches. He is pushing back on what he says are false narratives about his pre-draft behavior that preceded the Colts’ decision to draft Manning.
Manning went on to 14 Pro Bowls and was a five-time NFL Most Valuable Player and two-time Super Bowl winner. Leaf, the second overall pick by the then-San Diego Chargers, went 4-17 as a starter and flamed out quickly. Leaf also struggled with substance abuse and has a history of legal troubles.
But in 1998, there was a fair amount of debate about why both players deserved to be chosen No. 1. Manning led Tennessee to the 1997 SEC title with four touchdowns in the championship game against Auburn, and he finished fourth with 3,819 passing yards. Leaf finished third in Heisman voting and led Washington State to the Rose Bowl title.
“I think Jim Irsay really wanted me,” Leaf said. “You can really understand why. We’re both impulsive individuals.”
Irsay pushed back hard.
“It’s not that I thought Ryan was going to bust out and not play well,” he said. “I didn’t know the problems and the difficulties that he’d run into. But one thing is unequivocally true: I wanted Peyton. I mean, a month before the draft, there wasn’t any question.
“I was shocked when I saw that [we wanted to pick Leaf] because it’s just not true … I’m pissed off that it would even be put out there. I could bring you 10 people that would tell you it’s not true.”
Even 25 years later, Leaf harbors some bitterness for claims he said were made by former Colts general manager Bill Polian and then-coach Jim Mora Sr.
Among them, Leaf said, was a conversation in which he purportedly told Colts officials that he would be late to report to Indianapolis after the draft because of a planned trip to Las Vegas with his friends. Polian made the claim in a recent podcast interview. Leaf says he never met with the Colts and the conversation never happened. Leaf also said claims that he skipped a meeting with the Colts at the scouting combine are not entirely true, saying he missed the meeting because of an MRI ordered by the Chicago Bears.
“I’m tired of the revisionist history,” Leaf said.
Irsay would say the same.
“I mean, this never came up for 25 years,” Irsay said of Leaf’s claim about his Irsay’s preference. “Why would it come up now? I mean, what the hell?”