Every year when the Super Bowl is held to decide pro football’s ultimate champion, the game is preceded by a week’s worth of parties and other promotional events – events that always include plenty of alcohol. One of the most unique events preceding and during Super Bowl LII in Minneapolis is the SoberBowl, an alternative Super Bowl viewing party offering fans and retired players a chance to enjoy food, hear live music and talk about their recovery experiences.
The first SoberBowl was held last year when the game was played in Houston. The event was created by The ARK, a Houston-based nonprofit with the mission of connecting the arts and the recovery community. The inaugural event was a major hit, drawing a sell-out crowd of more than 1,800 celebrants.
Since Minnesota is considered the birthplace of modern addiction treatment, it’s fitting that the SoberBowl II will be held in Minneapolis: Super Bowl Sunday from noon to 9:30 p.m., at Muse Event Center. The main sponsor is Center City, Minn.-based Hazelden Betty Ford. The NFL gave event organizers permission to show the game on large screens at the event center.
Before the game, SoberBowl will present a recovery-themed panel discussion including Hall of Fame Minnesota Viking defensive end Carl Eller, superagent Leigh Steinberg and quarterback Ryan Leaf, the second pick in the 1998 NFL draft. Each of the panelists has struggled with addiction, and are now visible spokesmen for recovery.
Other celebrity athlete participants in SoberBowl have included Hall of Fame running back Earl Campbell, former New England Patriot Brandon Mitchell, and Houston Rockets coach and former NBA player John Lucas II.
The 41-year old Leaf’s story is particularly compelling. Dogged by injuries and other problems, he was unable to live up to the potential that made him a top draft pick with quarterback stardom ahead, and he only lasted four seasons in the NFL. Because of the contrast between his projected success as a top draft pick and his subsequent problems, the name “Ryan Leaf” become synonymous with spectacular failure, at least in NFL circles.
Leaf said he had never been a heavy drinker or drug user. But, after he was prescribed Vicodin to cope with an injury, he became addicted to the medication and sank into depression and despair.
Leaf hit bottom in 2012, when he was arrested in his home state of Montana, on burglary and drug charges after breaking into two homes in one weekend in search of prescription painkillers. He was convicted, spent more than two years in prison, and since his release he’s fought to maintain his sobriety. These days Leaf is a motivational speaker and a college football color commentator on Fox. He also hosts a college-sports talk show on SiriusXM radio.
Leaf stresses that, in spite of his football notoriety, he doesn’t consider himself “special” and is no different from anyone else who is in recovery from addiction.
“My story isn’t any more important or less important than anyone else’s,” he told MinnPost.com. “It was just a very public one, so that’s why I think there is more attention paid to it. I constantly remind people that my story is exactly like theirs. There’s nothing special about me.”
Unlike some other types of drug crises, Leaf said, the opiate epidemic has affected the complete spectrum of socioeconomic and demographic categories. “It doesn’t matter what demographic you are from. These drugs are right there for the taking. That’s why it affects so many people. One thing I’ve learned from all of this is that addiction does not discriminate.”
When he was in the depths of his addiction, Leaf said, “I used to think I wasn’t as bad as somebody who is doing heroin. But that was just a justification. I realize now I’m just like everyone else. I am a run-of-the-mill opiate junkie. It doesn’t matter if I used to make millions of dollars a year: I was using a drug to alter my mood because I wasn’t capable of dealing with life on life’s terms.”