Alternate history: Hunter S. Thompson implored Colts owner Jim Irsay to draft Ryan Leaf over Peyton Manning

Hunter S. Thompson and Ryan Leaf (Getty Images)

Indianapolis Colts history could’ve been a lot different if owner Jim Irsay had listened to the advice of journalist Hunter S. Thompson.

Thompson, the Rolling Stone journalist known for his unique “gonzo” style, implored Irsay to draft Washington State quarterback Ryan Leaf over University of Tennessee product Peyton Manning with the first overall pick of the 1998 NFL Draft.

In a letter to Irsay, Thompson wrote that he was concerned Manning wasn’t physically strong enough to handle the NFL grind without a “world-class offensive line.” He asked Irsay to consider if he had a left tackle that was up to the job (as it turns out, the team did: LT Tarik Glenn, the Colts’ first-round pick in the 1997 draft).

“You don’t want a china doll back there when that freak [former defensive tackle and pass rusher Warren] Sapp comes crashing in,” Thompson wrote.

Of Leaf, Thompson wrote that “he looks strong & Manning doesn’t.”

Instead of picking Leaf, Irsay chose Manning—and the rest is NFL and Indianapolis Colts history. Sustained NFL success, a Super Bowl championship, Lucas Oil Stadium and a statue all speak to it.

Leaf’s career turned out much differently. After being drafted by the San Diego Chargers No. 2 overall in 1998, he spent four years in the NFL and retired at the age of 26, never living up to his immense potential.

The letter also mentions a “depp movie,” which is a reference to Johnny Depp’s role in Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas, a film adapted from Thompson’s novel of the same name.

Why are we finding out about this letter 20 years after the 1998 NFL Draft? As it turns out, a man approached Leaf recently with the letter and asked what he knew about it. Leaf wasn’t sure what to make of it and told NFL Network broadcaster Rich Eisen, who contacted John Walsh—a former ESPN and Rolling Stone executive.

Walsh, who was cc’d on Thompson’s letter along with ESPN and “Col. Depp” (Thompson’s nickname for Johnny Depp), told Leaf that the letter was genuine.

Here’s a transcript of Thompson’s letter:

In response to yr. addled request for a quick $30M loan to secure the services of the Manning kid – I have to say No, at this time.

But the Leaf boy is another matter. He looks strong & Manning doesn’t – or at least not strong enough to handle that “Welcome to the NFL” business for two years without a world-class offensive line.

How are you fixed at left OT for the next few years, James? Think about it. You don’t want a china doll back there when that freak Sapp comes crashing in.

Okay. Let me know if you need some money for Leaf. I expected to be very rich when this depp movie comes out.

Yr. faithful consultant,

HUNTER

Leaf talked about the letter on the Rich Eisen Show: