Has anyone been a more prototypical football player while simultaneously being the opposite than Ricky Williams? Few will forget the cover of the Aug. 9, 1999 issue of ESPN The Magazine. There stood Williams, expected by many to be the next Earl Campbell, sporting what I assume was a fashionable wedding dress, while Mike Ditka played the groom.
But Tuesday, when Williams retired after 11 NFL seasons, I thought of another issue of The Mag. In the Dec. 6 issue, he did a uncommonly revealing interview with Dan LeBatard. He described the agony of his rookie season -- the losing, the injuries, even being passed by Ron Dayne on the all-time NCAA rushing list -- with a sensitivity rarely seen from any athlete, let alone a football player.
This passage, about Williams' anxiety before playing a game with a forearm injury, says it all.
On the field before the game, I was so scared, knowing the Bears were going to be going after me at 100 miles per hour, trying to kill the gimp. I wanted to go up to Coach and tell him I'd changed my mind. When I came out during introductions, I could only slap hands using my left hand. I was shaking. One of my teammates came over and asked me how I was doing. I told him that, honest to God, I felt like I was about to wet my pants. He called me a pussy. Football players are real sympathetic souls that way.
A couple of weeks later, the Saints played the Cowboys at the Superdome. Even in standard definition, it was clear the Cowboys thought they could break Williams. After one tackle, a Dallas linebacker put his crotch as close to Williams face as he could after a tackle. That's what a little honesty can get you in the NFL, at least when you see things as Ricky did.
He was 230 pounds, ran in the 4.4 range, and seemed immune to the contact he craved. He was a workhorse, as 390-plus attempt seasons in college and the NFL indicate. Before the NFL truly became a passing league, teams dreamed of the chance to build around a feature back like Williams.
NFL teams run from headcases, though. In a judgmental world, that would pass for a fair assessment of Ricky. Some of what seemed weird could be clinically diagnosed -- notably the social anxiety disorder that compelled him to do interviews in his helmet -- and some was just ... weird. Especially for a football player. What other football players, modern gladiators who so often seem invincible, would matter-of-factly tell the world about his fear, flaws and insecurities? Or put on a wedding dress in public? Or spend prime playing -- and earning -- years studying holistic medicine?
Williams wasn't a superhero, nor did he want us to believe that. According to the machismo and contrived masculinity so prevalent in sports, he was barely a man to some. But that's what Ricky Williams has proven to be above all else -- a human being. At time, he was a weak one. How else could one describe someone who repeatedly failed drug tests he knew were coming? Moments of weakness, of course, made him no different from anyone else. It was the sincerity with which he dealt with that humanity that made him so memorable, for better or worse.
The better parts were captured in "Run Ricky Run," the ESPN 30 for 30 documentary that didn't just show Williams' attempts to better understand himself. The film's purpose was that quest. The only condition Ricky gave anyone who appeared on camera was complete honesty. That's a step so many are afraid to take behind closed doors, with no one to hear them but a trained, privilege-bound professional. Ricky showed it to the world. That wasn't just admirable. Considering the realm that made Williams famous, it was positively amazing.
The worst was his first departure from the NFL, which cost him the chance at a Hall of Fame career. He got tired of taking drug test after drug test, in spite of that condition being self-inflicted. He called Dave Wannstedt in 2004, looking for assurances the Dolphins cared enough about him to lighten his workload and protect his body. He wanted the reassurance he received in Austin. Before Wannstedt even had to say anything, he quit.
Wannstedt's response, apparently, firmed up Ricky's feelings that he'd done the right thing. As Ricky recalls it: "He said, 'If you were my son, I'd tell you that you should keep playing football.' And I said, 'No, you wouldn't. You'd tell him to do whatever made him happy. And if you didn't tell him that, you wouldn't be a very good father.' "
Truth is, Ricky was calling the coach a liar, and both of them knew it. "I really had no idea what was going to happen next," Ricky says.
Ricky loved playing football, even if he didn't like doing so for a living. No one could carry the ball 775 in consecutive seasons, an NFL record that may never be broken, unless his heart was in it. He loved the game enough to try to shoulder the burden of New Orleans trading its entire draft for him. The world laughed at the incentive-dependent deal No Limit Sports negotiated for him -- the single dumbest in pro sports history -- but Williams embraced the motivation to "earn his money" like fans say they want players to do. And considering the futility of logging 253 carries behind the 1999 New Orleans Saints offensive line, he damn near played football for free.
Loving football wasn't enough to stop him from leaving it. It was courageous to walk away, even if he did so in a cowardly way. Football was never his singular focus. The tunnel vision that most of the greats in any world possess wasn't in Ricky. He was too into his own head, reefer, and whatever else moved him at a given time. It made him a refreshing departure from what we're used to from football players. It also stopped him from being the football player he could have been.
It's unlikely Ricky Williams cares about that. He only planned to play six NFL seasons anyway. We may have seen a yellow blazer in his future, but Ricky never planned to play that much football.
In the end, he played 11 seasons over 13 years. The last six years for the money, even though Williams thought pro sports were corrupt. He did it for the same reasons most of us go to work -- grownups have bills to pay. It's almost ironic to think of that. Ricky looked and ran like a football player, but seemed nothing like one. He didn't seem like anyone. But when he returned to the NFL, he did so because he was just like us.
Truth be told, he's only like Ricky. It's fitting that his legacy will be less about football than himself. The man he was, the one he wasn't, and the one he's still becoming.