This story may not matter in two weeks. Ricky Williams may have changed his mind, packed his bags, and decided that teaching yoga is more fulfilling than toting footballs in the AFC North. Such is Ricky. There are people who understand this line of thinking, and those who don’t. Those who don’t are the type of folks that make poor puns about marijuana when Williams’ name is mentioned. I suppose, having never been a Miami Dolphins fan, I cannot truly understand the frustration of having your best offensive player be noncommittal about the game. I have always felt that I sort of understood Ricky Williams. Maybe you need to be an avid pot smoker, a vegan, or someone who has dealt with social anxiety disorder to be able to understand him*. Now with the Ravens, Williams will be asked to play a smaller but important part in the team’s plans. I suppose it’s time for my understanding to be tested.
Thirteen years ago, Errick Lynne Williams was nothing short of fury and grace in pads. He was his boyhood idol Earl Campbell reborn, only somehow faster. If you were privileged enough to see the Texas running back amass a then-record-breaking 6,279 yards, you saw an angry wind destroying college defenders. Sure, Ron Dayne would come along a year later and best Ricky by 100 yards, but Ron Dayne (who played his final NFL game in 2007) never ran like Ricky. Like fellow Longhorn, Heisman winner, and jersey number 34 wearer Campbell, his NFL career will most likely be appreciated most after its over. Ricky’s numbers trump Campbell’s in total yards, carries, receptions, and if he has two productive years in Baltimore, he will eclipse him in touchdowns. Earl Campbell was inducted to the Pro Football Hall of Fame as soon as he was eligible.
The NFL is sort of sneakily one of the most socially conservative enterprises in America. Ricky Williams was at odds with this truth the moment he became the New Orleans’ Saints first-round draft pick in 1999. ESPN the Magazine, a publication I still receive but never seem to read anymore, wanted to sell issues and stuck him in a dress with Mike Ditka in a tuxedo. When I look at the photo now, it doesn’t seem that absurd. It just looks like a hokey 90s photograph now, displaying the obvious metaphor of tying a franchise’s future (for better and for worse) to a top-5 draft pick. Instead, the result was the public’s conclusion was that in general, Ricky Williams was probably a freak. The country, and in turn the NFL, was in a socially conservative backswing, thanks in large part to the Monica Lewinsky scandal, which broke during Williams’ 1998 senior year at Texas. I still remember very vividly the way the football game’s screen shrank on the afternoon of December 19, 1998. The Buccaneers/Redskins game on that Saturday afternoon became a small window in the corner of the screen, while the main image was dominated by President Clinton’s impeachment. Even at thirteen, I sensed things were getting weird. The next decade would see social mores tested and tightened in an eight-year Bush administration and an NFL that was getting out of control off-field behavior. Rams linebacker Leonard Little killed a women while driving intoxicated in late 1998 and played in the Super Bowl the following season. In that ’99 season, Carolina Panthers receiver Rae Carruth was found guilty of conspiracy to commit 1st degree murder, shooting into an occupied vehicle, and using an instrument to destroy an unborn child in a bizarre murder-for-hire case culminating in a flight from justice that ended when Carruth was discovered hiding in the trunk of his car. Ray Lewis was party to two murders at that Super Bowl on January 31, 2000. Something had to give. It was not a good time to be entering the NFL as a controversial personality.
If playing the bride in Ditka’s backfield wasn’t enough to lose the conservative set, then hiring Master P, of “Make ‘Em Say Uhhh” and No Limit Records fame as his agent certainly did. This is one of the other facets of Ricky Williams people don’t understand. Williams contract had an extraordinarily low base salary and contained very high incentive milestones in order to reach the contract’s full value with the Saints. As a top-5 pick and Heisman-winning running back, Ricky should’ve gotten Adrian Peterson money. Instead, he got Adrian Peterson money (the one that played for the Bears). People could not comprehend that Ricky (or, I suppose, Master P) didn’t want to be paid more than he was worth. He agreed to a contract that was largely determined by his actual output. While this seems completely logical in a vacuum, people assumed he was insane.
Williams did not help his cause by behaving like a slightly insane person. He famously conducted interviews with his helmet and visor on, which unintentionally made it seem like he was Darth Vader. It did seem, at times, that Luke Skywalker’s dad was more social than number thirty-four. As Joe Horn notably put it, “People he wanted to deal with, he did. And people he wanted to have nothing to do with, he didn’t. No one could understand that. I don’t think guys in the locker room could grasp that he wanted to be to himself—you know, quiet. If you didn’t understand him and didn’t know what he was about, it always kept people in suspense.”
Whether Joe Horn is a trained psychologist or not, he more or less nails social anxiety disorder in his estimation of Williams. You feel as though the only people who do not make you seize up and panic are those you’ve known since childhood. You avoid your roommates, co-workers, friends of friends, and low-pressure social gatherings, and anything else involving those who are not completely familiar to you. You go to a lot of movies alone. I suppose, if you’re one of the best players in the NFL and you’re forced to answer questions from people you kind of know, the thing that makes the most sense is to keep your dark-visored Riddell on for protection. And, as Joe Horn can attest to, you’re kind of a jerk to your co-workers, though you honestly don’t mean it that way. As I struggled with social anxiety myself, mostly during 2006 while Ricky Williams was a member of the CFL’s Toronto Argonauts, I would often think about those helmeted interviews and have the morbid satisfaction of recognition. I knew, in that moment at least, exactly who Ricky Williams was.
In the manual for alienating NFL fans, steps 1-3 were complete for Ricky. The icing on the marijuana-laced cake was the fact that from 2004-2007, it seemed that Ricky clearly needed weed more than he needed football. In addition to his social anxiety, Williams took an absolute pounding in his first five seasons, carrying the ball 1,206 times and leading the league in 2002 and 2003 with 383 and 392 carries. Whether you agree with it or not, Williams obviously medicated with a substance at odds with his employer. This is the final and perhaps most damning thing that people don’t understand about Ricky Williams. After failing NFL drug tests four times, retiring and coming back, only to be banished to the CFL, then coming back again, to the casual observer it would seem that two things are very clear. One, that Ricky Williams was terrible at passing drug tests, and two, for whatever his reasons were, he still kept coming back to football. This is the part that I give Dolphins fans a pass for disagreeing with me on my affection for Williams. If Ray Rice misses entire seasons at ages 27, 29, and 30 because he cannot pee in a cup to a successful end, I will be frustrated as well.
Let go from Miami this summer, Williams could’ve put a cap on a very respectable NFL career that certainly could’ve amounted to more statistically, but a fine one nonetheless. If he got to 10,000 yards and 75 touchdowns, his case for the Hall would be a lot stronger. Something tells me Ricky isn’t worried so much about those numbers. Instead, he follows in the shadows of Deion Sanders, Rod Woodson, Shannon Sharpe, and the many other veterans who have come to our fair city by the bay to spend the twilight of their careers. Thankfully, at the age of his jersey number (34), he doesn’t need to amass 392 carries. He doesn’t even need to get 192 carries. He needs to score goal line touchdowns, spell Ray Rice, and hit a hole here and there. In a best-case scenario, he’s a complimentary piece to a playoff team where the defense has the big personalities anyway, and he can quietly go about his work. The worst-case scenario? He’ll break down, disappear, or both. It’s a bargain-rate risk for the Ravens and chance for Williams to go out a contender.
Either way, I doubt you or I will come any closer to truly understanding Ricky Williams the person during his time as a Raven. As a player, his strengths, his resume, his comparables, are much easier to quantify. As his time closes with the Ravens, or with whichever team he does wind up taking his last snap, the two will begin to intersect. As we figure out how to remember Ricky’s career, and the establishment (very briefly, if at all) considers him for the Hall of Fame, we will be asked to decide who Ricky Williams is without really knowing one half of him. People found Gilbert Arenas quirky and funny during the halcyon days of Agent Zero’s blog, “hibachi,” candid interviews, and 40-foot three-pointers. Then he brought guns to work. Is Ricky the NFL version of Gilbert, both now bearded and sullen? Is Ricky Williams Barry Sanders, or Jim Brown, away from the game during their primes, but dominant in their flashes? Ricky might actually be his hero Earl Campbell. Except, of course, Earl Campbell never failed a drug test and has a bust in Canton.
Whoever Ricky Williams is, he’s now on my team. For brief moments, I have kind of understood him.
*For the record, I’ve only experienced the third one.
Dave Gilmore lives in Baltimore, works for a sports-oriented non-profit, and writes “The Win Column” for Baltimore Sports Report. He is currently working on a novel about college football. Find him on Twitter @dave_gilmore or visit his web site at davegilmorejr.com