During a period of time, Ricky Williams was one of the best running backs in the National Football League, during an era in which the league was flush with talented tailbacks.
His physical gifts were undeniable, and he was quite a formidable foe for opposing defenses.
However, off the field, Williams had issues, and perhaps fate set things up so that he would be one of those who was very talented but equally tortured.
His difficulties off the field seemed to overshadow what he did on it, but one should not forget what a force he was in the backfield.
Early Success And Struggles In Southern California
Errick Lynne Williams Jr. was born on May 21, 1977 in San Diego, California. He was one of three children born to Sandy and Errick Williams.
From an early age, it was clear that life was going to be an uphill battle for Williams. Both of his parents were in their late teens when he was born, and they got divorced in 1983.
That meant that even at the age of five, Williams had to serve as something of the man of the household, helping to take care of his sisters by taking them to school, putting them to bed and even cooking meals.
While his father wasn’t around, his mother worked a day job and went to school at night in order to try to give her kids a decent foundation.
Later on, it was revealed that the elder Williams had sexually abused his kids, an accusation that was made during his divorce. A 1984 misdemeanor charge required him to register as a sex offender in California.
Years later, he was charged with felony theft for embezzling more than $20,000 from a health care facility in Houston. He pleaded guilty and served 90 days in jail, and he was also given 10 years of probation.
It was Sandy’s feeling that she needed to protect her kids from their father.
Perhaps as a result, young Ricky had emotional issues and was sent to therapy by his mother.
“The counselors said they’d never, ever lead a normal life, that anything that happened would follow them the rest of their lives,” Sandy Williams said of her kids. “My goal in life was to teach them to lead as normal a life as possible.”
Indeed, Williams’ demons would follow him around for years.
Despite possessing outstanding intelligence, Ricky Williams struggled academically as a young child. But by the time he was in high school, he had turned things around, even making the honor roll.
Another thing that helped him find himself was sports. He ran track, and played baseball and football, and it was on the gridiron where he proved he was special.
He was already 5-foot-9 and 155 pounds when he arrived at Patrick Henry High School, and he had a knack for absorbing contact, as well as initiating it. The team took advantage by playing him not only at running back, but also at outside linebacker and strong safety on defense.
By his senior season, Williams had become dominant, rushing for 2,099 yards and 25 touchdowns that year and earning the 1994 Player of the Year award from the San Diego Union-Tribune.
He had a number of big games as a senior, including several 200-yard contests, and he led Patrick Henry to the Eastern League title with a win over San Diego High School.
In the victory, he sustained a leg injury in the second quarter, and after returning and attempting to run the football, he was carried off the field after putting up 115 yards and two touchdowns in just the first quarter.
Two weeks later he came back to game action, and although he wasn’t 100 percent, he led his school to the title game of the CIF-San Diego Section Division 1 playoffs, where it lost 13-0.
A Tremendous Player At Texas
Williams took a scholarship to play his college ball at the University of Texas, and the Longhorns would immediately realize that they had a prodigy.
As a freshman, he ran for 990 yards and eight touchdowns while averaging a monster 6.0 yards per carry attempt. He upped those numbers to 1,272 yards and 12 touchdowns as a sophomore.
In 1997, as a junior, Williams started to go supernova, posting 1,893 rushing yards and 25 touchdowns. He was now within striking distance of the NCAA Division I-A all-time career rushing record of 6,082 yards.
The tailback ripped through the 1998 season, putting up over 300 yards in a single game more than once, and on Nov. 27, the big moment came.
Against rival Texas A&M University, Williams exploded for a 60-yard run and touchdown in the first quarter to break the NCAA career rushing record that had been held by Tony Dorsett.
The game was momentarily stopped and Williams was given the game ball while being honored by Dorsett and other legends who were on hand.
November 27, 1998: Texas’ Ricky Williams breaks Tony Dorsett’s 22-year-old NCAA Division 1-A all-time rushing record (6,082) w/ a 60-yard touchdown run against Texas A&M. Unranked Texas would go on to upset #6 Texas A&M 26-24. Williams finished the game with 272 yards rushing. pic.twitter.com/hUJECJoom5
— This Day In Sports Clips (@TDISportsClips) November 27, 2020
Texas won the game 26-24 as Williams ended up getting 259 yards.
On the season, he put together one of the better seasons by a running back in NCAA history with 2,124 rushing yards and 27 rushing touchdowns. In doing so, he also broke the record for NCAA Division I-A career rushing touchdowns.
In all, Williams set 21 NCAA records by the end of his senior year, and he also topped it all off by winning the Heisman Trophy, then by running for 203 yards and two touchdowns to lead his Longhorns to a blowout win over Mississippi State in the Cotton Bowl.
On the side, Williams had something of a side gig. He was taken in the eighth round of the 1995 Major League Baseball June amateur draft by the Philadelphia Phillies, and he spent four seasons playing minor league ball in the Phillies’ farm system as an outfielder.
Although he had trouble putting the ball into play (he batted just .211 during his career), the Montreal Expos took him in the 1998 Rule 5 draft. Williams, however, decided to focus on football, and needless to say, many NFL teams wanted his services.
Good, But Not Great
For the first 30 years or so of their NFL experience, the New Orleans Saints were a second-rate franchise. By 1998, they had posted a winning record only five times, and they needed to shake things up.
Head coach Mike Ditka was hot for Williams, but the highest pick the Saints held in the 1999 NFL Draft was the 12th pick.
General manager Bill Kuharich ended up trading all of his team’s available draft picks that year, as well as two from the following year’s draft, for the fifth overall pick in 1999, which he then used on Williams.
Ditka and Williams were featured on the front cover of an August issue of “ESPN The Magazine” as a couple about to be wed (Williams put on a dress to appear as the bride for the photo shoot). To further show how much they believed in the young tailback, they signed him to a monster contract.
Rapper Master P’s No Limit Sports firm helped Williams secure a seven-year deal that, with incentives and an $8 million signing bonus, was worth up to $68 million.
It was a strange contract, as most of the money was incentive-based, and his actual salary as a rookie was a modest $175,000, which was the rookie minimum. But Williams was sure that he would become an elite running back, and so he pushed for the structure of the contract.
Williams gradually emerged as a solid pro running back. He tallied 884 rushing yards and two touchdowns in 12 games as a rookie, then increased that to 1,000 yards and eight touchdowns in 10 games the next year, as the Saints won 10 games and made the playoffs for the first time since 1992.
In 2001, Williams continued to mature, playing all 16 games and posting 1,245 rushing yards and six rushing touchdowns, thanks in part to a strong October, during which he earned NFC Offensive Player of the Week honors. He also expanded his production by adding 511 yards and a touchdown as a receiver.
Touchdown, SAINTS WIN!
Our second favorite moment vs. the Panthers was a CLUTCH touchdown by Ricky Williams back in 2001 😤🤯
🗓: Sunday, Sept. 19
🏈: Saints at Panthers
📺: FOX (12pm CST) pic.twitter.com/l6ySAVbtUS
— New Orleans Saints (@Saints) September 18, 2021
However, much more was expected out of Williams, not just on the field, but also off the field.
His rookie season was rough, as multiple injuries caused him to miss four games. After Ditka was fired at the end of the campaign, Williams took a shot at him, saying that he never asked the coach to draft him and that he “didn’t want to come and play for a team that was 3-13.”
Before long, things would get even more contentious and complex. Williams developed the habit of conducting media interviews with his helmet on and a dark shield covering his eyes so that he could feel like he had some type of “barrier” between himself and others.
When fans would approach him to show their appreciation, he would avoid them or run away.
This behavior led many, including those in the media, to accuse Williams of being aloof, enigmatic or, even worse, arrogant. But it wasn’t a moral or character flaw.
“Ricky’s just a different guy”, former Saints receiver Joe Horn explained. “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.”
At one point, Williams was watching television when the topic of social anxiety disorder came up, and he felt like it may have been an apt description of himself.
He sought professional counseling and was diagnosed with social anxiety disorder, borderline personality disorder and avoidance disorder. Thanks to therapy and Paxil, an anti-depressant drug (he was even a spokesman for the pill), Williams started to improve.
But the Saints hadn’t improved on the field, falling to a 7-9 record in 2001, and they may have started to regret trading for Williams. Years later, Sports Illustrated would rank the deal the second-worst in NFL history.
The Miami Dolphins, on the other hand, still saw lots of potential in him, and in March 2002 they sent four draft picks, including two first-rounders, to New Orleans for Williams.
Dominance And Controversy In Miami
At the time of the trade, the Dolphins were a good, solid playoff team looking for those final pieces they needed to get to the Super Bowl.
It looked like Williams would certainly hold up his end of the bargain. He started the 2002 campaign with 111 rushing yards and two touchdowns in an opening week win over the Detroit Lions, then followed it up with 132 yards the next week against the Indianapolis Colts and 151 yards in Week 3 versus the New York Jets.
In early December, he had over 200 rushing yards in back-to-back games, then finished off the season with 185 yards and two touchdowns against the defending world champion New England Patriots.
As the season went on, multiple body parts ached and ached, but Williams was able to play in each game that year and amass some beastly numbers: 1,853 rushing yards and 16 touchdowns on a league-high 383 carries.
2002 Ricky Williams was a MONSTER
• 1,853 rushing yards
• 16 rushing TDs
— uSTADIUM Fantasy (@uSTADIUMFantasy) April 29, 2019
Leading the league in rushing yards, he was named to the Pro Bowl and garnered All-Pro First-Team honors.
But it didn’t translate to team success, as the Dolphins won just nine games and missed the postseason for the first time since 1996.
Williams would again gallop through and around opposing defenses in 2003, even if his numbers dipped somewhat to 1,372 yards and nine touchdowns on the ground. Although Miami improved to 10-6 on the season, it again didn’t qualify for the playoffs.
Then everything fell apart.
Towards the end of the season, Williams tested positive for marijuana. It was not the first time in his career that he had tested positive for the banned substance.
The following July, he announced that he was planning to retire from pro football, saying that he was sick of the burden of playing in the NFL and that he wanted to spend his time traveling the world.
He later would admit to the Miami Herald that another reason he stepped away was that he wanted to partake in the substance without being penalized by the NFL.
Indeed, Williams would become a serious student of Ayurveda, an Indian holistic medical healing system, by taking classes at the California College of Ayurveda in Grass Valley, Calif., a small town almost an hour northeast of Sacramento.
Without him, the Dolphins would stumble big time, winning just four games in 2004.
In the summer of 2005, Williams came out of retirement and rejoined the team, and he even publicly apologized for retiring the year before so soon before training camp started.
He still had to serve a four-game suspension for his violation of the NFL’s substance policy, but once he returned to game action, he was still a strong tailback. He ran for 743 yards and six touchdowns in ’05, and he improved his yards per carry average from 3.5 in ’04 to 4.4 in ’05.
He only started three games that season, but two of his starts came in the final two games of the season, and they were dominant ones for Williams. He had 172 yards in Week 16 against the Tennessee Titans and 108 yards in Week 17 against the New England Patriots.
Miami jumped to a 9-7 record, but yet again it missed the playoffs.
Several weeks after the end of the season, the league announced that Williams had tested positive for a banned substance yet again, which led to him being suspended for the entire 2006 campaign. Apparently, the substance in question wasn’t marijuana, but another herb that had to do with his interest and studies in Eastern holistic medicine.
He instead spent the year playing for the Toronto Argonauts of the Canadian Football League (CFL). Former Argonauts quarterback Joe Theismann, who had made his name by leading the NFL’s Washington Redskins to a Super Bowl title, hated the move and criticized the team for signing Williams while calling him “an addict.”
But Williams did quite well up north, despite missing several games due to multiple injuries. He put up 526 yards and two touchdowns on 109 carries in 11 games, and he loved the experience so much that he said he would be interested in returning to the CFL at some point.
In May 2007, it was reported that Williams had failed yet another drug test, forcing him to apply for reinstatement. His reinstatement was approved by NFL commissioner Roger Goodell in October, and it required him to submit to multiple drug tests each week.
Over the past couple of years, Williams had taken up yoga, and it helped him resist the urge to smoke cannabis, allowing him to remain eligible to play.
Alas, in his first appearance that year, Pittsburgh Steelers linebacker Lawrence Timmons stepped on his shoulder, and he suffered a torn pectoral muscle, abruptly ending his season.
Finally, Williams bounced back for real in 2008. Although he only started three games, sharing backfield duties with Ronnie Brown, he played in every game and tallied 659 rushing yards and four touchdowns.
The Dolphins won 11 games and returned to the playoffs. At age 31, it was only the second time Williams had appeared in the NFL playoffs, but it would not be a fruitful appearance, as Miami would get blown out by the Baltimore Ravens in the wild card round while he was held to just 17 rushing yards.
Once again, Williams was not the Dolphins’ starter to begin the 2009 season, and his numbers were not too impressive. But a bad stroke of luck for the team would turn out to be a blessing in disguise for the San Diego native.
Nine games into the campaign, Brown had a season-ending injury, and Williams was promoted to the starting lineup. He jumped into the Wayback Machine and proved that he still had game.
In his first start of the season, he had 119 rushing yards and three touchdowns in a win over the Carolina Panthers. He would have three more games in the next four weeks in which he would run for over 100 yards.
Once the season was over, Williams had put up solid numbers with 1,121 rushing yards, 11 rushing touchdowns and two receiving touchdowns. He was efficient as well, averaging a strong 4.7 yards per rush attempt.
It was one of the best seasons by a running back in his 30s, as he became just the seventh player who started a season at age 32 to rush for at least 1,000 yards.
The 2009 season would prove to be Williams’ last hurrah. He again played in every game the following year, but he didn’t start any of them, ending with just 673 yards and two touchdowns on the ground on the season.
Williams would play one final season in the NFL, and he would do so with the Baltimore Ravens. The Ravens were building a winner, and Williams was perhaps hoping that he would finally get a shot at earning a championship ring.
Backing up Pro Bowl running back Ray Rice, he had 444 rushing yards and two rushing touchdowns. Although his body was breaking down at age 34, he yet again played a full 16-game schedule.
In case y’all forgot, NFL great Ricky Williams was on the Ravens pic.twitter.com/8PmxHZOSaM
— Brian (@Bmore_Sports8) September 18, 2020
In the final game of the schedule, Williams hit a very important milestone: the 10,000-yard career mark.
Ironically, the player who had been disciplined multiple times for smoking marijuana and had once seemed dismissive and disrespectful to the media and fans was now considered by his colleagues to be a positive element and even a leader.
“I was a big fan of Ricky before we were teammates, but being around him this year is the best thing that happened to me in my NFL career,” Rice said. “As a young player, you need to be around a guy who knows what he is doing, and Ricky was tremendous to learn from. The way he took care of his body and the way he prepared, he always showed that he is a true professional.”
The Ravens went 12-4 in 2011 and had big hopes for the playoffs. They made it to the AFC Championship Game against the New England Patriots, but a back-and-forth contest ended with a missed field goal by Baltimore kicker Billy Cundiff that would’ve forced overtime.
A few weeks later, Williams made it official: he was retiring from pro football.
Legacy And Post-Football Life
When Williams was right, there was no doubt that he was one of the game’s better running backs. But one had to wonder what got in his way of being consistently great.
Was it the residual effects of his childhood issues? Was it because he often used marijuana? Or was it something else?
Perhaps he never possessed the innate passion for football that one must have to achieve and maintain that type of success.
“I loved playing football, but the reasons I loved football were just to feed my ego,” Williams said. “And any time you feed your ego, it’s a one-way street. … There were so many things I had to deal with that erased the positives I got from playing the game that it wasn’t worth it. It’s like eating a Big Mac and drinking a Diet Coke.”
He has pretty much admitted that he enjoyed college football more than pro football and that his motivation was waning once he went pro.
“Did I,” he said with a chuckle about how much he enjoyed playing college ball. “But when I was a kid, I planted a seed to be a rich and famous pro athlete and I thought it would be happiness. The flower was ripe when I won the Heisman Trophy. And I didn’t have another seed to plant.”
Trying to be a regular person and not having to deal with fame has apparently helped him heal from whatever was ailing him mentally, emotionally and spiritually during his time in the NFL.
“[Being anonymous] was necessary and it felt like a burden was lifted,” he said. “It was easier for me to be myself and to know who I was. When you’re a pro football player, it’s rare to know two people who treat you like a person and it becomes easy to forget who you are.”
Over the years, Williams became a qualified yoga instructor, and he has also studied massage therapy, Japanese Shiatsu and traditional Oriental Medicine.
In 2018, he co-founded an herbal wellness company that advocates for the use of plant products to treat a variety of health issues. One of those plants just happens to be marijuana, the same substance that got him into so much trouble years earlier.
Despite all his struggles with the demands of the NFL, Williams received two important honors when he was inducted into the College Football Hall of Fame and the Cotton Bowl Hall of Fame.
— University Co-op (@universitycoop) January 9, 2015
— Texas Football (@TexasFootball) December 28, 2017
As far as the Pro Football Hall of Fame, he feels he would’ve gotten that honor if things had gone differently on draft day in 1999.
"I think I’d be in the Hall of Fame right now if I ended up in Cleveland" 👀
Ricky Williams says his career would’ve been different had he ended up being drafted by the Browns.
— Bleacher Report (@BleacherReport) December 19, 2019
Still, if Williams’ greatest contribution to society is as a teacher, healer and mentor, it may be more important than being a Hall of Fame NFL running back.