Culture

Ricky Williams was my favorite athlete

Deemed too weird for the NFL, Williams displayed a vulnerability and sense of emotional well-being that was ahead of his time.
Culture

Ricky Williams was my favorite athlete

Deemed too weird for the NFL, Williams displayed a vulnerability and sense of emotional well-being that was ahead of his time.

Very Intriguing Person

is a series about people who fascinate us, for better or worse.

In 2002, Ricky Williams, newly drafted to the Miami Dolphins and barely 25, made a summertime appearance on The Oprah Winfrey Show. Heart-faced and soft-spoken, Williams was a tender personality and an extraordinary running back. He’d won a Heisman Trophy four years earlier, at the University of Texas, and had just been traded from the New Orleans Saints, who’d initially given up all of their draft picks to select him, a first in NFL history. He was also — according to the press and his fellow teammates and whomever else was watching — extraordinarily weird.

On the field, he ran as if pitched from a bow; to watch him was to imagine him in a flipbook, an outlined blur. The NCAA once wrote that Williams’ power-running style was “viscous,” which read like a typo. It wasn’t: he ran as methodically as someone moving much more sluggishly. Each pedal of the knee; a hand held outward or at his side, almost delicately; the twisting and rolling, both standing and supine, dodging bodies like a dance — all of it seemed like a languid, deliberate choreography, stretched through a field-length cavity visible only to him. Play it in actual slow motion and his movements are tight, sticky, as if he were dripping his way through.

Off-field, he was tight-lipped and tense — awkward like a teenager, with the same deliberate reluctance and sense of quiet. Shoulders high with visible discomfort. “Aloof.” “Eccentric.” In a 2000 Sports Illustrated interview, John Ed Bradley wrote, “Last season he gave interviews only once a week and conducted most of them with his helmet on.” The rate was rare, in the early aughts, for a player of Williams’ stature. But he simply had no interest in Bradley’s questions.

For Oprah, though, he had answers. He was just shy, he told her. “Don’t pay too much attention to what other people think or say about what [you’re] doing,” she said. The audience applauded, though the truth was a little less organic: The pharmaceutical corporation GlaxoSmithKline was then paying Williams to announce his shyness. Later, he became a spokesperson for their product Paxil. But an athlete of Adonic proportions was admitting to his mental health struggles, more than a decade before doing so would become common. Williams may have been cashing in, but he was still singular, and singularly vulnerable.

These days, Williams is a self-described astrologer, a proponent of medicinal marijuana, a controversial Big Brother contestant, a proud father, fully rebranded. He is no longer shy. But I’ve loved Williams — the awkward, unassuming version of him — for roughly half my life. I was 14 the first time I went to a Dolphins game, my mouth swollen with hunks of wax squeezed between my molars to make space for braces. Post-pubescence put me in a state of constant repulsion — everything felt overwrought and massive, including my own body. The spectacle of the game was horrifying, beer-slick seats and taunts from deeply Floridian men. I was a reticent guest of my boyfriend, with no interest in football myself. The game’s culture seemed too associated with both excessive commercialism and rampant misogyny, some Axe-scented monolith that made men angry. My panic attack came on quickly.

One recommended technique for subduing a panic attack is finding a focal point, something moored and steady. Williams was swift, but I could follow him, finally oblivious to everything else; he had his own rallying cry (“Run, Ricky, run!”). It’s hard to parse what is exceptional when all young athletes are exceptional. I’ve never known how to make sense of football’s particular math, its stats and numbers and the way they’re pegged to the body — yards run, distances thrown. But I decided Williams was special, special to me. That evening, I watched a clip of one of those helmet-clad interviews, by then already old. We were kindred.

During his 11-season career, Williams was known for debilitating anxiety, controversy (he wore a dress! he smoked many joints!), and for quitting after getting busted for smoking weed. “I’ll go from thinking I want to be the best running back ever...and tomorrow…I don’t want to play football anymore,” he admitted. He’d eventually reveal it was Social Anxiety Disorder and depression that stunted his ability to speak, that kept the helmet on post-game. Marijuana, verboten at that time in the NFL — unlike, say, abusing your spouse — soothed his tension. He violated the league’s drug policy four times and was drug-tested at least 496 more, the testers becoming “like family.”

For ditching a field so inherently patriarchal, and behaving in a manner regarded as stereotypically weak, he was rendered an irresponsible kook.

In 2004, facing a four-game suspension and a $650,000 fine after failing a drug test — then a second time — Williams retired. In 2018, he explained it was “to smoke weed. Well, that’s not all the way true. I retired to take better care of myself. One of those things that helped was cannabis.” He attended the California College of Ayurveda, while the Dolphins finished the season 4-12. When he returned the following year, Williams finished with six touchdowns and 743 yards, and was then promptly suspended, having violated the drug policy again. “When I was with the Dolphins, the team doctor would tell me, ‘Take it easy in practice,’” Williams recalled last year. “I had to go on my own and find ways to better take care of myself.”

A former California boy, Williams grew up in San Diego, becoming a caretaker for his sisters when his parents divorced (he was five). Though he struggled emotionally and at school, a test revealed he was, of course, incredibly bright. With counseling and getting “really focused,” he became an honor roll student; by high school he was one of the country’s top running backs. He signed with the University of Texas, breaking multiple records and winning that Heisman with, at the time, the largest percentage of first-place votes in the award’s history.

That Heisman acceptance speech — I think about it every time I have to speak publicly. Williams seems wide-eyed, breathy with nerves. He fidgets. He bites his lip. The speech is prepared, but punctuated with rambles. He thanks every other finalist. “Tim — a great year. That’s amazing. Those numbers...It’s just…amazing. Congratulations,” he says, as if he was about to hand off the award. He isn’t struggling to speak, but he is clearly working. “Growing up, I didn’t dream of playing in the NFL, but I did dream of playing college football.” The rest of his career makes sense: the quitting and returns, the doubt.

Is it ever brave to avoid doing the thing to which you committed — to briefly escape? “When I retired,” Williams said recently, “I felt like I lived more in three months than the first 27 years of my life.” Summoning the wherewithal to care for yourself while remaining emotionally tethered to your job, no matter how its stressors ravage your immune system, is an understood good thing. If you have the privilege and space to cut and run, that’s okay, too. A football hero, Williams was barred from either of these camps. He could not take care of himself and stay, nor quit and decamp from his career, without criticism; the pressure was too high, the rules too stringent. For ditching a field so inherently patriarchal, and behaving in a manner regarded as stereotypically weak, he was rendered an irresponsible kook. Never mind that football is notoriously abusive on the body or that the NFL was already overrun with corruption; for a man like Williams to get high, run off, and pursue photography was, as they say, out of bounds. "I feel them watching me, and it comes out that I'm strange or that I'm weird, that I don’t fit in,” he once said, long before he left.

Williams played for other teams, but retired for good in early 2012. He currently describes himself as a healer, citing his own experience with pain; he owns a marijuana product company, Real Wellness, which is targeted to customers with chronic pain. Today, he is excellent at self-promotion and public speaking. Still, I’d like to think he remains a true weirdo, with his goals the same as they’ve always been: fame without compromise, success without artifice. I remember my panic attack at the game, my tense fear, how only Williams quelled it. I remember choosing a hero because he was unable to hide himself, even behind a literal, helmeted mask. “I understand that a lot of people…look up to me because of my profession,” he told the Anxiety and Depression Association of America, now a long time ago. “If my story can help even one person to seek help, it will feel as though I’ve scored the game-winning touchdown.”

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Monica Uszerowicz is a writer and photographer in Miami, FL.