"Now I don't care about money, I don't care about fame, I'll literally play for free. I don't care what anyone says. I'm not afraid of anything. When it's down to just the pure football, I realized I really do love to play football." -Ricky Williams, 2004
"So when is it OK for me to stop playing football?" -Ricky Williams to Mike Wallace on Sixty Minutes
"He's a disgrace to the game. The man doesn't deserve to play football." -Joe Theismann
Football players are the most anonymous of all athletes. Hidden behind facemasks, swaddled in pads, confined by media-savvy caution to press-conference clichés when they speak in public, the average fan hardly ever knows them except as collections of numbers to exploit in fantasy leagues. The NFL’s culture, more so than that of other leagues, stamps out their individuality in favor of obedience and subsumption to the team. The Japanese proverb “the nail that sticks out gets hammered down” might not be framed in Bill Belichick’s office, but it very well could be. And no modern NFL player knows more about getting hammered down than Ricky Williams.
Williams, who retired this week, was a rare kind of football player, first of all because he was really good—a shifty, quick-stepping runner who also had open-field speed and enough power to bulldoze bigger linebackers on his way to the end zone—but also because football didn’t define him as a person and, as he found out, some people really couldn’t handle that.
This isn’t the first time Williams has retired. In 2004 he famously announced he was quitting football just days before he was to report to Dolphins training camp. The talk-radio line on him was that he was a “quitter” or a “traitor,” and that he was deserting his responsibilities so he could smoke Snoopian amounts of weed in India and live in a tent in Australia. Granted, he did live in a tent in Australia on some land he owned, he was smoking a lot of weed, and he did visit India, and convert to Hinduism, but he wasn’t cavalierly fleeing the NFL on a whim, but escaping from a fairly awful situation.
Years earlier, the Saints had blown up their franchise’s future to draft him, only to see him get injured, and the contract that Master P’s talent agency (yeah) negotiated on Williams’s behalf was legendarily awful and left him without much money for his pain. Traded to the Dolphins, they overused him, sending him across the line of scrimmage nearly 400 times a season—that’s getting tackled by huge men 400 times in a 16-week span, and getting it a lot worse on the way there. You combine that stuff with Williams’s not-too-steady mental state (he was sexually abused by his father as a child; he’s been diagnosed as having social anxiety), and is it any wonder the then-27-year-old wanted to get the fuck away from a brutal, concussion-causing sport and chill out for a little bit?
He came back, of course, and the way he came back tells you a lot about the way the NFL works. He said he would play for free, that he liked the game of football and didn’t care about money—isn’t that the attitude athletes are supposed to have?—but the Dolphins cared very much about money and sued him for millions of dollars for breach of contract, asking him to pay them back a percentage of his signing bonus that he had originally received from the Saints. So Williams came back in 2005 not on his own terms, but because playing football was the only way for him to get out from under that dogpile of debt.
Then there were the failed drug tests that forced him to play in Canada. It’s too bad Williams’s drug of choice was weed (and whatever mysterious substance caused him to fail that 2006 test) and not alcohol, which is routinely used and abused by NFL players. The league can handle one—or a hundred—drunken, DUI-stockpiling louts, but if you’re getting high and telling everyone how great marijuana is, well, self-serious jocks like Joe Theismann will say you don’t deserve the opportunity to get thrown to the ground by an HGH-popping lineman.
Though he was a Saint, the man wasn’t a saint—he fathered five kids with three women, and ignored his children for some time. But he was thoughtful and he tried to figure out how to be a good human being and not just a great football player, which is pretty damn rare in the NFL. His biggest sins in the league’s eyes were asking questions and being able to walk away from millions of dollars, which are precisely the same qualities I wish athletes had more of.
Williams reminds me quite a bit of Red Sox pitcher Bill Lee—another guy who unapologetically enjoyed toking and had the bad habit of saying whatever was on his mind, but also a guy who loved the sport he played (Lee’s still at it at 64 years old). There’s scant evidence that the game loved Williams back, but man, did Williams love football. Through all the insults and slings and arrows he took from the media and the league, and before retirement had the third most rushing TDs among active backs. He won a Heisman Trophy at Texas and may have been one of the school’s two-best all-time players. I can’t find a single negative quote from anyone he ever played with. We should all be such disgraces to the game.
I got a lot of information, and the quotes at the top, from ESPN’s great “30 for 30” documentary on Williams, which you can watch here until YouTube takes it down.