POINT TO PONDER
"Healing takes courage, and we all have courage, even if we have to dig a little to find it."
- Tori Amos
STORY LINE by Rajiv Shah
Ricky Williams had the world at his feet. Coming to the end of his senior year in college, Ricky was the penultimate running back - strong, agile, and fast. So fast that Ricky broke or matched 20 all-time college records during his years at the University of Texas. To his peers and University of Texas fans, he was their hero when he broke the NCAA all-time career rushing record. It wouldn't take long for Ricky to become national news when he won the most coveted college football award: the Heisman Trophy. The Heisman, only awarded to one college football player in a single year as voted by the top sports journalists and past Heisman winners, proved that Ricky was the best all around player coming out of college in 1998. Ricky was revered by his peers, the critics, and fans alike. There was no doubt that Ricky would get signed in the first round of the NFL draft and would become the type of star that organizations build their franchises around.
But this isn't a story about football...
You see, Ricky was a different type of player. He often said money didn't matter to him. He loved the game but hated the business that surrounded it. Ricky was an anomaly in professional sports - he was self-reflective and deeply emotional - a shy, painfully quiet, but genuine player. To prove that money didn't matter to him, Ricky signed with the New Orleans Saints and stipulated in his contract that his salary would only be paid out when he had accumulated 1,600 yards rushing, a very difficult feat. If he didn't reach that goal, he felt he didn't deserve the money. It was highly unusual, but then again, Ricky was also a very different type of person.
After six seasons in the NFL, and after battling injuries and habitual marijuana use (which led to multiple suspensions and fines from the NFL), Ricky decided to retire from football. Ricky was in the prime of his career and his retirement angered his team, the media, and fans alike. Everyone wanted to know, why?
Two days before practice was to begin for the upcoming season, Ricky retired from the game he loved. The national media went wild. Rumors became news, with national sports outlets like ESPN claiming that Ricky had given up football to smoke pot. He was a drug addict and had obviously gone off the deep end. One reporter professed openly, "...a disgrace to humanity, Ricky Williams."
His own team vilified him, punishing him with a lawsuit that claimed that Ricky was in breach of contract. Ricky was ordered to pay back 8.6 million dollars to the organization that he had earned in signing bonuses and time already played. It was one of the first times in professional sports that a player was required to pay back money after a team had cashed in on his name and for time he had already played.
Even with the scorn, ridicule, and financial ruin; Ricky kept going.
Ricky Williams left football and headed to Australia, shacking up in a tent in the middle of the outback. He stopped shaving and his beard grew to biblical lengths. He stopped giving interviews and went to India. He ended up in Grass Valley, California living in a school studying the ancient Indian system of holistic medicine, Ayurveda. He explained that he needed to heal his body and his mind, things that football couldn't give him. He was searching for truth in his own life. But he also wanted to help people in pain. He believed that studying Ayurveda would help him do that. But it all came at a price and Ricky Williams, football hero, was now a national joke relegated to demeaning late-night talk show jokes and the scorn from millions of fans.
Why did it matter so much to us that he quit playing football? What was it about his departure that angered us so deeply? During an interview with Mike Wallace on 60 minutes Ricky challenged him by asking, "When is it okay... no, cause I'm just curious, I'm just curious because I don't understand... when is it okay for me not to play football?"
Ricky Williams had to be damaged. He had to be. To turn down millions of dollars, to give back millions of dollars in order to "find himself," he had to be crazy. To walk away from the limelight and to give up the respect that his talent commanded... What sane person would do that? The media, professional football, and the country weren't buying his explanation. Because Ricky claimed that he walked away from it all to find his truth. He no longer wanted to be in pain. One reporter noted, "the quest for enlightenment is never going to resonate with the masses." And it didn't.
Digging further into Ricky's past revealed that he was the product of a broken home. Ricky was physically, mentally, and sexually abused. It led to the break up of his parent's marriage and the estrangement from his father, a minister. At the age of five, Ricky was in charge of caring for his younger siblings when his mother went to work. He took it upon himself to be the head of the household. As he grew into adulthood, those pressures led Ricky to being diagnosed with depression and social anxiety disorder. The signs were there during his time in football: he was painfully quiet, refusing to talk to teammates he didn't like, he often wore a football helmet with a tinted visor during press conferences, and he lived in a small apartment in New Orleans that was dark and barely had any windows or light.
Ricky refuses to use these hardships as an excuse. In the ESPN 30 for 30 documentary, "Run Ricky Run," Ricky addresses his painful childhood, "...I learned at a very young age that you can't blame your life on your parents, or your upbringing, or anything in your past... when you blame other stuff on people, or you blame things on other people, it takes the power to change those things out of your hands and it puts it in their hands."
It was evident, Ricky was not crazy, he was wounded and suffering. He was searching for a way to heal his body, his mind, and his spirit. Ricky Williams, All-Pro football star was open and vulnerable, courageous enough to admit that he didn't have the answers and was searching for the same things we all are.
After a few years, when he felt he was mentally and emotionally ready, Ricky Williams returned to football. After an injury in one of his first games back (caused by what seemed to be an intentional act of a player stepping on his back once he was already down on the ground), Ricky Williams was still dealing with the same anger others felt for him. After he recovered, Ricky Williams - already in his thirties (and at the age when most players are out of the game or at the end of their careers) - set a new NFL record for the longest span between 1,000 yard rushing seasons at six years.
When asked if he regretted his time away or if he ever thought about all the money (in the ballpark of 30 million) or the accomplishments he could have made during that time - at the peak of his physical abilities - Ricky Williams simply stated, "I look back and I say, 'I wish I was more mature,' and I'm not one to look back say the money I lost was a big deal compared to the experience that I had, especially where I am right now."
I wondered why Ricky Williams affected the fans, the NFL, and the media the way he did.
Ricky Williams walked away from the very things we value. We have been conditioned to believe the solution to our problems is found in the external: money, power, job security, and fame. We think that if we can get to next level, to the next big paycheck, then perhaps then, things will get better. I think Ricky Williams was polarizing because he had all of those things but for him, it wasn't enough. And if it wasn't enough for him, a man who seemed to have it all, then what did that mean for the rest of us?
Sean Pamphilon, the director of the documentary "Run Ricky Run," observed, "when you're around Ricky you learn something about yourself... because if you're going to put a camera on him, he's going to put a mirror on you."
I believe Ricky did the same with himself. He looked in the mirror and stopped looking outward for the answers. He turned his attention within. For Ricky, "when I can be stoic in the eyes of being threatened or being insulted, then I think that has to get people's attention." He went further, "to be detached, you're not coming from anywhere, you're just coming from a place of love... and for someone to come from a purely place of love, will be the most misunderstood person in the whole entire world."
Ricky Williams' decision to leave football and our reaction to it said a lot about us and our values. It's hard to wrap our minds around leaving that type of money, respect, and stardom. A reporter would later muse about Ricky, "...I still don't know as I sit here talking to you whether this is a product of him being bi-polar, or mentally ill, or being a product of being the only sane person out there and the rest of us worshipping all the wrong things."