It has been nearly seven years since Ricky Williams retired from the NFL for the final time. His football legacy is complex: He won a Heisman Trophy at Texas, rushed for more than 10,000 yards in the NFL and was one of the best Dolphins running backs to ever suit up. Yet some people will always remember him for marijuana use that consistently landed on him on the suspended list.
Several people who’ve met Williams simply describe him as a “different guy,” but his former teammate Ronnie Brown told ESPN last month: “People didn’t really understand Ricky. But when you got to know him, you would figure out what he was all about. In 2008, we were like a band. We would look at each other and know what the other person was thinking. He’s extremely smart. We had a great bond.”
Williams made a splash earlier this month by announcing on Outside the Lines that he is a co-founder of a new spring football league called Freedom Football League. There’s some significance in the name because Williams says he feels more free than ever these days.
ESPN caught up with Williams recently to reminisce on the lasting memories of his NFL career, detail the complexities that define him and discuss life after football.
What has been going on in your life this year?
Primarily school — I’ve been studying Chinese medicine. I’ve been an analyst for the Longhorn Network. And I’ve been doing a lot more astrology stuff. I’ve been doing like three or four readings a week. I’m speaking once or twice a week. It’s really started to take off in terms of the things that I’m interested in that have nothing to do with football. Most people who play pro football, there’s a process where you have to leave that identity behind and try to develop a new one. For me, it’s been seven years doing that, and this year is the first year where I’m off to my second life.
How have you dealt with retirement?
The first time I retired in 2004. I had a practice go at it. I took a year off. The second time, it was really easy. I knew what to expect, and more importantly, I knew what I wanted to do. I’ve done a lot of things since I left, and they all took me to where I am now. I coached a little bit. I traveled a lot. I went back to school and got my degree. I started the master’s program last year. My life is really focused. I feel like I’m building something really special. Started a company and I’m in the process of starting another company. When I look at fame, I look at what fame can do for you. The best thing that fame can do for you is open doors, but you still have to walk through the doors. I’m finding out I have enough skill outside of football that I can start walking through those open doors.
I retired from football because I needed to take better care of myself. Cannabis helped me do that. I felt like I could restart my life and not let football consume me anymore. I’m starting to find out who Ricky Williams really is.
Who is Ricky Williams?
I am a healer and a philosopher. When I’m exploring and studying the world, it’s when I feel the happiest and most myself. When I’m studying astrology, reading philosophy, learning Chinese medicine, I’m lit up. When I’m stuck or things get boring, I feel defeated. When I think who am I: It starts with what things give me vitality, energy, excitement and add meaning to my life.
How does your exploration of cannabis differ from your playing days?
Well, I’m not being tested every week, so I actually can have an open and free relationship with cannabis. I look at cannabis and use cannabis as a spiritual tool. I think we live in two different worlds. We live in an inner world — our thoughts, our feelings, our aspirations. We live in an outer world — the things we have to do on a daily basis. We have to have balance. But it seems as a society, we focus more on the outer world than the inner world. I think one of the reasons cannabis is growing in popularity is to help balance that out and to help people disconnect from the outer world to focus more on the inner world.
How did you feel about the stoner perception you gained due to your numerous failed NFL drug tests?
After I retired the first time, I didn’t care how people perceived me. People already thought I was crazy and lost my mind. They didn’t know about my anxiety or how I was feeling daily. So it was easy for me to not care how other people saw me. I wanted to be free. I realized everybody around me thinks I’m crazy, but I’ve never been happier.
Now I have an herbal company called Real Wellness. I’ve been studying herbs for 15 years. We’ll put cannabis in some of our products. The whole idea is when I was 20, I had my first ulcer from taking too many Advils. I wanted to create an alternative to pharmaceuticals to people. It seems like the only thing people think they can do to make them feel better is to go get pills. There are safer and more gentle ways to go about this.
How did you deal with pain as a player?
Cannabis helped when I did use it. I also had other tools. Second half of my career, I had a very consistent meditation practice. It helped a lot. I would get acupuncture, I would get massages, see a chiropractor, eating an anti-inflammatory diet. Taking care of my body was pretty much a second job. I eat a little bit of meat, but I’ll probably never be a huge meat eater.
Do you worry about the impact of CTE on you?
Not really. I don’t really worry about myself physically. I feel great now — better than I ever did when I was playing football. Playing running back, I was pretty much in pain the whole football season and half of the offseason. It’s nice to wake up and not feel pain. I know there are some effects of football that will follow me forever, but I believe my recovery methods will help me. There are healing methods that need to be used more.
What is your lasting memory of your time with the Dolphins?
I loved it. I’ll always consider myself a Dolphin. Always. That’s where I had my best years. That’s where I raised my kids. It will always be a special place for me. The one unfortunate thing when I look back is I would have loved to finish my career in Miami. For one, I would have broken Larry Csonka’s Miami Dolphins rushing record if I would have played that last year. It would have felt better to go out a Dolphin. I loved my time in Baltimore and it’s a great organization, but I felt like a fish out of water. I’m a Miami Dolphin, and I should have ended my career as a Miami Dolphin. I hope the organization one day lets me sign a one-day contract and retire as a Miami Dolphin.
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Who is your favorite coach to play for?
Coach [Nick] Saban. I was lucky enough to play for him for a year. What I loved about Nick is all he cared about is that you played hard. He gave you the freedom to experiment and to get better and to improve and to make mistakes as long as you were playing hard. He really celebrated and appreciated and preached the process. Playing under Nick, we had a lot of creativity to have fun. Nick is kind of a hard ass, but only in a sense of he expects what he expects. To me, he’s the best coach in all of football.
Did you or do you hope for the Hall of Fame?
I’ve never hoped for it. To be honest, I never had any aspirations to be a pro football player. I had an amazing college career, so it made sense to go to that next level. Because of the up-and-down nature of my NFL career, I’m not holding my breath for the Hall of Fame. But who knows? In 20 years, when people look back, maybe they’ll have a different sense of who I was and what I offered to the game.
How often do you get reminded of the ESPN the Mag cover with you posing in a wedding dress with Mike Ditka, and what are your thoughts of it now?
At the time, I was surprised that people made a big deal. It was my idea. I thought it was nothing crazy compared to Ditka trading eight picks for me. It felt like dressing up for Halloween. I dressed as a cheerleader for Halloween one year. It was a fun balance for me in a serious sport. People made a big deal of it, but eventually it blew over. I’ll do autograph signings and it’ll pop up in every autograph signing I do. The fact that it’s not a big deal now and there’s not even snickers or laughs anymore now is a positive thing.