Football never consumed Ricky Williams the way it does some players.
From his youth, Williams constantly thirsted for knowledge, and pursued myriad interests, from religion and travel to yoga and holistic medicine. Football was always just one of the colors in the kaleidoscope that made up Williams’ life.
But when he played, he was really, really good.
“Ricky was just amazing,” said Texas coach Mack Brown, who coached Williams in his senior, Heisman Trophy-winning season of 1998. “There were the back-to-back 300-yard games, honoring Doak (Walker) by wearing his number at the Cotton Bowl, breaking Tony Dorsett’s NCAA rushing record and all the other records he broke. It was just an amazing, storybook-type of year from start to finish.”
Though his career took some unique zigs and zags, if an observer were to take the Goodyear Blimp overview, he’d spot production that rivals any of the game’s great running backs. At Texas, Williams started all four years and amassed a whopping 6,592 rushing yards, which stood as the all-time Division I-A record until Wisconsin’s Ron Dayne surpassed the mark a year later. In an NFL career that spanned 10 years with three different teams, he ran for 10,009 yards, one of just 27 running backs in pro football history to crest the 10,000-yard plateau, and scored 74 touchdowns.
And on Monday, that winding football path will carry Williams to the steps of the Texas Sports Hall of Fame, as he’ll be inducted with six other sporting greats.
Even though he refused to let football define him as a person, that’s not to say Williams didn’t enjoy himself on the field.
“For me, I never looked for reasons for the things I did,” Williams said. “If I had fun doing it, I did it. I wouldn’t have done it if it weren’t fun.”
Errick Lynne Williams was born in 1977 in San Diego, Calif., along with a twin sister Cassandra. He displayed a natural precociousness from an early age, and took a test at age 6 that revealed an intelligence of someone twice his age.
“As a kid, I was always very curious, always looking for more and more information,” Williams said. “That really stayed with me as an adult. ... It was different in school, though. I wasn’t always interested in the information they wanted you to learn in school. I didn’t really care if I got straight A’s. By the time I finally did care about it in high school, I did pretty well.”
In athletics, Williams never locked himself into just one pursuit. He wrestled, played baseball and ran track in addition to playing football.
On the gridiron, Williams was fast and aggressive, but even that aggression had a thought and purpose to it.
“One of the first things I learned in Pop Warner football, I was in the back of the line watching as we went through a tackling drill,” Williams said. “I realized that the more aggressive kid was the one who won. It had nothing to do with your talent or your skill level, it was all about who was the most aggressive. So I knew that if I were aggressive on the field, good things would happen.”
That ferocity spilled over to defense, as Williams also played linebacker and safety in addition to toting the ball for San Diego’s Patrick Henry High School. By his senior year, Williams had his pick of college football programs, and as he examined his various options he narrowed his thought process to one simple question:
Where will I have the most fun?
“I knew football would be a big part of college, but I wanted to look at the college experience as a whole,” Williams said. “I got to Austin, and the weather was great, I knew I’d be comfortable there. The team was on the verge of really experiencing some success, and I wanted to be part of that. I wanted to play, and ended up starting as a freshman. It was a place that loved football, so I knew I’d be treated well and could envision myself being successful.
“When I took into account all of that, Texas just made sense.”
That scholarship offer by the Longhorns definitely made sense, as Williams zipped headlong into the starting lineup as a true freshman in 1995. Despite playing fullback that season, Williams piled up 1,052 rushing yards, averaging nearly six yards per carry, and scored nine touchdowns.
Williams also stayed busy over his summer vacations. Drafted out of high school by the Philadelphia Phillies, he spent those summers hacking away at curveballs in the minor leagues. All-star shortstop Jimmy Rollins, a minor-league teammate, once called Williams “the fastest guy I’ve ever laid eyes on.”
Back in the Big 12, most tacklers would’ve probably agreed with Rollins. Williams racked up more than 1,300 rushing yards as a sophomore, then turned in a tremendous junior campaign that included a national-best 1,893 rushing yards and 25 touchdowns. It seemed certain to most scouts, and a lot of Longhorn fans, that Williams would forgo his senior season and enter the NFL draft.
And Williams’ first conversation with new Texas coach Mack Brown in 1998 didn’t do much to dissuade him.
“I didn’t really like him,” Williams said of Brown. “I was partial to John Mackovic, and Texas had fired Mackovic. I had pretty much made up my mind after my first conversation with (Brown) that I was leaving. But then we talked again, and the way he responded really caught my attention and made an impression on me. It opened the door for me to come back my senior year.”
From the start of that 1998 season, Williams pulverized opposing defenses. He torched Rice for 318 yards and six touchdowns, then added 350 and five TDs the next week against Iowa State. Against Oklahoma, Williams donned a No. 37 jersey to honor Doak Walker, and picked up 166 yards and two TDs in the “house that Doak built.” The image of Williams bursting downfield, dreadlocks flapping in the breeze, the Sooners in futile pursuit, remains an iconic one for many Texas fans.
Yet Brown said Williams may have been even more impressive in practice.
“Ricky is the kind of guy who is your hardest worker, so he just set the tone in practices,” Brown said. “Every time he carried the ball in practice, he ran it all the way to the end zone. No matter how many carries he had the week before, how sore he was, he never missed a snap in practice.”
Williams closed his college career with the same kind of burst with which he began it. Against rival Texas A&M, he shattered Dorsett’s all-time NCAA rushing mark, plowing the Aggies for 259 yards when he needed only 11 to set the record. A little more than a week later, he picked up the Heisman, a goal that became so important to the Texas team that the players had it engraved on the sides of their bowl rings.
To this day, Williams still gets a thrill out of being part of the Heisman fraternity, and the doors the award opens. “It’s like an investment that keeps paying off,” he said.
The New Orleans Saints and their new coach Mike Ditka fell head over heels for Williams entering the draft, as the Saints swapped all of their picks to the Washington Redskins in order to move up and take Williams at No. 5. The rookie was instantly cast as the franchise savior, but he said he never worried about the pressure.
“To be honest, pressure never existed for me,” Williams said. “I feel like pressure is an excuse people use when they’re not performing well. I just didn’t enjoy football as much, and the assumption was that I’d enjoy it even more in the NFL.”
Ditka was fired after a season, and Williams clashed with the new coach, Jim Haslett. He topped 1,000 yards in both 2000 and 2001, but he just wasn’t happy in New Orleans. He took to conducting interviews with his helmet and visor on, a side effect of the social anxiety disorder with which he’d been diagnosed.
“Suddenly you’ve got all this money, and there were all these rules to follow,” Williams explained. “I was always one who liked making up my own rules.”
The Saints traded Williams to Miami after the 2001 season, and the move served as a rebirth of sorts. He led the NFL in rushing in 2002 with 1,853 yards, thriving in the “more supportive football culture” in South Beach.
But in December 2003 Williams tested positive for marijuana, and rather than accept a four-game suspension to start the following season he opted to retire. He spent a year away from the game, exploring his other interests and staying in shape through his dedication to yoga.
Williams said he didn’t regret the decision to step away from the game, but he did miss it. He rejoined the Dolphins in 2005, served his suspension, and picked up 743 yards in just 12 games.
Though another positive drug test in 2006 prompted a sojourn to the Canadian Football League, Williams returned to the NFL once more a year later. He said that yoga eventually helped him stop using marijuana, and in 2009, at the age of 32, he turned in one of his finest seasons, with 1,385 yards from scrimmage and 13 total touchdowns.
After a season with the Baltimore Ravens in 2011, Williams retired from football in February of last year.
Williams’ legacy with the Longhorns remains as firm as a Texan’s handshake. Last April, Texas erected a statue of him outside DKR-Memorial Stadium, and Brown said that Williams remains the favorite player of his wife, Sally.
“Ricky is a quiet, humble guy, but a very engaging person,” Brown said. “Off the field, he was a great teammate, a great friend and just a great guy.”
Nowadays, Williams does some television work for the Longhorn Network, and accepts a variety of motivational speaking offers, some of which allow him to travel the globe. And though he’s a native Californian, he wouldn’t trade his time in Texas for anything.
“I always respected the pride Texans have for everything they do,” Williams said. “I tell high school kids when I talk to them that they should experience their passion. If your passion is fashion, you should go to Paris or Milan. If it’s entertainment, Hollywood. If your passion is business, go to New York. And if your passion is college football, there’s no place better than Austin, Texas.”
HALL OF FAME SERIES
This is the fifth a series of profiles on the Texas Sports Hall of Fame’s Class of 2012. The other inductees are New Orleans Saints quarterback Drew Brees, NBA legend Shaquille O’Neal, Texas high school baseball coach Bobby Moegle, UT softball great Cat Osterman, Dallas Cowboys fullback Walt Garrison and Baseball Hall of Famer Eddie Mathews.