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February 11, 2012

Ricky did it his own way

I was dead wrong about Ricky Williams.

I think back to 2004, when Ricky learned he had failed a third drug test in the NFL and decided to retire from the Miami Dolphins. The Dolphins got a judgment of $8.6 million against Williams for signing bonus money they paid him.

At one point, it even looked like Ricky was trying to move some of his assets around so he could declare bankruptcy and get away from football without having to pay the judgment.

Dan LeBatard of the Miami Herald wrote a column about how Ricky preferred marijuana to football and detailed how Ricky had been beating the drug tests with a masking agent called Extra Clean.

I remember the toll all of this had on Ricky's family - his mother Sandy; twin sister Cassie; and younger sister Nisey. I remember because I was talking to them at the time. It was hard on them.

Ricky also had two children at the time - Marley and Prince - with two different women. Who was going to provide for them?

I thought Ricky Williams was done with football and that he would end up another sad statistic of millionaire pro athletes who ended up broke.
But trying to place Ricky Williams on a predictable path was like trying to tell the wind how to blow. There were always left turns, right turns and U-turns before Williams arrived at any destination.

He apparently lied to the Austin American-Statesman about if he was returning to school for his senior year or turning professional. He told the paper he was turning pro, then announced at a press conference the next day he was staying.

On the field, there were all the breathtaking runs:

****The tribute to Doak Walker

****The 300-yard rushing games against Rice and Iowa State in 1998 after he was ambushed at Kansas State in the third game of the season (25 carries for 43 yards, 1.7 ypc, in a 48-7 loss)

****The 150-yard rushing game that helped end Nebraska's 47-game home winning streak

****Followed up by 259 yards rushing against A&M while overtaking Tony Dorsett as the NCAA's all-time leading rusher.

That 1998 season had a storybook feel to it. And I have to say one of the most impressive moments I ever shared with Ricky was after that Kansas State loss, when every reporter and columnist at the post-game press conference basically deemed his Heisman Trophy run dead.

One even asked Ricky if he regretted returning for his senior season because his Heisman chances were now dashed. Ricky, however, didn't give up. He talked about how it was still early in the season and that it was a team award, and if the team got better, who knows?

The very next week, Ricky ran with vengeance in piling up 318 yards and six touchdowns in a victory over Rice. The week after he was still on a mission when he pounded his way to 350 yards and five TDs in a win against Iowa State.

The next week, Williams wore No. 37 in tribute to Doak Walker and ran for 139 yards and two touchdowns in a 34-3 victory over OU, and Ricky was all but back in front of the Heisman Trophy race over guys like Michael Bishop, Cade McNown and Tim Couch.

I remember Ricky eating nothing but donuts, cake and pie at the Heisman Trophy ceremony. He did things his way. And Ricky will tell you he was ready to turn pro after meeting with Mack Brown, who told him he would need to cut his dreadlocks. It wasn't until Ricky met with Mack Brown's wife, Sally, that he decided to come back to Texas.

Sally, a Cal Berkeley grad, was the one who convinced Mack to ease up on the hair policy and won over Ricky's heart.

But when it all crashed in 2004 it seemed like it would be yet another disappointing ending to a story that once seemed to be a modern day Paul Bunyan.

Whether it was the need to earn money because of his kids and the nearly $9 million judgment against him or the phone call from (of all people) Nick Saban, Ricky returned to football in 2005. He served his four-game suspension and then did what most of us do - he went to work.

And then he flunked another drug test and was banned from the NFL for the entire 2006 season. More heart ache for his family. At that time, I thought he was trying to get the Dolphins to cut him, so he wouldn't owe the money remaining from that $8.6 million judgment.

I even thought his playing for the Toronto Argonauts that season was an act that would aggravate the Dolphins into cutting him - freeing him from the settlement.

But Ricky surprised us all by returning to football yet again. His 2007 season lasted six carries before suffering a torn chest muscle. Williams, however, got paid for that season (more of the settlement against him disappeared).

But then he turned in four more seasons with an average of at least 4 yards per carry, including the 2011 season with the Baltimore Ravens (4.1 ypc).

He got out of debt. He helped pay the bills for his five kids by three different women. And in the spring of 2010, Ricky allowed everyone inside his world in the documentary Run Ricky Run. Ricky returned to Austin for a premier of that 30 for 30 film and seemed totally comfortable in his own skin.

He could talk openly about all the twists and turns in his life. He had just married his long-time girlfriend Kristin Barnes in September of 2009. He had also just completed an 1,121-yard season (4.7 ypc) with 11 touchdowns.

Williams had negotiated his own, two-year contract extension with the Dophins in 2008 because his agent, Leigh Steinberg, allowed his license as an agent to lapse in 2007 for business reasons.

For a Ricky, a guy who left a bunch of money on the table in his first contract (an incentive-laden deal signed with No Limit Sports, run by Master P), it was another adventure in finance. He got $3.4 million in 2009 and $4.35 million in 2010, and many said he should have gotten more.

But when I talked to Ricky in the spring of 2010, he could not care less about what people were saying about his self-negotiated deal. He was pumped he was going to earn more than LaDainian Tomlinson that season (Tomlinson earned less than $3 million with the Jets in 2010 after the Chargers cut him because they didn't want to pay Tomlinson's scheduled $5.8 million salary.)

It was a different Ricky from the one I had covered at Texas. That Ricky was mega-talented but clearly uncomfortable while still searching for where he fit in the biorhythms of life. In 2010, Ricky had experienced life - tons of it - and had a better feel for where he fit in or at least for where he wanted the journey to take him.

If you follow Ricky Williams on Twitter (@RickyWilliams), you'll see that Ricky is all about life and its meaning and almost nothing about football.

Football was a means to an end for Ricky. For many of us, it's a passion that Ricky took over for four years at Texas (1995-98). But for Ricky, football was something he liked to do, probably because he was so good at it. But it was never his passion.

His passion is life. Ricky would often talk about how he needed time alone - silence - to hear his inner voice and where it was calling for him to go. Taking a little quiet time to gain perspective is probably something we can all probably benefit from.

Whether it's sitting on the porch, taking the dog for a walk or a run around Ladybird Lake.

So I thank Ricky for allowing us to go on this journey with him, through all the ups, downs, twists and turns. To the end, it was unpredictable and made a lot of us look foolish for trying to forecast the outcome.

And something tells me Ricky Williams wouldn't have had it any other way.


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