Ricky Williams marches to the beat of his own drum.
Throughout the course of his professional football career, the retired running back achieved plenty of renown—not only for his athletic prowess but also his marijuana use and study of Ayurveda, the ancient Indian system of holistic medicine. The son of a Solo Mom is now making headlines for his advocacy of cannabis usage, including the July 11 launch of the Ricky Williams Laurel Rosebud Golf Invitational in Colorado to encourage public dialogue about changing cannabis laws across the United States.
Born in 1977, Williams was raised by his Solo Mom, Sandy, in San Diego, along with his two sisters—his twin, Cassandra (Cassie), and younger sister Nisey. His parents divorced in 1983. As ESPN would report in a profile of Williams in 2003, the divorce papers alleged that his father sexually abused Ricky and Cassie (a charge Williams’s father denied).
His mother worked days and went to school at night, while Williams looked after his sisters. He saw them off to school, helped them with their homework, and cooked dinner. He also experienced anger issues that required counseling at the urging of his mother. As Sandy told ESPN in 2003, “The counselors said [her children would] never, ever lead a normal life, that anything that happened would follow them the rest of their lives. My goal in life was to teach them to lead as normal a life as possible.”
As Williams told the Palm Beach Post in 2002, “My mom taught me don’t expect anything from anyone. That’s reality. When people are whining that it’s not fair, well, life’s not fair. It’s not supposed to be.”
He struggled academically. But in high school, he turned his life around. He focused on achievement: academic and athletic. He became an honor roll student and an active athlete in baseball, football, track and field, and wrestling. He made his mark on the football field; during his senior year, he was named San Diego Union-Tribune’s 1994 Player of the Year.
Success followed him to college. At the University of Texas, he grabbed the national spotlight from 1995 to 1998, setting an NCAA Division I-A career rushing record (which would later be broken), including 2,327 yards rushed during his senior year alone. He would go on to hold or share 20 NCAA records, win the Heisman Trophy, and become admitted to the College Football Hall of Fame.
A career with the National Football League (NFL) was the logical next step, but he experienced a slow start. Drafted by the New Orleans Saints in 1999, Williams achieved respectable but not overwhelming success during an injury-marred three seasons. But when the Saints traded him to the Miami Dolphins, he made an immediate impact, rushing for 1,853 yards in 2002, leading the league and being named first team All-Pro.
He also attracted attention for being painfully shy and conducting interviews while wearing a dark visor and helmet. He gained a reputation for being aloof and strange. As Greg Garber of ESPN wrote in 2003, “Does anybody really know the enigma-wrapped-in-a-riddle that is Ricky Williams? Is it possible he is the least understood professional athlete of his remarkable ability?” Indeed, he was misunderstood: Williams was suffering from social-anxiety disorder, as he would discover.
Two years after achieving a breakthrough season, he quit the NFL.
His early retirement came on the heels of his being suspended by the NFL for testing positive for marijuana use. His decision angered and puzzled fans and news media. He would later tell 60 Minutes that one of the reasons he retired was that he had in fact failed not one but three drug tests and wanted to avoid the humiliation of having the news made public. Years after the fact, he would explain to Sports Illustrated that he was worn down from playing football. “I could see my mortality as a football player, that I’m not going to be able to do this much longer,” he said.
Whatever his reasons, he used his time off to explore his inner self. He moved to Australia to live in a tent community that cost $7 a day, where he read books on topics ranging from nutrition to Buddhism. During his sojourn, he learned about an Indian form of holistic medicine known as Ayurveda. Intrigued, he enrolled at the California College of Ayurveda, where he continued his personal journey.
As he told 60 Minutes, “Playing in the National Football League, you’re told, you know, where to be, when to be there, what to wear, how to be there. Being able to step away from that, I have an opportunity to look deeper into myself and look for what’s real.”
What was real for Williams would include becoming a yoga instructor, vegan, and, eventually, a professional football player again. But his return was not free from controversy. Only months after rejoining the Dolphins in 2005, the NFL announced that he had once again violated the league’s drug policy. He was suspended for the entire 2006 season. But Williams kept playing football—for the Toronto Argonauts of the Canadian Football League. He achieved moderate success there and sought to achieve balance by teaching free yoga lessons at Toronto’s Sivananda Yoga Vedanta Centre.
In 2007, he successfully returned to the Miami Dolphins yet again, after adhering to a strict drug-testing schedule. It looked like his return would be marked by injury and disappointment. But by 2009, he would bounce back and rush for 1,121 yards, achieving the distinction of being the NFL player with the longest span of time (six years) between 1,000-yard seasons and becoming one of the few players to rush for 1,000 yards at age 32 or older. By the time he retired after the 2011 season, Williams would rack up more than 10,000 yards rushing, one of only 29 players to do so.
Although Williams quit marijuana in order to continue playing for the NFL, he is anything but repentant. He would claim that marijuana use helped him manage the wear and tear of playing in the NFL as well as his social-anxiety disorder. In 2016, he announced plans to open the world’s first cannabis-friendly workout gym, Power Plant Fitness, in San Francisco.
For Williams, playing football was an important part of a lifelong journey. So was his Solo Mom, whose dream that her children live as normally as possible has arguably been realized in her son’s efforts to create a peaceful, balanced life. “He always gives his best,” Sandy told ESPN in 2003. “I’m happy to see him happy and progressing. As a mother, that’s everything you could hope for.” And for all Williams’s accomplishments on the field, his off-the-field passions continue to define him long after retirement.
Thumbnail credit: Still from “The story of your life: Ricky Williams” at TEDxDelrayBeach
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