Ricky Williams: The most interesting man in the NFL

23 Nov

Ricky Williams, the current Baltimore Ravens running back, is a man who stands out from the crowd in more ways than one. An enigmatic figure with a penchant for Bob Marley, Williams has met with equal amounts of praise and derision for his exploits on the field and his unique approach to life off it. His refusal to correspond to type and pursuit of a life extraneous to football transcended sport and brought this most intriguing character to widespread attention.

A man not prone to toe the line, Williams created a media storm in 2004, when at the age of 27 he turned his back on football, leaving behind millions of dollars and more than a few disgruntled Miami Dolphins fans, many of whom blocked out Williams name from their jerseys in a show of disgust. It was a swift fall from grace for a man who, even in his teens, was touted as a future hall-of-famer.

A standout at the University of Texas, Williams was predicted for great things. His rare combination of speed and size saw him rack up huge numbers for a high-powered Texas offense, breaking several school records in the process. A desire to leave a lasting legacy lead him to forgo an early into the NFL, a move that eventually culminated in him winning the 1998 Heisman Trophy as the most outstanding player in college football.

Even in those formative days it was apparent that Ricky was not the usual aspiring pro. He was shy and at times almost reclusive. He had an unusual innocence, ill-fitting of such a powerful athlete. These quirks and idiosyncracies were often seen in the odd manner in which he gave interviews. A young Williams would conduct entire press interviews in full playing regalia, his eyes shuttered by the darkened visor of his helmet, he chuckled at the reporters with all the verve and joy of  a playful nine-year-old.

Williams light-heartedness masked a much darker reality. Suffering from acute anxiety disorders and the residual effects of a troubled childhood, he tried to escape the thralls of a troubled mind. Despite various prescriptions, he continually turned to the smoky solace of marijuana, a drug, he claimed, to be the most effective medicinal treatment for his collection of psychiatric ailments.

His constant drug-related transgressions lead commentators to  a growing suspicion of apathy for the game on the part of Williams. They were not without warrant, and in 2004 he promptly quit the game, escaping the clamour of coaches, players and reporters for the  solitude of the Australian outback. He went ‘walkabout’ in a voyage of self-discovery. Later, he moved to a remote region of California, armed with a medicinal prescription for marijuana, Williams spent his time practising yoga and studying for a qualification in holistic medicine.

Unfortunately his abrupt decision to quit the game met with dire consequences, he was found liable to pay over $8 million dollars to the Miami Dolphins for breach of contract, a move which lead to him to return to the game he had forsaken. His comeback was not swift with injuries and suspensions for drug use curtailing his early efforts to re-establish himself as an elite running back.

Despite the setbacks, Williams eventually settled and in 2009 ran for over 1,000 yards, six years since his previous 1,000 yard season. Although many still question his desire for the game, Williams has cultivated a rare niche within the NFL. A thinking mans player, his erudite manner and tendency to wax lyrical on life  has gained him a newfound respect amongst many fans of the game.

Fortunately the passivity that so marks his private life is left firmly by the sideline when it comes to the business of playing. He runs hard and runs fast, beating defenders with both his speed and his power and has now clocked up nearly 10,000 rushing yards, an impressive record, especially given the pock-marked nature of his career. At 34, he’s still running strong, and although no longer first string, he still plays an integral role for his new team, the Baltimore Ravens.

A practising Hindu and vegan, Williams eschews the common  footballing stereotypes. His gentle and soft-spoken nature contrasts starkly with the bombastic machismo of a Terrell Owens or a Randy Moss,and although his critics have labeled him as selfish and immature, there’s no doubt that Williams remains one of the most fascinating personalities  in modern sport.

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