Williams wedded to playing football on his own terms

The sleeveless, size-20 white wedding dress cost about $300 used. It was bought off the rack six years ago in a Manhattan store and now hangs in a sixth-floor office located in the New York Public Library building. You can't buy the NFL's most infamous dress, because it isn't for sale. And you certainly can't forget it, especially now that the former bride himself -- Ricky Williams -- is scheduled to soon end his one-year estrangement from the league and the life that he so happily ditched.

Williams is supposed to report Sunday to the Miami Dolphins' training camp and begin workouts Monday. At least, that's the plan. Friends who have known him long and well say Williams is capable of following the whims of his heart and changing his mind. "But if he does show up," says a longtime buddy of Williams, "he'll be there for the year."

The same friend says Williams possesses a love for the game, but no love for the business of the game. Nor is he in a hurry to become the post-NFL version of Earl Campbell, who like Williams, is a former Texas running back who won a Heisman Trophy, led the pros in rushing and now inhabits a body so battered and scarred that he struggles to walk. Campbell's condition, along with his own growing number of injuries, a fondness for marijuana, and the Dolphins' mopey offense, had a profound effect on Williams' original decision to quit, to be, as he said then, "finally free."

But it is business that forces him back into a Dolphins uniform. If he doesn't play, Williams is legally obligated to repay the team $8.6 million. Since it's tough to make that sort of coin practicing holistic medicine (Williams spent nearly seven months at a northern California school that specializes in the practice), or teaching yoga (Williams is a certified instructor after his recent stay in India), he has little financial choice but to return to a profession that nourishes his bank account, but not his soul.

"If he sets his mind to something, he'll make it fun," says the friend.

The wedding dress was fun. The wedding dress was the antithesis of what the hyper-structured world of the NFL had become to Williams.

You remember the ESPN The Magazine cover photo. Shot shortly after the 1999 NFL Draft in a rented plantation/museum just outside New Orleans, the cover featured Williams in that lovely wedding gown, and then-Saints coach Mike Ditka in an I-do tuxedo. "For Better Or Worse," read the headline, which seemed fitting, given that Ditka and the Saints had just traded all eight of their draft picks for Williams.

I've always wondered about that dress. To me, that sleeveless, oversized number was Williams' Rosebud. It marked the first time Williams did a cannonball into the deep end of the public pool. The jump left splash marks everywhere.

The shoot, itself, lasted only 30 minutes. But in those 30 minutes it became obvious that Williams was not only about "fun," but also about defining himself as someone undefinable. For better or worse, he was the round peg in the cubed world of football.

Nik Kleinberg, the magazine's director of photography at the time, is the one who conceived the wedding portrait idea. Gregory Heisler is the photographer responsible for the image itself. I look at the cover now and better understand what came afterward -- the ridiculously awful eight-year contract negotiated by Master P's agency ... the interviews given with football helmet on ... the speeding tickets for going 126 mph ... the marijuana ... the stunning departure a week before the start of the 2004 training camp ... the solo journeys to points throughout the world ... the holistic medicine training ... the transition to vegetarianism ... the commitment to yoga. And, of course, the return.

The cover photo was a foreshadowing. Or as Kleinberg says, "a very unusual, elaborate way to thumb his nose at the rest of the world."

Opposing players ridiculed Williams because of that dress. But by 2002, when he was traded from the Saints to the Dolphins, Williams led the NFL in rushing. By the end of his second season in Miami he already had gained 3,225 yards and scored 25 times.

And he often did so joylessly.

The dress, dry-cleaned a year ago for $120, hangs in Kleinberg's ESPN office. For a while, a parade of magazine employees had Polaroids taken of them in Williams' dress. And then everyone sort of forgot about the gown.

"But I don't think people realized the significance of it, how it affected a major figure in American football," Kleinberg says.

Or perhaps no one understands how Williams affects the NFL. He confounds it. He perplexes it. The NFL can deal with a contract hissy fit like the one presently being staged by the spectacularly egocentric Terrell Owens. But the league and its players, coaches and fans don't know what to make of Williams. He is among them, but not of them.

If he shows up Sunday, Williams will do so emotionally and physically prepared for the brutal game. He will play hard. He will play with pain, as he has always done. And believe it or not, he will be a valuable mentor to first-round pick Ronnie Brown, the heir obvious to the Dolphins' rushing attack.

Williams is not the same person he was a year ago, when his decision to quit would eventually cost a good man his head-coaching job. He will not be the same person at season's end.

This is Williams' gift. And his curse.

Gene Wojciechowski is the senior national columnist for ESPN.com. You can contact him at gene.wojciechowski@espn3.com.