Commentary

Williams faces his demons

Done running from his past, Dolphins' running back Ricky Williams has set his sights on making history.

Originally Published: December 23, 2003
By Greg Garber | ESPN.com

They were arguing in the car, as sons and mothers do, something about household responsibilities.

Ricky Williams
After years of hiding from his past, Ricky Williams is looking to confront his future.
Sandy Williams was 26 and recently divorced. Ricky was 6.

"It's not easy being the man of the house," said the son in a rare complaint to his mother, "when you're sish."

Sish? Too young to even pronounce his age. That hit Sandy right in the heart.

"You're just a little boy," she told him, "You don't have to be the man."

But, in the twisted scheme of things, he did.

While Sandy was working days and going to school nights in San Diego, Ricky took care of his twin sister Cassandra and Nisey, who was two years younger. Technically, Cassie was a minute older, but it was Ricky who had them ready every morning for the magnet school bus at the corner. He knew how to lock up the house and who to call in an emergency. He often cooked dinner -- noodles, mac and cheese, hot dogs and pork and beans -- he was a bear on homework and could really work those math flashcards. He was the one who taught Nesie how to read. He tucked the girls into bed, too, then waited up past 10 for his mother.

That was 20 years ago.

Today, Ricky Williams is still very much the man. His sense of duty and responsibility, forged so early in life, seems to know no bounds. There are nine NFL running backs with more yards than Errick Lynne Williams Jr., but none with more heart.

On Sunday night, all eyes will be on the Baltimore Ravens' Jamal Lewis, who can break Eric Dickerson's single-season record of 2,105 yards set 20 seasons ago. Earlier Sunday, Williams will labor in the relative obscurity of Pro Player Stadium, where his Miami Dolphins meet the New York Jets in an essentially meaningless game. The Dolphins' season is over -- the Denver Broncos snatched their playoff spot last week -- but Williams is expected to start his 48th consecutive game.

Williams has been beaten, bludgeoned and battered this season; he has touched the ball 418 times in the Dolphins' 911 plays (draw your own symbolic conclusions), which works out to nearly 46 percent of their plays.

It is an accepted maxim of sport that, in terms of degree of difficulty, hitting major-league pitching is at the top of the list. Consider, instead, the job of the NFL's featured running back. The real estate on the roughly 48,000-square-foot field is more precious than anything in midtown Manhattan or Beverley Hills. And that there are 11 rabid defenders intent on maiming the running back.

Williams' left shoulder is on fire, his knees throb, his ankles and hips ache. His back isn't feeling so hot, either. After 15 regular-season games, his psyche seems weary. His overmatched offensive line is, well, if you don't have anything nice to say, don't say it. His average-per-carry is a meager 3.5 yards, the lowest figure among the league's top 17 running backs, but he has a chance to run away with a small piece of history. Williams has 372 carries through 15 games and if he gets the ball 28 times on Sunday against the Jets -- a realistic possibility -- he would become only the fifth NFL running back in 83 seasons of the league's existence to cross the threshold of 400 carries.

No one else in today's game -- not Deuce McAllister, Clinton Portis, Ahman Green, LaDainian Tomlinson or Priest Holmes -- can say that.

Dave Wannstedt, whose job as the Dolphins' head coach is tenuous at best, said on Wednesday that Williams would play Sunday against the Jets.

"We want to try to win this football game," Wannstedt said. "There's not a player on this team that says, `You guys win it, I'm going to watch.' That just doesn't compute in a guy's mind that's as competitive as Ricky is."

After he ran the ball 31 times on Thanksgiving against the Cowboys, Williams had amassed 54 carries in a two-game span over four days, which has to approach the threshold of human pain and suffering. Miami-area reporters asked Williams about the enormous load he was carrying.

"That's what I have to do and I realize that," Williams explained with a matter-of-fact tone. "This is my forte, what I'm known for in my career, that I can take a pounding. We'll see how much I can take. That's what I get paid to do."

An apt metaphor for his 26-year-old life: Taking a pounding. How much can he take? How much has he taken to reach his current destination?

See Ricky run. Run, Ricky, run. Seriously, that's the name of his web site: www.RunRickyRun.com.

Running to what? Running from what?

He comes wheeling, dreadlocks swinging wildly, across the line of scrimmage, 5 feet, 10 inches and 226 pounds of fury in choppy, clipped strides that belie his speed. What he's thinking, it is impossible to know. A helmet with a formidable cage is wrapped around his head and a dark shield covers his eyes. It is a mask few people penetrate.

Barry Bonds can be moody. Nomar Garciaparra is not always media-friendly. Alan Iverson has had his moments. Still, Williams is in a whole different dimension.

When asked if Williams would grant an interview for this story, Harvey Greene, the affable Dolphins senior vice president of media relations, responded this way: "I'll be happy to ask him, but getting Ricky on the phone is about as hard as trying to tackle him."

Sure enough, the answer was no.

"He was interested in the [rushing attempts] record, he knew about it," Greene said. "But the answer is no. I can't say I'm surprised."

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?

"I'll call him and call him and he'll call back and say, "Ma, I haven't heard from you in so long,' " his mother, Sandy, says from her home in Austin, Texas. "He has this very dry sense of humor. You're never sure if he's kidding or not. I always ask, 'Rick, are you serious?'

"You have to ask, because most of the time he's not."

Shouldering the load

Back a few days ago, when the Dolphins' playoff chances were still viable, team doctor George Caldwell administered two injections of painkillers into Williams' painful left shoulder -- the first before last Sunday's game at Buffalo and the second during the first quarter after he fell on it.

Ricky Williams
Ricky Williams has taken his lickings over his career, but mostly has stayed a step ahead of opposing defenders.
A week earlier, he had been thrown to the ground after a season-high 45-yard gain against the Eagles and the pain in the shoulder that was surgically repaired last February had been immediate and intense. He received an injection and finished that game. Now, he would try to carry the Dolphins' thin hopes at Ralph Wilson Stadium.

"I've been doing it all year pretty much, and parts of last year," Williams said later. "It is something I have learned to [play with].

"It is not the funnest thing, but it is part of the game."

Williams ran the ball 29 times for 111 yards. He also caught three passes -- more than any other Dolphins player -- for three yards. Those 32 touches, in 57 plays, allowed Miami to control the ball in a 20-3 victory that, for the fleeting moment, left the Dolphins alive for the postseason with a 9-6 record.

"And he hates getting shots," Sandy said. "But he says, 'Ma, I need to do what I need to do to do my job.' People ask me if I like watching Ricky run. As a parent, I say I enjoy watching Ricky get up."

Cassie, speaking from her Oakland home, supported that notion.

"I definitely think he's just a persevering person, in all the things he does," his sister said. "Even growing up, he took on all those responsibilities -- and embraced them. Not only does he love the sport of football, but it's his profession. He's true to that."

The performance in Buffalo was the 17th 100-yard game for Williams in less than two seasons -- two better than the previous record of 15 by fullback Larry Csonka, who played in Miami for eight seasons.

In his 31 games with the Dolphins, Williams has touched the ball 848 times. Factoring his last two years in New Orleans into the equation, his production has bordered on the implausible:

  • Miami has run 1,921 plays over the last two seasons, which means Williams has gotten the ball, one way or another, 44 percent of the time.

  • Over the past four seasons, only Green Bay's Ahman Green has rushed for more yards (5,467) than Williams, who has gained 5,391 yards -- more than Priest Holmes (5,128) and Curtis Martin (5,027).

  • Only Green has more combined yards from scrimmage over the past four season (7,371) than Williams (6,959). Marshall Faulk, one of the most explosive offensive weapons in league history, has a total of 6,859 yards in that time.

    For all his success -- he won the Heisman Trophy in 1998 -- Williams has had little playoff success in five seasons in the NFL. The New Orleans Saints were 3-13 his rookie year of 1999. When the 10-6 Saints made the playoffs a year later, Williams missed the last six regular-season games and returned in a reserve role. He carried six times for 14 yards and caught one pass for two yards in a loss to the Minnesota Vikings. It has been his only playoff appearance.

    When he was traded to the Dolphins after the 2001 season, it seemed Williams was the perfect fit on a team destined for great things. But Miami failed to make the playoffs last year and, again, this season. The last time the Dolphins missed the playoffs in consecutive seasons was when Williams was 12 years old and growing up in San Diego.

    Miami Herald columnist Dan Le Batard, the media member who enjoys the closest relationship with Williams, started asking the "big, hard" questions after the Broncos defeated the Colts to eliminate the Dolphins from playoff contention.

    "Will Ricky Williams, carrying the ball too much, taking too many hits and too many needles," Le Batard wrote, "suffer the same fate as Dan Marino, his excellence alone to always make the Dolphins relevant but never quite enough to end a three-decade drought?"

    Hardly ideal

    Childhood is rarely the idyllic experience we would like it to be.

    To end her August 2002 profile of Williams in the Palm Beach Post, Karen Crouse used this quote:

    "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.

    "I don't think fair is even a word. It's just an ideal."

    It is a haunting world view, but that was his reality. For the public record does not pull any punches when it comes to the childhood of Ricky Williams.

    He was born on May 21, 1977 in San Diego to Sandy and Errick Lynne Williams, Sr. In September 1983, when Ricky was 6 years old, his parents divorced. The beginning of the end came when Ricky told his mother something his father had insisted stay a secret between the two of them.

    According to divorce papers filed in California, Errick Williams was accused of "inappropriate sexual stimulation" of the twins. Ultimately, the divorce settlement stipulated that Sandy be awarded primary custody of the three children. Visitation rights of the father were to be limited and supervised by the wife due to the fact that "the children are undergoing psycho-social assessment and treatment for suspected child abuse."

    Errick Williams became a registered sex offender in California, based on a 1984 misdemeanor charge of annoying and molesting children. Victims are not listed on the registry, and court records were destroyed, as is practice, 10 years later.

    In August of 1999, he pleaded guilty to felony theft after embezzling more than $20,000 from a Houston health-care facility. Williams served 90 days in jail, performed 350 hours of community service and was given 10 years probation.

    "I've spent a lot of time trying to protect Ricky from that man," Sandy said.

    Does Ricky's sometimes erratic behavior and social shyness stem from those alleged early episodes?

    There was a long pause.

    "I don't know," Sandy said, her voice very low. "I was talking to my ex-mother-in-law the other day, she's a psychologist. I mean, a kid that age can't go through that kind of trauma without some effect. It'll snowball.

    "The counselors said they'd 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."

    Errick Williams Sr. has remarried and has lived in recent years at addresses in both Houston and Spring Valley, Calif. He could not be reached for this story, but in 1998 he told Sports Illustrated, "Yes, there's a court record that says I sexually molested my children, but that record isn't true. When a woman gets up in front of a judge and says her husband abused the children, the judge is going to believe her.

    "But I can stand before God and say that I didn't verbally, physically or sexually assault my children. This has devastated me."

    In that story, Ricky Williams said: "I don't remember anything. That's the truth. I don't know what happened, because I don't remember. He's my dad. We get along OK."

    Williams, according to those close to him, has renewed a cautious friendship with his father.

    Proving them wrong

    While there was often rage and confusion in his life, Williams was a different person in the arena of athletics. Sport was his gift, his source of confidence.

    He ran for 2,099 yards and 25 touchdowns as a senior at Patrick Henry High School in San Diego. He played outfield and batted .340 and stole 26 bases. He wrestled as a heavyweight and qualified for the state finals in the 400-meter relay.

    Ricky Williams
    Williams set 30 NCAA records during his college career, but was unable to lead Texas to a national title.
    As a freshman running back at the University of Texas, he was drafted by the Philadelphia Phillies; he was two years younger than Deion Sanders and Bo Jackson when they went bi-sport. His coaches at Texas said he couldn't pull it off, but Williams said he could. He went on to play four summer seasons for the Phillies' Class A team.

    When he had visited Austin on a recruiting trip, he gazed at Earl Campbell's Heisman Trophy behind glass and told then-head coach John Mackovic he better make some more room for his Heisman. His e-mail address at Texas as a freshman? Why, Heisman@UT.edu.

    Naturally, he turned out to be as good as his World Wide Web address.

    He finished with 6,279 rushing yards, 72 touchdowns and 20 NCAA records. He won the Heisman Trophy in 1998. He had dreamed of a national championship, but that was something the best player in the country couldn't control.

    The New Orleans Saints essentially traded their entire draft to select him with the fifth pick overall in 1999. Even his bizarre, incentive-laced contract reeked of confidence. Negotiated by rapper Master P's No Limit Sports firm, it was a seven-year deal worth $68.4 million. That looked good in the newspapers, but $5 million of the $8.84 million signing bonus was deferred. Williams' annual salary was the rookie minimum, a paltry $175,000. He was sure he could gain 100 yards a game, so he put it in writing.

    It only happened twice that first year, and so he reached only one of the 25 incentive clauses in his contract.

    He was miserable in New Orleans. His behavior was often mocked in the media. For a time, he actually conducted interviews behind the shield of his helmet.

    Early in 2001, when Williams saw something on television about social anxiety disorder, he saw himself. He had always struggled in social settings and now, he discovered, he wasn't alone. With help from counseling and the anti-depressant drug Paxil, Williams has grown less uncomfortable in those awkward settings.

    When the Dolphins traded for him before the 2002 season, he was thrilled. The pieces seemed to be in place for an NFL title, his ultimate goal. Williams carried 383 times for 1,853 yards to lead the league in those categories. The rushing total was the eighth-highest in history, placing him among the greats -- Eric Dickerson, Barry Sanders, Terrell Davis, O.J. Simpson, Jim Brown and Campbell. He even made the Pro Bowl.

    The playoffs, however, eluded the Dolphins.

    Williams, ever the dreamer, looked ahead to the 2003 season. The Dolphins would add Hall of Fame linebacker Junior Seau in the offseason. The defense, already featuring Jason Taylor and Zack Thomas, would be suffocating. The offense had a chance to be better.

    His mother could see the scenario: Super Bowl XXXVIII would be played at Reliant Stadium in Houston, just a 2#189;-hour drive from Austin. The Dolphins were a logical choice.

    "Hey, I thought the Dolphins were going 15-1," Sandy said. "I blew it, didn't I? I pulled a Ricky. I believed it was going to happen."

    Exacting a toll

    Carrying the ball in the NFL hurts. Watch one play closely this weekend, close your eyes and imagine yourself taking the blow. Physics experts liken the violent impact of running back-linebacker collisions to cars crashing at 10-to-15 miles an hour -- without the car.

    In 1998, Jamal Anderson carried the ball 410 times for the Atlanta Falcons, which stands as the NFL record.

    "You go through everything," Anderson said this week. "I had a sprained ankle, a bad wrist that I jacked up with a brace, turf toe, hip pointers on both sides, (sore) shoulders.

    "I took care of myself, sat in the ice bucket and got massages. I was lucky to stay healthy all season long."

    Last year, Williams' total of 383 carries was 11th on the all-time list. With a typical load of 25 carries, his average this season, Williams would equal Gerald Riggs' fifth-place total of 397, posted in 1985 with the Falcons.

    "He's doing a good job, trying to do his thing," Anderson said. "It's hard when everybody knows he has to run for them to be successful. Man, when everybody's coming at you ... We're the only guys on the football team where we get the ball and it's 11 guys converging."

    After he set the record, Anderson suffered several knee injuries and played only 21 more games. James Wilder, No. 2 on the all-time list with 407 carries for Tampa Bay in 1984, suffered a similar end. His carries declined in each of his last six years: From 365 (1985), to 190 (1986) to 106 (1987) to 86 (1988) to 70 (1989) and 11 in 1990.

    Ricky Williams
    APWilliams knows 400 carries is a physical burden.
    People are already wondering if Williams will follow the career trajectory of his fellow Longhorn, Earl Campbell. Campbell led the NFL in rushing his first three seasons, then slowly crept into obscurity. After averaging 313 carries in his first six seasons, he averaged 113 in his last four. Today he can barely walk.

    Williams, interestingly, has averaged 313 carries in his first five seasons.

    "He's a professional," Sandy said. "He takes care of himself through workouts and nutrition, the massages, and he does the chiropractor thing. When his body had had enough and tells his head, he'll say he's had enough.

    "I would be surprised if it happened any other way."

    Sister Cassie, too, is concerned.

    "He's a resilient person, but, yeah, I worry about it. I'm always praying when I see him playing," she said. "When he stops playing football, I hope it's his decision, not because he needs two knee replacements or back surgery."

    Sandy, searching for a story that will underline Ricky's capacity to dream, tells this one:

    "He was 2 years old and we were watching the Padres on TV. He said, 'Mommy, when I'm big I'm going to be a baseball player and buy you a house and a truck.' "

    Twenty-four years later, that's exactly how it happened. Her son bought her a house in Austin, a Dodge Ram truck -- and a Mercedes SUV. Sometimes, Sandy said, she just walks through the house with tears in her eyes at the wonder of how it has all turned out.

    There are still times when Williams does not exercise the best judgment; sometimes he's still that 6-year-old kid. There was that magazine cover in the wedding dress with Mike Ditka. There was an arrest in Louisiana when he was clocked driving 126 miles an hour.

    But make no mistake, he handles his responsibilities like a man.

    "He's continued his role," Sandy said. "I say, 'Hey, I'm the mom -- you're not the daddy.'"

    But, of course, he is.

    He supports his two young children, daughter Marley and son Prince. He takes care of his mother. When Cassie wanted to pursue her Masters degree in fashion design in San Francisco, Ricky wrote the check. Same thing when little sister Nisey wanted to move to Orlando. He even supports his father and his new family of six.

    His goal is to still win a Super Bowl ring, but he has learned that some things are even larger than he is.

    "If he doesn't win the Super Bowl in the next few years, I don't think it's happening," Sandy said. "He always gives his best and when it's time to go, he'll go, knowing that, no matter what happens.

    "I'm not giving up on my Dolphins. The difference in my son, as bad as I want to win, is I'm happy to see him happy and progressing.

    "As a mother, that's everything you could hope for."

    Greg Garber is a senior staff writer for ESPN.com

    Greg Garber

    Writer, Reporter
    Greg Garber joined ESPN in 1991 and provides reports for NFL Countdown and SportsCenter. He is also a regular contributor to Outside the Lines and a senior writer for ESPN.com.