Ricky Williams is winning a struggle of epic proportions, and very few relaize it. My familiarity with Ricky goes back some time, I've always loved him, and I think he's one of the most misunderstood and undeservedly insulted people in pro sports. This season (2009) has become the first since 2003 in which Williams has rushed for more than 100 yards in three consecutive games. His dominance on the field is only a small part of his greater success: he now seems to be a balanced man.
As a student at Texas A&M University from 1993 to 1999, I watched Williams run rough-shod over my team year after year. Despite my disgust at watching my Aggies get trounced repeatedly, I couldn't help but love the Longhorns' #34. He was quick, immensely powerful, but more than that, interviews with him revealed an articulate, thoughtful and sensitive human being. While still a student, some friends of mine at UT let me in on some of Williams' oddities. One friend got on an elevator in which a lone Ricky Williams stood. Upon entering the elevator and having the doors close, rather than face my friend, Williams turned his back and faced the corner like a scolded elementary schooler. This was the first glimpse I had of Ricky's later-clinically-diagnosed social anxiety disorder.
Once he broke into the NFL, people chuckled and shook their heads as they got to see more of Ricky's peculiar behavior: the wedding dress ESPN Magazine cover with Mike Ditka and his insistence on wearing his shaded visor helmet during post-game interviews are two of the more famous examples. Most wanted to drop the label of "weirdo" on him. This was just plain laziness. These were the actions of a man trying desperately to meld multiple aspects of his disparate soul - the professional athlete with once-in-a-generation, world-class skills dealing with the brightest of spotlights; and the spiritual, reflective free thinker who undoubtedly would prefer to be just another traveler in search of a more complete happiness than domination on a football field could provide.
And let's not forget that: as much as I love it, football is just a game to be played, watched and analyzed for our enjoyment. I think Ricky always knew this in his heart, but wasn't sure of how to seek out more profound experiences while still being a highly-paid, highly successful pro athlete.
Ricky managed to walk the tightrope for a little over five years. Then, the swirling winds grew too persistent and he tumbled. He forced himself into the choice between working within the rules of NFL and professional sports culture and becoming a true pilgrim. The latter was the path he took, using marijuana as a source of peace. And this is when the true misunderstandings began. NFL fans and commentators were all too ready to dismiss Ricky as just another pot-head and, I believe, lump him into the category of loutish hoods who didn't have the common sense to get out of their own way and embrace the meal ticket that life had given them in the form of athletic talent. This most certainly was not the case with Williams. Yes, he was in a struggle, but I always felt that it was a struggle to be respected. Amidst the ganja, yoga, scripture readings, and journeys abroad, Ricky was on a quest more profound than many NFL fans, commentators, and players could comprehend. These were the actions of a very deep individual who had to look in unusual places to find any answers to the questions that he was asking himself. They were the kinds of questions that philosophers have been puzzling over for millenia, with marginal success in finding answers. Ricky Williams began to ask those same questions about himself and existence and learned what all those who asked them before had learned: the road to the answers is far from a straight or clear one.
What Ricky became was a spiritualist and philosopher somewhat trapped in the body of a phenomenal physical specimen who had found himself using his athletic prowess to make a paycheck. Being a person whose most outstanding physical achievements include placing 6th in a high school long jump competition, I can only imagine what such a thing feels like. But I do know what it feels like to ask questions about things that go far beyond our own physical limitations and experiences, and I think I can understand where some of Ricky's previous doubts and confusion arose from. This is why I love what's been happening on the Dolphins since 2008 began. Seeing Ricky run the ball like it's 2003 again is only a part of it.
Since returning from the last suspension, in interviews and at practices, he seems to be a man who has found much of the balance that he went searching for all those years ago. He knows he's not a typical NFL premier running back (and he is premier, by the way: 11th in the league in rushing only being the starter 2 times, at time of writing) or even a typical pro athlete. Not by a long shot. The difference the past and present is that he now seems far more accepting of this, as do his coaches and teammates.
There are still many commentators and egomaniacal talking heads who will either ignore Williams' resurgence, or use people's misconceptions of him to make cheap jokes, just as they did in the past. I choose to take joy in watching a man who took the path not taken, fought his way through the stumbles, scrapes and bruises that come on the path of soul-searching, and seems to have found an admirable synthesis of body and mind, and a form of inner peace. That part of this peace includes him returning to an NFL field and reminding everyone of the physical gifts that won him Doak Walker Awards, the Heisman, and Pro Bowls; well, that's just a bonus for me and other Dolphins fans.
Run, Ricky, run!