Reincarnation, Reclamation, or Reinvention? Ricky Williams Embraces Change

By Leah Fisher Nyfeler – September 3, 2013
Photography by Brian Fitzsimmons

Who is Ricky Williams?

If your first introduction to Williams came this August, then you know him as the new running back coach at the University of the Incarnate Word, the fourth largest private school in Texas located just down the road in San Antonio. If you’re a long-time Longhorn fan who can recite the chronology of Texas football coaches like a royal lineage, then he’s the golden kid from California (“Little Earl”) who saw John Mackovic to two bowl games and helped usher in the age of Mack Brown. Miami Dolphins fan? Perhaps you shredded Williams’ jersey in the aftermath of his sudden departure from pro football on the heels of yet another failed drug test. For ESPN junkies, he’s the forlorn, lost subject of the documentary Run Ricky Run—or perhaps he’s grabbed you as a photographer or pre-game analyst. Or maybe you’re familiar with Ricky Williams the yogi, Longhorn network commentator, massage therapist and Ayurvedic healer, inspirational speaker, student, philanthropist, and family man.

Whatever you know about Ricky Williams, he would laugh and say it doesn’t matter who you think he is or what he was in the past: “I am who I am today, and I have to keep looking on the inside to keep evolving.”

Like da Vinci’s Vitruvian Man, a blend of art and science that represents the ideals of proportion, Williams exemplifies a man who is striving to meld the mind and the body into a harmonious and balanced whole. And, as he would readily admit, he is still a work in progress.

Photo provided by Jim Sigmon - UT AthleticsToday, Williams calls Austin home. This summer, he moved, and his stuff—clothes, his Heisman trophy—was, for the most part, still in storage (“Usually my mom babysits my Heisman, but a friend is keeping it for me this time”). At the time of the interview, he, his wife Kristen, and their three children were settling into a new home in Austin, and Williams had just begun traveling to and from the Alamo Heights-area University of the Incarnate Word (UIW) to work with the Cardinals’ young team. Think he’s getting diva-like treatment as a coach? Think again; each week, he makes the commute to San Antonio to spend several days with the team and, while there, he stays in a dorm room. Williams said that’s okay; he was drawn to the part-time opportunity and being able to live in Austin. He’d been offered a full-time coaching job in New Jersey but didn’t want to move there and give up his other projects. It seemed he was going to have to make a choice until he talked with a friend about his dilemma; as a result, some inquiries were made to UIW head coach Larry Kennan and the position became available. He’s excited about the possibilities in the new program (this will be UIW’s fifth season and first year as a NCAA Division I football team) and said he’s curious about what it will be like working with college-aged kids. One of the things he’d like to do is help them determine “what greatness is to them.” Which is interesting, when you think that, for most college players, the standard assumption would be that playing in the NFL is a large part of defining “greatness.”

While Williams has always wanted to achieve greatness, he didn't start out with a focus on football. “The NFL wasn’t really something that I saw for myself when I was growing up,” Williams remembered. “What I wanted was to be known.” Athletics wound up being the path to get him where he wanted to go. Interestingly enough, Williams feels that his athletic ability actually came from being a student. “I’ve never had the ability to just get off the couch and succeed [in sports],” he said. “I do have some natural ability; I’d say on a scale of 1 to 100, with 100 being a phenom, I’m about a 75 or 80 and training brings me to an 85.” He loves to learn—he’s always got a book to read—and it’s a combination of that seeking (“I want to maximize what I do well”) and drive to be known (“I consider myself to be an overachiever”) that has propelled Williams through life.

He admitted that he wasn’t much in the way of an athlete as a kid. “I was built like a sprinter,” he recalled while sipping a glass of water and relaxing outside on a warm Austin summer day. When he went to kindergarten, his teacher had the kids in the class run each morning; Williams walked. Until, that is, one day, “I wondered what it would feel like to finish first.” What he discovered was that “my body loved to run, and I loved to finish first.” He’d found athletics, and he was lucky to have a mother who encouraged that activity; Sandy Williams enrolled her son in a magnet school for first through sixth grade that promoted physical activity. “I did gymnastics, balance beam, football,” said Williams, pointing out that, in addition to the athletic workouts, the students had active playground time each day. “It’s so different from what my kids have had,” Williams marveled. “In Florida at their fancy private school, they had two days of P.E. a week and recess. That was it.”

In high school, he put on weight and became a football player that universities salivated over. He came to the University of Texas at Austin on scholarship, recruited by coach John Mackovic, and played with the Longhorns for four years (’95–’98); Williams was a two-time All-American, Heisman Trophy winner, and school record holder. And—oh, yeah—he played minor league baseball with the Philadelphia Phillies each summer. He was a golden boy at Texas, nicknamed “Little Earl,” and practically worshipped on campus. If you were in Darrell K Royal–Texas Memorial Stadium in ’98 when he set the record at the Texas A&M game, breaking Tony Dorsett’s 22-year-old rushing record on a 60-yard touchdown run, you know why, to this day, Longhorn fans buy Williams drinks when they find him around town. Coach Mack Brown, in his first season at Texas, was quoted after the game as saying, "It's been a special year because of Ricky Williams. He is the best player I have ever seen. I think he is one of the best, if not the best, college football player ever."

When you talk to Ricky Williams, there is no doubt that he still loves the sport. He stood on the balcony of the Austonian, high above the city of Austin on a beautiful and abnormally temperate August morning, and spoke about the feeling of running down the field, describing it in terms of an out-of-body experience. “It’s almost like being teleported,” he mused, with a small, reflective smile. “One minute, I’d see the crease and then, suddenly, I’d be ten yards down the field on the other side. And then, in that moment when you know no one can catch you, you don’t hear anything—not the crowd, the other players—and it’s that explosive acceleration, like turning on the afterburners…it’s all about the body in motion. I love that feeling.”

You might say that, in the public’s eye, Ricky Williams has suffered from a mind/body disconnect for a significant portion of his professional life. In his younger years, he had the physical presence of the larger-than-life football force: a body that seemed an indestructible force of nature (another one of his nicknames was “the Texas Tornado”) and the cool looks (dreadlocks and a pierced tongue) that screamed superstar. Things appeared to change after he went pro. He hired a music mogul, rapper Master P, to negotiate a contract that had sports commentators scratching their heads. Once in New Orleans, he seemed distant and removed while dealing with injuries that kept him from playing. He started leaving his helmet on during interviews; he failed drug tests for marijuana use. Williams had always been a shy person, and the combination of factors pushed him into the extreme; he was ultimately diagnosed with depression and societal anxiety disorder, a condition whereby fear of social situations becomes debilitating. He entered therapy and started taking medication but, at that time, this sort of disorder was relatively new to the public and, in some circles, the diagnosis was greeted with skepticism. Keep in mind that, superstar or no, Williams was only 22 years old and, as Mack Brown stated in the documentary Run Ricky Run, “Oh, I don’t know that anybody’s ever ready to carry a pro team on their back.” When Williams later retired suddenly, the easy explanation was that smoking dope took precedence over playing ball. The more complicated answer was that Williams needed to decide whether his mind was going to allow his body to play football. He left and came back to the NFL several times (also playing one season in the Canadian Football League with the Toronto Argonauts); he only recently retired from the Baltimore Ravens in 2012.

Perhaps you could call those years in and out of the NFL Williams’ Age of Enlightenment. It seemed that he was searching for who he was, asking hard questions, looking for ways to feel better. Symbolically, the dreads came off during his trip to Australia after he retired, the first time, from the Miami Dolphins; he was later quoted as saying the new style represented a fresh start. Who would have expected that trip to involve a new way of looking at food? “I met a guy in Australia named Steve who had a hand mill,” Williams recalled. “He sat there all day, grinding his flour, and he’d mix it with water, oil, and veggies to make what he called ‘pan bread.’ He had me try some; it gave me so much energy that, on the way home, I had the inclination to start sprinting.” Over the course of that time in Australia, he adopted a theory of nutrition (what he calls “the corn state theory,” which can be basically expressed as the more natural the food, the better) and lost interest in eating meat; back in the States, he lived with a community of vegetarians. When he went back to the NFL, however, he found that he wanted meat again.

“Our bodies give us so much information,” Williams explained. “When I was first traded to Miami, I was heavier (250 pounds) and I wanted to get comfortable. I wound up working with an immunologist—the most weird and wacky woman I ever met—and a phlebologist who took blood. Two weeks later, I had a binder of information and we sat down and talked through it. They gave me lists of foods to eat by days, and I moved through a progression to determine what foods my body was most reactive to.” Williams upped his water consumption and kept track of his weight, recording the information each day; the theory was that weight changes would reveal inflammation, which, in turn, would show a negative reaction to the substance eaten. “It really flipped everything I thought I knew about food,” he marveled. “I slept better, felt better, and lost weight. Some ‘healthy foods’ just didn’t work for me, I found.” In one and a half months, he’d lost 25 pounds, and he was the NFL Rusher of the Year that year. “The information I gained,” he said, “was acknowledgement of listening to my body.”

But the NFL didn’t always encourage that type of self-awareness. Weight was strictly monitored. “You’d get an envelope in your locker from the strength coach that had your weight for the season—mine was usually 234–230,” Williams explained. “There was a mandatory weigh-in every Friday. The NFL fined $150 for every pound over your assigned weight.” Over the years, Williams has come to realize that being in tune with his nutritional needs—as well as his physical needs—has led his body to become healthier: “Whenever I gave up awareness of my body, I’d end up back where I started.”

Shifting the way he related to his body came later. Williams, who doesn’t look 36 and has managed to repeatedly put his body into NFL shape despite being older—in 2011, he became the 26th player in NFL history to achieve 10,000 career rushing yards—stated that he used to spend time each morning judging himself. “In my old house, I had a whole wall of mirrors,” he said. “I’d spend 20 minutes every day, looking at my body, and being critical of this or judging that.” He came to the realization that it was more important to look at what his body did and switched to spending that time in a light-hearted appraisal that was positive. “Since then,” Williams happily related, “I’m about 90 percent less critical of myself.”

That epochal trip to Australia had, along with its nutritional revelations, sparked an interest in Ayurveda and, while he was studying this form of alternative medicine in California, he was introduced to yoga: “The school brought in different types of yoga for two weeks at a time and I found that I loved Ashtanga Vinyasa, a power style, that is very athletic and intense.” Williams had some body issues that were the results of his extremely physical style on the field, “a little bit of neck stuff” and shoulder problems. “I’d separated both my shoulders, and I’d had surgery on one of them; I couldn’t lift my arm above here,” he said as he raised his arm to approximately the four o’clock position—an extremely limited range of motion that affected everyday life. “Once I started yoga, it created expansion and space in my body,” Williams explained. The shoulder problems were repaired; he regained his entire field of motion; and, as he has explored the practice further over the years, he’s increased his fitness: “I’ve found that the expansion of my physical self and my mental self went hand in hand.”

photo by Brian Fitzsimmons He now incorporates yoga into his workouts, along with Tai Chi and walking around the block (“I’m not a runner; I like to go fast, so I’ll do a mile, but nothing long distance. You’re not going to see me running around Lady Bird Lake, though you may catch me walking there—and you can wave at me as you run past”). Williams looks like he could walk onto the field at any time and credits his fitness to a mixture of the things he’s done his whole life, which includes having fun. How’d you like to have Ricky Williams on your team? A lot of folks in Austin do. He plays softball on Mondays and Thursdays and flag football on Tuesdays and Sundays (he’s on two different teams); on Wednesdays, he rests. Although he and his family try to find active time together, he said that he and his wife Kristen don’t work out that much together, since he tends to prefer high-intensity workouts (short track-type intervals are a favorite) and she’s “more into cardio.”

When his oldest son started playing T-ball, Williams found a new perspective—parent on the sideline. As you might recall, Williams played for the Phillies throughout his years at UT; he was actually drafted by the Montreal Expos just two days after his Heisman win, and then the Texas Rangers bought his contract (though he never played for them). “One of my favorite things growing up as a kid was going in my room and listening to the Padres’ games,” Williams reminisced. He talked about what he loved about baseball—the hitting, how the ball seemed to become very big just before that satisfying connection with the bat—and how he was generally into sports, but he emphasized that it was a different time. “We never worried about being fit or being in shape; it was all about fun. [Sports for kids] is so serious in Florida and Texas,” he said, shaking his head. Even though Williams tried not to put any expectations about playing baseball onto his son, he found it was difficult “when my kid was the one out there on the field looking at butterflies”; what he did expect was for his child to pay attention and work hard. “While I had this intrinsic interest in sports, Prince has a generic interest and only if his friends are [into sports],” he explained. “The interesting thing is that, even though they don’t really have the interest, they’re probably more physically advanced than I was at that age.” As a result, Williams has worked to express an attitude of “I’ll support you in what you want to do.” He’s learned from all of his children; just the other day, “we were all piled in bed, and I was watching the kids—they’re 3, 6, and 11 years old now—and I was thinking that what kids’ bodies are willing to do is so different from [those of] adults. They were all piled around like puppies.” He believes that parents and the genetic pool they provide are just potential, and kids, if allowed, will naturally live fit lifestyles.

University of the Incarnate Word

Many in Austin are familiar with St. Edward’s University, the private Catholic school in town, which has a total enrollment of about 5,500 students. The University of the Incarnate Word (UIW) is another, much larger private Catholic school—it is the largest Catholic university in Texas and the fourth largest private university in the state.

Students at UIW can choose from nearly 80 different programs. Approximately 92 percent receive some sort of financial assistance, and applications are accepted on a rolling basis all year. In addition to the San Antonio campus, there are locations in Corpus Christi, Mexico, and Germany; the European Study Center in Heidelberg is one of a network of sister schools where students can study abroad.

The small classes and active social life at UIW provide avenues to meet students from all over the world, as 71 different countries are represented in the student body. Social, academic, and professional organizations abound, and there are a variety of on-campus living options. Inter-collegiate athletics and intramurals provide athletic outlets for those not playing on the university’s NCAA Division I teams.

School colors are red and black, and the UIW teams are the Cardinals.

You can take a virtual tour of the campus at uiw.edu/virtual11/index.html.
 

Ever a reader, Williams talked about Gary M. Douglas’ Right Body for You. “It’s a little book but I’ve been reading it for, oh, a year,” he laughed. “That’s because I either give it away or leave it somewhere…I’ve gone through about seven copies.” He said that he likes its message of enjoying your body and working on issues of weight, relaxation, and health through mindful appreciation. Douglas, the book’s author, is the founder of a group, Access Consciousness, which has raised eyebrows with some of its messages. Williams is a facilitator with the group and leads workshops; when we talked, he’d recently returned from one in Ireland. “I took my oldest daughter, Marley, with me; she’s been studying Irish dance,” he said. “I never really understood much about it and then I got to see her there, dancing with others. There was a group that just started dancing in the lobby one day—it was awesome.” Williams has been involved with the group since Access Consciousness contributed funds to Williams’ philanthropy, the Ricky Williams Foundation—in particular to its educational outreach branch, Ricky’s Kids, which aims to help disadvantaged kids with a free after-school program that promotes choices in life and the concept that all can aspire to greatness. In 2009, Ricky’s Kids started small at Sims Elementary in Austin; it later expanded to 100 children at Pecan Springs Elementary. According to Williams, the program was scaled back due to personnel issues, reevaluated to make it a better fit for the community, and recently suspended while changes were being made. According to reports, there are some complicated and unresolved issues with funding for Ricky’s Kids and, while the intentions seem good and Williams, a former elementary education major, appears genuinely interested in helping children who come from disadvantaged homes, there have been questions raised about the appropriateness of having a program with ties to Access Consciousness involved in the public school system.

photo by Brian Fitzismmons

For fun, Williams likes to look up words in the dictionary to see their origins. He brought up the definition of “fit,” pointing out that the word derived from the Anglo Saxon, meaning “struggle or fight,” and this meshes with his personal definition: “being fit is being able to deal with anything that comes.” He takes that beyond physical preparation to encompass outlook. “Put yourself in a position where you allow yourself to succeed,” Williams explained, though he’s not a huge fan of goal setting, since he feels he “turned my goals into prisons.” What does that mean? Williams gave an example: He’d set a goal of winning the Heisman trophy and then became unmoored when that was achieved; he’d worked so hard toward that one outcome that he was unprepared for what should come next. He recommended setting a variety of “priorities and targets,” as these go for energetic action that pushes onward rather than ending at a certain point.

Williams credits yoga with extending his football career by giving him “strength through being present” and “access to different faculties.” He feels that the practice helped him to learn to function in a more efficient way. “Before, my approach to getting into shape was through hard work, which was rote, like memory work. My body was on auto pilot,” Williams explained. “A new outlook created a new physical outcome.” His mantra in life is, “If it works, I’ll keep doing it…if it doesn’t, I’ll try something different.” Yoga worked.

In February 2012, Williams felt it was time to try something different. In a statement released by UT, he announced his retirement from the NFL, saying, "I pray that all successive adventures offer me the same potential for growth, success, and most importantly fun." That search for adventure has led him to San Antonio, where he'll continue to learn and grow through working with head coach Larry Kennan, who has a wealth of experience in collegiate and professional football from a coaching as well as directorial standpoint.

UIW, along with Abilene Christian University and Houston Baptist University, is a new member of the Southland Conference, and the school is also new to NCAA Division I play. Because there is a four-year transition period when moving up from Division II, UIW will not be eligible for conference honors this year (though they will still play a full conference schedule, which includes games against Stephen F. Austin, Central Arkansas, Sam Houston State, and Southeastern Louisiana). Williams will be balancing his coaching duties with his work with the Longhorn Network and ESPN, though he doesn’t feel it will be a difficult juggling act: “I’m much happier, much more productive, when I’m busy.” He jokingly stated, “I like to say I’m O.C.C.—an obsessive/compulsive creator. And I know it can also be said,” he laughed, “that I’m O.C.C.C.—an obsessive/compulsive creator of crap.” In a more serious vein, he went on to say that he has a “gift for creating situations with flexibility” and he’s excited about bringing that talent to San Antonio. Though the team is young, Williams stated that there are good athletes playing for the Cardinals. “When you’re aware of possibilities,” Williams said, “you’re aware of what’s required.” Williams, perhaps more than any other former college athlete and NFL player, can offer an example for his young players that is at once cautionary and inspirational. He was recently quoted in an ESPN article as saying, "A good role model is someone who keeps on moving and keeps on creating [his life] no matter what happens." Without a doubt, Ricky Williams, through his various roles and endeavors, continues to create a unique and outstanding life.

As he said in his University of Texas Hall of Fame speech this February, “There’s hope for the weirdos out there.”
Photo provided by Jim Sigmon - UT Athletics

Ricky Williams’ Statue
In April of 2012, a new statue was unveiled to the public at Darrell K Royal–Texas Memorial Stadium: an 8-foot, 1,000-pound likeness of Ricky Williams.

The university commissioned sculptor David Deming to create the statue. Deming, who taught at UT for 26 years and is now based in Cleveland, was commissioned almost a year and a half before the unveiling. The sculptor and subject met once in Ft. Lauderdale and again in Cleveland; Deming first made a full-sized clay image so that he could tweak the design once Williams had seen it. The completed statue is made of bronze and placed at the southwest entrance, near the statue of UT’s other Heisman trophy winner Earl Campbell.

Campbell’s likeness, created by Ken Bjorge, was unveiled in 2006. It joined two other statues that were installed in 2004, both by British sculptor Lawrence M. Ludtke—one of legendary coach Darrell K Royal and another of generous UT benefactor Joseph D. Jamail, Jr., both near the south entrance. The piece that precedes them all is the war memorial, located in the north end zone, for which the stadium is named; DKR–Texas Memorial Stadium was originally called War Memorial Stadium in reference to its lasting tribute to the 5,000 Texans who died in World War I.

Earning the T-Ring

Ricky Williams is back in class at UT Austin this fall, working hard to finish his schooling and earn his pre-med degree. “I’ve got to get my T-Ring,” he explained. “That’s something special.”

Coach Darrell K Royal established the T-Ring tradition as a means to motivate his Longhorn varsity football players to stay in school and graduate. Royal had been frustrated that so many of his student athletes were failing to get their diplomas, and so he designed the ring. In addition, Royal hired Lan Hewlett, an academic counselor also known as the “brain coach,” who helped the team with schoolwork and registration. Royal and Hewlett instigated a reporting system that kept players accountable for attending class. Those who cut class wound up carrying a 20-pound dummy on their backs as they ran the stairs in the stadium.

Of the 48 lettermen on Royal’s 1963 national championship team, all but three graduated. The tradition has been kept alive and actually extended to other varsity sports, though the T-Ring given to football players is the only one made of a light orange stone embossed with a raised white “T” (others are a darker orange). Many professional athletes, just like Ricky Williams, have returned to school simply to make sure they get their rings.

 

 
 

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