Will the real Ricky Williams please stand up? After two superb seasons in a Dolphins uniform, the enigmatic power back appeared ready to assume his place among the NFL elite in 2004. Then he called it quits a week before training camp—leaving Miami with a huge hole in the backfield and Miami fans scratching their heads. Just when the football world thought it was seeing the player for whom Mike Ditka once traded half a team, Ricky turned back into the moody and erratic semi-recluse who perplexed teammates, coaches, and fans for three years in New Orleans. Can un-retirement be far away? This is his story…
Errick Lynne Williams (Ricky) and his twin sister, Cassandra (Cassie), were born on May 21, 1977, in San Diego, California. Their parents, Sandy and Errick, were young and hardly ready for the responsibilities of raising a family. They argued often, sometimes right in front of Ricky and Cassie. The situation became even more tense when the couple gave birth to their third child, Nisey.
Errick and Sandy went through a messy divorce in 1983. They signed the settlement four months after Ricky's sixth birthday. Errick contended that Sandy had been unfaithful. She accused him of abusing the kids. That charge swayed the court in her favor. Sandy was awarded custody of Ricky and his sisters, and Errick was granted only limited visitation rights. Eight months later he was convicted on misdemeanor charges that he mistreated his children. Errick denies his guilt to this day, claiming his former wife lied about his relationship with his kids. It took years, but Ricky began to rebuild his relationship with his father as a teenager. Errick has since remarried, and now has four children with his second wife. Ricky has pledged to help finance their college educations.
Without question, Ricky was affected by his toxic homelife. Even when Errick left and the fighting stopped, the family still had to scrape by. Sandy and her three kids lived in a cramped San Diego apartment. A move to La Mesa, about 15 miles northeast, helped matters, but the kids were sometimes the target of racial taunts. In his new suburban surroundings, Ricky experienced a new kind of frustration. He felt too black for his white friends and too white for his black friends back in San Diego.
Ricky was an intelligent young
man who scored well on standardized tests. This got him into his school's
accelerated program, but his inability to control his anger constantly
landed him in hot water. He was a bully who picked on smaller kids, and
Sandy was told he needed help. Ricky began seeing a counselor at school,
but by seventh grade his grades began to drop. When he was removed from
the accelerated program and placed back in the mainstream, he lost interest
in his studies entirely. His mother met with school officials and they
agreed to transfer him to a new junior high and re-enroll him in the accelerated
program. The fresh start was exactly what Ricky needed, and his academic
career got right back on track.
Ricky entered San Diego's Patrick Henry High School in the fall of 1992. An excellent athlete throughout his childhood, he was now coming into his own on the baseball and football fields. A friend, Chad Patmon, had been instrumental in this process. He showed Ricky how to channel the energy from his pent-up anger into sports. Ricky played football and baseball, ran track, and wrestled for the Patriots. Initially, it appeared his future was brightest on the diamond. An All-State outfielder, he emulated Tony Gwynn of the Padres. As a junior, Ricky batted .331 and stole 31 bases. The following spring he upped his average to .340.
Ricky, a halfback and linebacker, was also the star of the football team. College coaches were most intrigued by his potential as a runner, and the recruiting calls began during his junior year. As a senior, Ricky gained 2,099 yards and scored 25 touchdowns. His postseason honors included being named Best of the West by the Long Beach Press-Telegram and Offensive Player of the Year by the San Diego Union-Tribune. Competition to sign Ricky became intense, with Stanford, California and Texas at the top of the list.
In the spring of 1995, the Philadelphia Phillies made Ricky their eighth-round draft pick. He was undecided between a career on the diamond or gridiron, but knew he could sign with the Phillies and still play college football. When Philadelphia offered a $70,000 signing bonus and multi-year contract, Ricky said hello to pro ball and good-bye to minimum-wage jobs at fast-food restaurants. He banked the money, then joined Philadelphia's rookie-level affiliate in Martinsville, Virginia.
For an athlete who had known nothing but success, playing in the minors was an eye-opening experience. Against Appalachian League pitching, Ricky managed a meager .239 average with just 11 RBIs. He took heart, however, that teammate Reggie Taylora first-round pickhit .222. Taylor would go on to make the majors, as would another teammate, pitcher Dave Coggin.
Ricky's modest numbers were welcome news to John Mackovic and his assistants at the University of Texas. Ricky had accepted a scholarship from UT with the idea that he might challenge the records of Earl Campbell, who was one of his football heroes. Campbell had won the Heisman Trophy in 1977, then went on to win an MVP in the National Football League. Obviously, the Longhorns wanted Ricky to follow in Campbell's footsteps, and felt a crummy year in rookie ball might get him psyched about carrying the pigskin for a living.
Mackovic loved Ricky. The freshman made no demands for playing time and wanted only to help Texas winsomething the team had finally begun to do again. Mackovic took over the Longhorns in December of 1991, after the once-mighty program had fallen on mediocre times. In just two years he had turned things around, earning a share of the Southwest Conference title in 1994.
The '95 squad returned 17 starters, including quarterback James Brown, defensive end Tony Brackens, and cornerback Bryant Westbrook. Tailback Priest Holmes was sidelined, however, after tearing up a knee in spring practice. Finding a replacement would be tough. Mackovic was counting on either Darrell Wilson or juco transfer Jeffrey Clayton. Ricky, meanwhile, was slated to fight for the starting fullback job.
Despite the loss of Holmes, most prognosticators thought the Longhorns would still challenge Texas A&M for the Southwest Conference crown. As it turned out, Texas went undefeated in the SWC and earned an invitation to the Sugar Bowl. Though the Longhorns fell 29-10 to Virginia Tech in the Superdome, the team finished the year at 10-2-1 and reestablished itself as a national powerhouse.
The offense keyed the resurgence. Brown blossomed in his second year in Mackovic's complex system, leading the SWC in the three major passing categories (yardage, efficiency, and touchdowns) and total offense. In the process, he became the first Texas quarterback to be named All-Conference since Marty Atkins in 1975. In the backfield, junior Shon Mitchell emerged as a star. He was the first Texas back to run for more than 1,000 yards since Eric Metcalf in 1987. The second back to do this was Ricky, who turned a lot of heads with his first-year performance. Though utilized primarily as a blocker, he managed to break Campbell's freshman rushing record with 1,052 yards (including his total in the Sugar Bowl). He also scored eight touchdowns, and caught 16 passes for 224 yards.
Ricky was busy off the field as well. An Education major, he was lauded as one of the school's exemplary student-athletes. One of the reasons Ricky was so conscientious in the classroom was his desire to play for the Phillies again in 1996. NCAA regulations allow players to miss one term during their collegiate career as long as they remain academically eligible. Ricky kept his grades high, then took off the second half of the year to play baseball. He was promoted to Class-A and played for the Piedmont Boll Weevils of the South Atlantic League. Against the better pitching, Ricky's average sank to .188.
By the fall, Ricky
was back in the uniform for the Longhorns and ready to play some football.
1996 campaign marked the first year that the SWC would compete as the
Big 12. The Longhorns were placed in the South Division, along with
rivals such as Texas A&M and Oklahoma. The North Division, which
included Nebraska and Colorado, was thought to be more powerful. There
was no doubting
the explosiveness of the Texas offense, however. Brown was healthy and
a year wiser, guard Dan Neil was a candidate for the Outland Trophy,
flanker Mike Adams and tight end Pat Fitzgerald led a talented group
of receivers. Ricky and Mitchell, meanwhile, formed one of the nation's
dangerous backfields. Unfortunately, the Longhorns started the year slowly
when the defense could not stop the run. They coughed up fourth-quarter
leads against Notre Dame, Oklahoma, and Colorado, and surrendered a lot
of yards on the ground in the process. In November, Texas had a 3-4 record.
By this time, Ricky was becoming the team's featured back. He was in sync with his blockers, and could turn the corner, sprint through holes, or run right over tacklers. People were starting to call him Little Earl, a nickname he considered to be the ultimate compliment. The Longhorns won their next five contests, including a stunning 37-27 win over Nebraska in the first Big 12 Championship Game. In that game Ricky earned accolades as the ultimate team player. In what turned into an aerial war, he got only a handful of carries, instead spending most of the game slam dancing with the Cornhuskers' All-America defensive ends, Jared Tomich and Grant Wistrom, which enabled Brown to burn Nebraska for 353 passing yards.
Ricky finished the season with 1,272 rushing yardsthe third-best mark in school historyand 12 touchdowns. He was the key to the Longhorn offense, which racked up over 5,000 yards for the year and averaged 36 points a game. A loss to Penn State in the Fiesta Bowl denied Texas a storybook end to an otherwise satisfying season.
After spring exams, Ricky joined the 1997 Sally League season, which was already in progress. He never really got untracked, batting .206 and finishing with more strikeouts than hits. A stomach ulcer and the removal of his wisdom teeth did not help matters. Worse, these ailments dropped his weight by 25 pounds. During his first two years at Texas, Ricky had gained 68 percent of his yards after first contact. Mackovic and his staff worried that less mass would translate into less yards for their star runner.
The Texas coach soon realized he had bigger worries. Despite a new defensive scheme, the Longhorn tacklers were terrible. When UCLA humiliated Texas 66-3 in September, the writing was on the wall. The coach was fired soon after, and the team finished an abysmal 4-7. The lone bright spot for fans in Austin was Ricky, who shouldered much of the offensive load. He shattered Campbell's single-season school rushing mark with 1,893 yards, and rumbled for 25 touchdowns. Six times Ricky topped 200 yards in a game, including 249 vs. Rice, 241 vs. Baylor, 235 vs. Missouri, and 223 vs. Oklahoma. A consensus All-America and All-Conference first-team selection, he won the Doak Walker Award and was named Big 12 Offensive Player of the Year.
Heisman voters, however, ignored Ricky. His supporters in the media mounted a grassroots movement for him, citing that Paul Hornung had won the award for Notre Dame in 1956 despite a losing season. But with Peyton Manning and Charles Woodson in the mix, Ricky did not stand a chance. He was not even invited to the ceremony in New York, despite ascending to fifth place in the balloting.
MAKING HIS MARK
Ricky had a lot to think about
in the off-season. The Texas program was in disarray, though things began
to look up when Mack Brown was hired as the new head coach. Brown had
made a name for himself by transforming North Carolina into a solid Top-20
team. Now he hoped to clean up the mess in Austin.
Mack desperately wanted Ricky to stay for his senior season, but knew the lure of pro football was strong. The junior promised to be a high pick if he entered the NFL draft, and financial security was important to him, mostly because he felt an obligation to take care of his family. In fact Ricky had taken out a $2.8 million insurance policy to protect himself in case of injury. In addition, his mother and twin sister had joined him in Austin, and he was providing for both through what was left of his signing bonus from the Phillies. That included helping fund Cassie's education. She was now a full-time student at Texas.
Ricky surprised everyone when he announced he would return to Texas. His rationale was simple: He liked college football and wasn't ready to call it a career. Still, the decision wasn't an easy one. He had actually signed the papers required for entrance into the NFL draft, but never submitted them.
Ricky became an even bigger hero in Austin. Two days after his announcement he received a rousing welcome from the 16,000 in attendance at the Erwin Center where Texas was hosting Kansas in basketball. Months later the Longhorns' final spring football scrimmage attracted a record crowd of 21,000. Ricky signed autographs that day until his arm was sore. The soon-to-be senior was equally popular with the national media. In the eyes of writers and reporters, he represented everything that was right about college sports. He also made national headlines when he struck up a friendship with Doak Walker after the 71-year-old was paralyzed in a skiing accident. Ricky wrote a series of letters to the former Heisman Trophy winner and called him on the phone regularly to keep his spirits up.
Being a celebrity, however, was the last thing Ricky wanted. He was painfully shy in public. Chad Patmon, who followed Ricky to Texas and earned a spot on the football team as a walk-on defensive back, was his roommate and ran interference for him on campus. To fend off the advances of strange women, Ricky had Cassie sub as his girlfriend at parties and social events.
The media attention intensified as the 1998 season approached. A leading candidate for the Heisman Trophy, Ricky was within reach of a laundry list of NCAA records, including Tony Dorsett's career mark of 6,082 rushing yards. But he would have to earn every yard he gained. The Longhorns faced a brutal schedule, including trips to Nebraska, UCLA, Kansas State and Texas Tech. To make matters worse, Texas appeared to be in a rebuilding mode. At quarterback, Major Applewhite, a redshirt freshman, was on track to take the starting job. The defense, also young and inexperienced, was trying to pick up coordinator Carl Reese's attacking style.
Ricky was prepared to carry the Longhorns on his back once again. Rather than spending another summer swinging through fastballs in Class-A ball, he took a breather from baseball and worked himself into peak football condition. By the time the season opened, he was a chiseled 225 pounds.
The season started badly for
Ricky and the Longhorns. They were blown out in back-to-back weekends
in September by UCLA and Kansas State. But after the two routs, the team
suddenly rounded into shape. Texas reeled off five straight victories,
including a 20-16 decision at Nebraska that snapped the Cornhuskers' 47-game
home winning streak. The defense, thought to be a weakness, was gelling
under Reese. Casey Hampton, the hulking sophomore tackle, was particularly
No one, however, was doing more for the Longhorns than Ricky. In a win over Rice he ran for 318 yards and six scores. A week later he piled up 350 yards and five touchdowns against Iowa State. He racked up 150 yards in the Nebraska victory, then paced Texas over Oklahoma State in a 37-34 thriller. Ricky finished the season with 2,124 yards rushing and 27 touchdowns, both school records. In the process he broke Dorsett's NCAA mark for career yardage and surpassed Anthony Thompson's NCAA total for career touchdowns. A unanimous All-America and All-Big 12 selection, Ricky won the Maxwell Award, Walter Camp Player of the Year Award, and the first-ever AP National Player of the Year Award. And of course, he also took the Heisman Trophy.
Ricky's career path was now set. Though he still claimed an interest in baseball (his rights now belonged to the Texas Rangers, who purchased them from Montreal after the Expos selected him in the 1998 Rule V Draft) his diamond stats did not lie. His career average in the minors was only slightly better than .200, and he struck out far too often. With the NFL draft approaching, GMs had little fear if he used the threat to play baseball instead of football as a bargaining ploy. That was important, for Ricky was projected as a high first-round choice, perhaps even the top pick. Scouts loved his size, speed, vision, and receiving skills. Initially, the only knock on Ricky was his small hands, which made some believe he might be a fumbler in the pros.
As draft day neared, other questions about Ricky began to surface. His weight became a concern. In the months since his last college game, he had put on nearly 20 poundsnone of it muscle and none of it in the right places. Also distressing to NFL evaluators was the way Ricky seemed to be changing before their eyes. Previously known as humble and hard-working, he now came off in interviews as moody and immature. Scouts suspected that all the plaudits showered on him during his career at Texas were finally going to his head. In Miami for Super Bowl XXXIII, Ricky stayed out late partying and missed several meetings. In the exacting world of the NFL, this news traveled fast.
Ricky's choice of rapper Master
P as his agent also raised a red flag. He had originally signed with the
Boston firm of Woolf Associates, but quickly ditched them. Now he was
being represented by the former Percy Miller, the hip-hop icon with the
golden smile. This decision did not endear Rickey to the straight-laced
executives who make up most NFL front offices.
On draft day it was impossible to say when and where Ricky would go. The teams with the first three picksCleveland, Philadelphia, and Cincinnatiall were in the market for quarterbacks. Yet each had hinted that Ricky was a strong possibility. It became clear they were bluffing when Tim Couch, Donovan McNabb, and Akili Smith went 1-2-3. Next up was Indianapolis. After dealing Marshall Faulk to St. Louis, it was no secret the Colts would take a runner. They narrowed their choices to Ricky and Edgerrin James, then selected the Miami star. This left Washington, in the fifth slot, with a variety of options. With holes up and down their roster, the Redskins needed quantity as much as quality. When the Saints offered every one of their 1999 picks (plus first- and fifth-rounders in 2000), Washington jumped at the proposal. New Orleans then tabbed Ricky.
No one was more excited than Saints coach Mike Ditka. He had been coveting Ricky for months. From his days as Walter Payton's coach in Chicago, Ditka believed that a workhorse runner was the key to an effective offensive gameplan. He felt Ricky was that type of back.
Ricky wanted to get right top work. He pushed his management team to reach a contract agreement as quickly as possible. Leland Hardy, a former stockbroker and heavyweight boxer employed by Master P, handled the negotiations. Hardy and the Saints worked out a seven-year contract stoked with performance-based incentives. The deal included an $8.8 million signing bonus, but guaranteed little in the way of annual salary.
The contract won the approval of fans and the media, who lauded Ricky's desire to earn his money on the field. The Saints players, however, thought he was crazy, and let him know it. In their minds, the contract set a dangerous precedent. It left huge piles of cash on the table, which would go uncollected unless everything broke Ricky's way. His teammates claimed the agreement might even hurt their negotiating power somewhere down the road. For a shy rookie uncomfortable with attention, this was no way to start an NFL career. Ditka made matters worse by touting Ricky as the man who would lead New Orleans to a title. Needless to say, this did not help his status any with the club's veterans. They knew, as did everyone else in the NFL, that the Saints were a long, long way from a championship.
There was a glimmer of hope on opening day, when New Orleans scored a 19-10 upset over the Carolina Panthers. But after that the roof caved in. The team went 1-11 over its next 12 games, then split its remaining two contests to finish with a 3-13 record. The team's problems began at quarterback, where a pair of Billy JoesTolliver and Hobertconducted a season-long fight for the starting job. The line protecting them (and blocking for Ricky) never gelled, despite the presence of star Willie Roaf and young studs Chris Naeloe and Kyle Turley.
For Ricky, the campaign was
pure torture. Injuries dogged him all year long, and he played in only
a dozen games. He sprained his left ankle three separate times, hyperextended
his right elbow, and hurt the big toe on his left foot, which radiated
pain that grew worse every time he played on the Superdome's artificial
Just as troubling was Ricky's relationship with his teammates. He felt they did not like him or support him, and that they sometimes purposefully tried to embarrass him. From their perspective, the rookie was getting everything he deserved. He seemed to intentionally distance himself from the club and made a habit of arriving late for meetings. He was short-tempered and nasty with the media, and often kept his helmet on during interviews. He even fought with Ditka, his biggest fan.
Still, Ricky did produce when he was in the lineup. He rushed for 884 yards and two touchdowns. Only George Rogers in 1981 and Rueben Mayes in 1986 had run for more yardage in their rookie seasons with the Saints. Ricky's first 100-yard rushing game came on the road against the Giants, in late October. A week later he racked up 179 yards at home against the Browns. His 40 attempts in that contest were a new club single-game high, surpassing the previous mark of 35, shared by Earl Campbell and Dwight Beverly. But from there Ricky's season spiraled downward. He ended the year with a terrible performance in Carolina, gaining just seven yards on 14 carries in a 45-13 blowout.
With his team in turmoil, New Orleans owner Tom Benson took action. He fired Ditka and his staff, then hired Pittsburgh defensive coordinator Jim Haslett as his new head coach. A former linebacker with the Bills, Haslett was young, hungry, and a little bit off-the-wall. He seemed like the perfect coach for Ricky, but the two got off on the wrong foot. Haslett let his star running back know that he wouldn't tolerate any erratic behavior. Feeling he was being prejudged, Ricky took offense. The situation worsened several weeks later when he was arrested in Austin for refusing to sign a traffic ticket. Haslett then stated publicly that Ricky needed to grow up.
To clear his head, Ricky traveled through Europe, including one trip as part of an Air Force goodwill tour. The change of scenery helped his outlook. So did a new agent. By meeting only one of his incentive clauses in 1999, Ricky had earned chump change as a rookiejust over $200,000. No longer down with Master P's rap, he latched on with Leigh Steinberg, who told Rickey that he needed to produce in order to renegotiate the terrible deal he had signed.
When training camp started, Ricky still had mixed feelings about Haslett and his in-your-face style. The rest of the team was feeling out the new coach, too. When the season began and New Orleans lost three of four, the players were openly questioning him. Haslett told them and the fans to be patientthere were a lot of new faces on the roster, including quarterback Jeff Blake, receivers Joe Horn and Andre Reed, defensive lineman Norman Hand, linebacker Charlie Cleamons, and defensive back Fred Thomas.
Finally, the Saints began to turn the corner. They won six straight behind a fast-improving defense led by Joe Johnson, La'Roi Glover and the newcomer, Hand. Another key was the play of backup passer Aaron Brooks, who stepped into the starting role after Blake broke his foot in October. Brooks looked like a star in the making. Ricky was also settling into a groove. He reeled off five straight 100-yard games, including a season-high 156 yards in a 21-19 victory against Atlanta. He scored three times in that game to tie a club record.
Part of Ricky's strong play could be traced to his growing maturity off the field. He found a couple of friends in rookie running backs Chad Morton and Terrelle Smith. Both players seemed to relax him. Other teammates, meanwhile, were beginning to realize how important Ricky was to the team. They treated him with more respect, and in turn he assumed more of a leadership role on the club.
Every now and then, however, Ricky slipped into odd behavior. One week Haslett fined him more than $3,000 when he blew off an appointment for doctors to look at a bruised knee. Another time, just before the win over the Falcons, Ricky told his coach not to overwork him and to cut down on the use of the two-tight-end jumbo formation.
Going into a mid-November tilt with Carolina, the Saints were in the hunt for a playoff spot. Though New Orleans controlled the first half, the team led only 7-3 at intermission. After a fiery scene in locker room the club won going away 20-10. The victory, however, came at a steep price. On a two-yard run in the fourth quarter (which gave him 1,000 yards for the year), Ricky broke his right ankle. The injury sidelined him for the rest of the regular season.
Without Ricky, the Saints still managed to take the NFC West with a record of 10-6. Veteran Terry Allen stepped in at running back, Brooks and Horn established themselves as a dynamic passing tandem, and Glover, Johnson, and rookie Darren Howard all recorded double-figures in sacks. In the first round of the postseason, New Orleans stunned the Rams, the defending Super Bowl champs, for the first playoff victory in franchise history. Though the Saints fell the following week in Minnesota, the team celebrated a wonderful, break-out year.
While he missed the last six games and saw only limited action in the postseason, Ricky was a major contributor to his team's turnaround. He became the first New Orleans back in 11 years to rush for 1,000 yards and added eight touchdowns on the ground. He also set a new career-high with 44 receptions for 409 yards. At the time of his injury, his combined 1,409 yards from scrimmage ranked second in the NFC.
Sadly, the goodwill Ricky built up during the 2000 campaign all but evaporated when he declined to participate in off-season workouts with his fellow Saints. The team felt the training sessions were crucial to his rehab from the broken ankle. Ricky saw things differently and was a no-show. The decision concerned the Saints so much that they selected Mississippi running back Deuce McAllister in the first round of the draft. (Ricky now admits that he was at a low point during this period of his life, suffering the harshest effects of social anxiety disorder, an ailment he had yet to have officially diagnosed.)
The pick definitely got Ricky's attention. He showed up for the 2001 campaign in the best shape of his life. At 240 pounds with body fat of just six percent, he was leaner and more muscular than ever. The joke around the New Orleans locker room was that Ricky had contracted a case of the Deuce Flu.
Besides the addition of McAllister,
Haslett's roster looked pretty much the same as the year before. Brooks
was solidly entrenched at quarterback, while Horn was now the top threat
at receiver. The offensive line remained intact, as did the defensive
front. In fact, Glover, Johnson, Hand, and Howard were probably the best
quartet in the league. Though the Saints were still a little thin behind
them, the team expected to return to the playoffs.
After the first 12 games, New Orleans appeared to be right on track for a postseason berth. But the club fell apart in the last four weeks. The defense shouldered much of the blame, surrendering an average of 40 points per contest in the campaign's last quarter. Inconsistent play from Brooks also doomed the Saints, and they finished a disappointing 7-9.
Ricky did his best to prevent the team's slide. For the first time in his career, he played a full season, rushing for 1,245 yards and six touchdowns. In turn, he became the first back in franchise history to gain 1,000 yards in consecutive campaigns. Ricky added another 511 yards on 60 receptions. Only Tony Galbreath, in 1978, had caught more passes out of the New Orleans backfield.
Ricky was most effective when his opponents were sucking wind. His average-per-carry in the fourth quarter was more than five yards, and he enjoyed his two best days when he got the ball at least 30 times. In a 28-15 victory over Minnesota, he ran for 136 yards and a touchdown. The following week, at Carolina, he racked up 147 yards and another TD. That score came from one-yard out with no time remaining to give New Orleans a 27-25 win.
By the conclusion of the 2001 season, Ricky stood fifth on the team's all-time rushing chart with 3,129 yards. His future with the Saints, however, was uncertain. Still playing under his original contract, Ricky earned only $389,000 in 2001. He wanted management to address this inequity. Haslett and GM Randy Mueller, meanwhile, evaluated their roster and determined the team was desperately short on depth and speed.
The Saints also continued to question Ricky's attitude. During the Super Bowl week in New Orleans, Mueller talked trade with various clubs around the league. The Browns were very interested but the best fit was with Miami. The Dolphins had been searching for a dynamic back for years. Coach Dave Wannstedt and offensive coordinator Norv Turner drooled at the thought of handing the ball to Ricky 25 or 30 times a game. On March 8, Miami sent its first- and fourth-round selections in the 2002 draft, plus a conditional pick in 2003 for Ricky and a New Orleans pick.
He had mixed feelings about the deal. On one hand, Ricky was certain that Wannstedt understood and appreciated him, and he knew the Dolphins were open to renegotiating his contract. But he also felt rejected, an emotion that can be debilitating for someone with social anxiety disorder. Ricky—who by now was receiving professional treatment—thought briefly about retiring, then decided to deal with his deamons head-on. He showed up in Miami brimming with confidence, and eager to make a good impression on his new teammates.
The trade, in turn, paid huge dividends for the Dolphins, as Ricky transformed the team's offense. Turner, who works his magic best from a balanced attack, used the run to set up the pass, taking pressure off Jay Fiedler. With the Miami quarterback looking more confident, young receivers Chris Chambers and Randy McMichael blended into the offense with ease. The offensive line, meanwhile, was re-energized with Ricky in the backfield. For the first time in years, they were getting to block for a fellow bruiser instead of a finesse guy.
Ricky was nothing short of sensational in the 2002 campaign. When Fiedler went down with a thumb injury, Miami became maddeningly one-dimensional on offense. But Ricky didn't flinch when asked to shoulder the load, and the Dolphins managed to keep their heads above water, staying right in the thick of the race for first in the AFC East.
Ricky actually thrived as his number was called more often. In back-to-back games in early December, he topped the 200-yard mark, making him the first back to do so since his hero Earl Campbell did in 1980. His 228 yards against the Bills in Buffalo set a new team record. Then he nearly matched that output, including a career-long 63-yard touchdown run, a week later at home against the Bears. In front of a national audience on Monday night, he bulldozed Chicago for 216 yards, the largest single-game total ever surrendered in the franchise's long history.
When the Dolphins beat the Raiders the following weekbehind a 101-yard performance by Rickyit looked like the team was a cinch for the postseason. But a crippling loss by Miami in Minnesota changed the playoff picture in the AFC East. Going into the final weekend of the campaign, the Dolphins needed a win over the Patriots to capture the division crown. A defeat would end their season right there. In the biggest game of his pro career, Ricky was fabulous, rushing for 185 yards and two touchdowns. Miami, however, collapsed late, surrendering two scores in the fourth quarter that tied the contest, then losing in overtime on a field goal by Adam Vinatieri.
The defeat forced changes in the Miami roster. Wannstedt took a long, hard look at his defense, which came up short when the pressure was on. His first move was to trade for Junior Seau, who he installed at weak outside linebacker. The hope was that veteran’s fiery personality would mean as much as his play on the field. Former Pro Bowl safety Sammy Knight was also added, bolstering an already strong secondary.
On offense, the Dolphins signed Brian Griese, who figured to be an insurance policy if Fiedler either floundered or got hurt. Of course, Ricky remained the unit’s nucleus. With 1,853 yards and 16 TDs on the ground in ‘03, he surpassed every expectation of him. Miami counted on another big year from him in 2004.
Ricky’s first three games were all workmanlike performances. Though he was averaging less than four yards per carry, he was running hard between the tackles and helping Miami control the football. At 5-2 through October, the team appeared to be in perfect position in the AFC East. But an injury to Fiedler derailed the Dolphins, sending them on a two-game losing streak. They righted the ship by riding Ricky. Three straight games of more than 100 yards produced three wins in a row.
By then, however, the Patriots had distanced themselves from the pack, so Miami’s only real chance at the playoffs was a Wild Card berth. When the team fell in consecutive weeks to New England and Philadelphia, Dolphin fans grew desperate. The Fish rallied to win their last two, but 10-6 wasn’t good enough to get them into the postseason.
Ricky had another good year for the Dolphins, rushing for 1,372 yards and nine TDs in ‘03. There were few “easy” carries for him, as enemy defenses had little respect for the Dolphin passing attack. They regularly crowded the line of scrimmage, daring Fiedler or Griese to beat them deep. When neither made them pay, Ricky was asked to grind out the yards the team needed.
Miami faced a lot of tough questions in the offseason. Wannstedt had relinquished his GM duties. (Many fans wish he would do the same with his coaching responsibilities.) Turner, meanwhile, left for Oakland. The team seemed to be on the right track when it hired Dan Marino as senior vice president. But he walked away from the organization less than a month later.
One of the few certainties in Miami seemed to be Ricky...until, a week before training camp opened, he phoned Wannstedt from Hawaii to inform him he was hanging up his helmet. Ricky told the coach he had lost the passion needed to play his position. The timing of this revelation could not have been worse. Eddie George had just been plucked off the market by the Cowboys, leaving the club with a so-so passing game and a paper-thin running attack.
How long Ricky’s retirement will last is anyone’s guess. And needless to say, trying to guess along with Ricky isn’t easy. His coach believes that he can woo him back if he can just sit down with him in the same room. His agent, Leigh Steinberg, hinted that his absence from the gridiron might be temporary. And with good reason. One can never underestimate the pull of the game on an elite athlete once the season starts—especially for someone at the top of his game, like Ricky.
Ricky Williams is a runner who punishes enemy tacklers. The big difference with the Dolphins is that he may finally have stopped punishing himself. Ricky has reportedly come to grips with the anxiety disorder that has affected his relationship with the rest of the world since childhood. He is no longer blaming all his other problems on this problem or taking the mood-leveling medication he tried while with New Orleans. He has simply decided to live with it, and deal with it. Thus far, the results have been nothing short of amazing.
As a result of this revelatory experience, Ricky has added a new kind of confidence to his seemingly limitless skills. He is hitting his holes better, running sharper pass routes, blocking with more authority, and making big plays in big situations. It doesn't hurt that Ricky shed some 20 unneeded pounds in the offseason and is back near his old college playing weight.
Part of Ricky's success in Miami also has to do with a counter playhe starts one way, then cuts back against the grain behind two pulling linemanwhich he convinced Norv Turner to put into the offense. The play was his favorite in college, and he looks like he's back at Texas when he runs it.
Not surprisingly, the new low-maintenance, high-octane Ricky has done wonders for team chemistry, which is the very thing his critics claim he tends to disrupt. Whether he stays happy and healthy will likely determine if the Dolphins become a Super Bowl contender. Ricky Williamsthe man who shuns the spotlighthas said as much himself.
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