King Kaufman's Sports Daily

Ricky Williams retires: A likable iconoclast turns out to be just another me-first athlete after all.


Salon Staff
July 26, 2004 11:00PM (UTC)

I've always rooted for Ricky Williams, always wanted to like him. From the first moment he came into the national consciousness as a personality, not just a name racking up huge numbers at the University of Texas, it was clear he was different. I like different, especially when it comes to athletes in the major sports. The guys who aren't like all the other guys? Let's just say I like my chances of liking those guys.

Over the weekend Williams, the centerpiece of the Miami Dolphins' offense, leaked news of his retirement to Dan Le Batard of the Miami Herald from an airport in Hawaii, then boarded a plane for points undisclosed in Asia with no return ticket and no plans to play again. The Dolphins open training camp Saturday.

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What a punk.

"I was never strong enough to not play football, but I'm strong enough now," Williams told Le Batard. "I've considered everything about this. Everyone has thrown every possible scenario at me about why I shouldn't do this, but they're in denial. I'm happy with my decision. I'm finally free. I can't remember ever being this happy."

I can imagine that letting one's narcissism take over completely is a liberating feeling. "Good for me," you can say in the mirror, "I've finally allowed myself to let me be happy, to not worry about what others might think." It's all well and good, except when what those others are thinking is "You let us down, you punk" and -- this part is important right here -- they're right.

I think if Williams really gets into the honest self-exploration he says he plans to do in his world travels, he might find that the most important people in his football life, his teammates and coaches, aren't so much "in denial" as they are pissed off.

Williams has every right to retire even though he's played only five seasons and he might be denying himself a shot at the Hall of Fame or a Super Bowl appearance -- though in both cases that's highly debatable. He doesn't owe anybody the rest of his career, including the Dolphins. NFL contracts aren't guaranteed, and as long as teams feel free to walk away from them, then so should players, morally speaking.

In fact, there's almost no way to look at an NFL running back retiring at any point as anything other than reasonable and sane. These guys take an unbelievable, often crippling beating. Ask 49-year-old Earl Campbell if he should have retired a little sooner. He'll say no because he's a hell of a man, but as you hand him his cane you might disagree.

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"It seems kind of foolish to me," Williams' first NFL coach, Mike Ditka, said. "You're just destroying a great career. He's a talent. To let that all go to waste doesn't make a lot of sense."

If Ricky Williams is throwing his future away, if being an intelligent, good-looking, healthy 27-year-old self-made millionaire with no job responsibilities is some kind of failure, please sign me up for some of that senselessness please. Any of it.

But what Williams does owe his teammates is not punking out on them. That's where he is a failure. And what a disappointment, because while Williams hasn't been the Canton-bound back he looked like he was going to be during his record-breaking college career, he did have one shining year, 2002, when he ran for 1,853 yards, and whatever else you want to say about him, he's been a horse.

Nobody has run harder or more often with the football in the last two years than Ricky Williams. He put a lousy Dolphins offense on his back and nearly carried it to the playoffs, twice. Easy to root for a guy like that.

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If he's going to retire, fine, but he owed his teammates fair warning. He's gone through offseason workouts and meetings as though nothing were up, even though friends say he's been seriously contemplating retirement for months. Robert Smith, who surprised everyone by retiring from the Vikings at 28 to attend medical school four years ago, told ESPN Radio that Williams discussed the matter with him in June and sounded like a guy who'd made up his mind.

But Williams waited until less than a week before the start of training camp, until after possible replacement backs like Antowain Smith and Eddie George had been signed by other teams over the last few days, to let his team know that, oh, by the way, it looks like football's not for him after all.

Sorry, fellas, but the good news is Williams can't remember ever being so happy.

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Actually, for Dolphins fans anyway, the good news might be that Williams probably wasn't going to lead the Dolphins anywhere in 2004 or any time after. On Footballoutsiders.com, the best football stats Web site going, Aaron Schatz points out that, historically, backs who carried the workload Williams has shouldered over the last two years "basically fall into three categories: guys who got injured the next year, guys who were never as good again, and guys who are Eric Dickerson."

This had already happened to Williams, whose rushing average dropped from 4.8 yards per carry in 2002 to 3.5 in 2003. Part of that can be laid at the backpedaling feet of his offensive line, but not all of it. Football Outsiders has a sophisticated set of stats that shows that even in his breakout season, 2002, Williams wasn't much more effective than any old back would have been, except for the fact that he was able to carry the ball so many times. He ran it 383 times that year, the 11th highest total ever, and then had another 392 carries last year, the sixth most ever.

"Williams' 2003 performance already shows the effects of his 2002 overuse," Schatz writes, "and he's unlikely to have a resurgence after even more use in 2003."

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You'll notice the present tense. This wasn't some hindsight analysis written after Williams' announcement. It's reprinted from the 2004 "Brassey's Pro Football Forecast," the new name for what used to be called "Pro Football Prospectus," co-written by that annual's authors and the Football Outsiders crew.

But even if a return to his flukey 2002 form was expecting too much of Williams, that didn't preclude rooting for him, which I'd planned to do as usual.

I first became aware of Williams being a little different through press reports of his friendship with Doak Walker, the great Southern Methodist and Detroit Lions back of the postwar period. Williams was the first back-to-back recipient of the Doak Walker Award, which essentially goes to the best college running back who really goes to class, and after he won it the first time he and Walker became pals.

There were touching stories of Williams sticking by the older man through health troubles that followed a ski accident, complications from which led to Walker's death. Williams went so far as to wear Walker's number, 37, in the Oklahoma game, saying afterwards that Walker "was who I want to be."

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A 20-year-old, dreadlocked jock not just understanding that the latest trophy he'd collected was named after a real person but actually becoming friends with that person? This is not your usual ballplayer, I remember thinking.

And I know I wasn't the only one. Jim Buzinski, writing on Outsports.com, says that Williams' differentness made him a favorite in the gay community, even leading to some speculation -- admittedly a huge stretch -- that Williams might be gay himself.

"The reason for the speculation is that Williams is 'different,' and in many minds, different might equal gay," Buzinski writes. "The guy wore a wedding dress [in a magazine photo shoot]. He once thanked his gay fans. He liked shopping. He loved to travel. He was introspective. He's also a 5-10, 228-pound stud. Gay. Gay. Gay. Gay. Gay. Gay."

"For straight people, Williams' differences were reasons to mock him, to make him seem less a man, to feminize him," Buzinski continues. "For gay people, Williams' differences gave us hope that maybe he was one of us ... someone to shatter stereotypes." Though Williams' unusual announcement seems at first blush to be just the latest example of his iconoclasm, in the end it means he lived up to the biggest stereotype of all: the self-absorbed, me-first athlete. That's more disappointing than 3.5 yards a carry. Way more disappointing.

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Previous column: Empty-seat Olympics, ESPN boycott

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