Walking out of NFL, R. Williams stands tall

July 27, 2004|By John Eisenberg

OFFICIALLY, Ricky Williams retired from the National Football League. But what he really did was reject America's favorite sports league.

Most people aren't going to understand, but there is something right and beautifully honest about his decision.

The guy wasn't into it, and no amount of money, adulation or adrenaline rushing through his body was going to change that.

What he got in return for being drug-tested, pounded and hounded just wasn't worth it in his opinion.

He wanted to do other things such as travel abroad and read books without play diagrams drawn in them.

At 27, he was curious about life beyond football and, perhaps most importantly, didn't want to become another Earl Campbell, the last University of Texas star before Williams to win the Heisman Trophy.

Campbell, 49, can barely walk now because of injuries sustained in the NFL.

So Williams put away his cleats after five brilliant seasons and bought a one-way plane ticket to Asia.

You can't thumb your nose much more emphatically at the NFL's supposedly hallowed set of virtues that keep players in uniform year after year.

The famed adrenaline rush? Williams apparently didn't feel it or he'd still be playing.

Money? Williams made quite a bit. How much do you need?

Locker room camaraderie? Williams seemingly could care less.

The adulation? That was actually a negative for Williams, who was diagnosed in 2001 with a social anxiety disorder requiring medication. The limelight was not his favorite place.

Basically, he had more reasons not to play than reasons to keep going in the cutthroat NFL, so he turned down some $3.5 million in 2004 salary and fled. Good for him.

Yes, he should have given the Miami Dolphins more warning; they basically can't replace him because he waited until a week before training camp to tell them. That was selfish. Williams' former teammates deserved more from him.

But should we feel sorry for the Dolphins? Absolutely not. Had Williams remained in uniform and played poorly in 2004, the Dolphins might well have cut him before next season, depriving him of the money stipulated in his contract.

That's the way it works in the NFL. The teams have all the power. They like you until they don't, and then you're gone, and it's your problem.

Think the Dolphins would have fretted for one second about the timing of cutting Williams next year?

Pro football teams belong at the bottom of anyone's list of entities to feel sorry for, regardless of the circumstances.

The NFL is a tough place on and off the field, and it's not for those who don't love the game or are uncomfortable with its all-encompassing nature and mandated conformity.

Williams, a sensitive seaside spirit raised in San Diego, was never a good fit.

He had to play football, from the time he was young, because he was such a talent, such a physical specimen, so good.

You couldn't be that good and avoid playing. But you could still not care, at least not that much.

He does continue to care about other things, as evidenced by the fact that he twice flunked NFL drug tests, most recently for using marijuana. That's not to be admired or condoned.

But to paraphrase the Kinks' Ray Davies, it's his life and he can do what he wants.

And frankly, anyone with any sense of self-preservation should be able to relate to the idea of walking away from the NFL while still in one piece.

Hundreds of limping former players can attest to that, none more poignantly than Campbell.

The Texas legend, who spent time around Williams when Williams was in college, was famous for toting a heavy offensive load, piling up carries and yardage.

Williams evolved into the same kind of runner and actually took the role farther, piling up more carries in five NFL seasons than Campbell did in his first five. Talk about following a dangerous precedent.

Campbell was battered, broken and finished after nine seasons of pounding, and pays a permanently high price today. Is it any wonder Williams started doubting his career choice?

He could have duly carried on and collected a paycheck, as many do. And who knows, he might be back when his money runs out or his mind wanders in a new direction.

But he's gone for now, having obviously taking a cue from his heart. Critics will abound, but he was just being honest about himself and his sport, and that's refreshing.

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