Each week, we bring you a Q&A with a Ravens player, coach or team executive to help you learn a little more about the team. Today's guest is running back Ricky Williams.
How is the season unfolding for you on a personal level?
It's good. I guess I judge my personal season on the success of the team and my ability to contribute. I haven't had a bunch of chances to contribute, but I've had a couple runs that we really needed. I've taken practice reps and given Ray [Rice] some rest. So I'm feeling good about this year.
For a long time, you were a starter in the league. Are you comfortable with your role as a complement to Ray Rice?
There's times when I wake up and I feel energetic and I feel like I'm 25 again. But in reality, I'm 34, and for me, to have the opportunity to still play in this league, that a team still wants me on their roster, that's what's good. To land on a good team with a lot of veteran leadership and a great organization, I really feel fortunate.
Is there a part of you that desires to be a starter again?
Of course, there’s a part that says that, and then I realize that I’m caught up in the moment. If I had to, I could definitely do it. But at this point in my career, I think more about quality of life. I’ve carried the ball a lot of times in this league, and I’ve taken a lot of hits, and like I said, if I had to do it, I think I could do it. To be in a position to choose to do it, I don’t know if I would make that choice.
By the numbers, your most productive game of the season occurred against the Cleveland Browns on Dec. 4 when you set season bests in carries (16) and yards (76). Have you found your comfort level within the offense?
It's more of a rhythm thing, I think. The fact is, I've been a starter and that's really all I've been for most of my career. My style is to get a feel, to get carries. Most games that I get in the game early, I get a chance to get a feel, and I'm able to be more productive. For me in my career, it's difficult for me to be on the sideline and then run in for two plays and then run out and sit on the sideline for a quarter and then get two plays. I'm not accustomed to that. It's been an adjustment. But when I can get into a game early and get into the flow of the game, then I'm much better.
So how do you adapt both physically and mentally to playing sporadically and at a moment's notice?
It's definitely been an adjustment. I have fewer opportunities to be productive. So I just focus on my technique. When I get in there, the things that I can control as far as my footwork and my keys, I just have to focus extra hard on those things. Sometimes it works, and sometimes I feel like I'm not getting enough opportunities to do that.
Because of the limited number of chances, do you feel more pressure to be especially productive when you are inserted into the offense for Ray Rice?
Not really. I was in the weight room today, and I was talking to "Mother" [assistant strength and conditioning coach John Dunn], and he said, "We're winning and people around here really like you." That really made me think. So I don't feel pressure. If this was a contract year or I wasn't signed for next year and I was insecure about my age and my ability to play football, I think I would feel more pressure. But I feel very comfortable.
Is it important for you to be liked?
I think so. That's very important to me. I think especially when you're on a football team and you spend so much time around the same guys, it's nice not to be a burden on anyone. It's nice that people are able to appreciate you and want to be around you. It's just a good feeling.
In answering a question about you last week, Ray Rice said you were the "best thing to happen to me this season." What does it mean to you when someone says that?
Coming from Ray, it means something different than it would if it came from someone else. That's just Ray. He's young, and he's still learning about the NFL. I think unfortunately for him, when he was drafted, the running back ahead of him went to the Pro Bowl the previous year. And Willis [McGahee] was and still is a great runner. He's having a great year now. And then [former fullback] Le'Ron [McClain] was also running the ball very well. So I think for Ray, there was always this sense of competition for carries. The essence of that statement is that [fullback] Vonta [Leach] is not competing for carries, and I'm not going to compete for carries. I think we both accept our roles, and I think Ray is doing very well in accepting his role as the main guy. I think he just feels more support than he's felt in the last couple of years.
Considering your experiences, how have you tried to counsel Ray Rice?
In my opinion, the best way to try to help young players is to first, try to get to know who the guy is and what you can do to help him. Ray’s his own guy. He’s definitely his own guy. He’s very independent. And so I just step back and if I see something, I’ll make a simple statement, and he knows that if there’s anything he wants to talk about, he can talk to me. But he’s one of those guys where he’s going to do his own thing, and if needs help, he’ll ask for it.
Do you and Ray Rice have the same relationship that Ray and Vonta Leach have where they needle each other and correct each other if the need arises?
No. That's Ray's relationship with a lot of people, I think. That's not my style. I know it's all fun, but I think at my age, I shouldn't be doing that. I'm more of a grandfather. I just kind of sit back, and if I have anything to say, I'll try to say something positive, but I don't usually play that needling game.
When you look back at your NFL career, how have those experiences shaped you?
I don’t think people change. I think they definitely mature. But I think the essence of what I am today is the same as when I was five years old. It’s just maturity. I’ve become a healthier, fuller expression of that essence. And so I look at my career and there have been ups and downs, a lot of peaks and valleys. But my idea of success started to change, and before, I thought success meant numbers and yards. Now I really think of success as being maturity. Sometimes success will get in the way of maturity — at least temporarily. So I guess I look back and I see that I’ve been able to survive success and keep gaining maturity.
If you could step into a time machine, what would you say to the younger version of you and what do you think the younger version of you say to the current version?
Well, I think the younger me would have appreciated someone who understood him and could guide him in a way that felt natural, that felt genuine. And then what I would say to the younger me is try to explain the importance of success as far as feeling good about yourself. There's more to life than success, and if you can try to be more well-rounded, you'll be able to enjoy your success more. It won't own you or control you.
When you joined the Ravens, did you have any trepidation about how the players in the locker room would receive you?
Not really. The first person I ran into was Ray Lewis, and he seemed so happy to see me. So all the trepidation was gone right away. But it's different, though, when you've been on one team for a long time and then you go into a different locker. Not only do you have to learn the playbook, but you have to learn the unwritten rules of the locker room and everybody's attitudes of how things are done. It was an adjustment, but it was a pleasant surprise. For the first couple of weeks, everything that I learned made me feel good about being here — everything from the way we lift weights to the practice schedule to Coach [John] Harbaugh's receptivity to the players and what's going on with us. It was just a welcome change.
Did you have a mentor during the early stages of your NFL career?
I really didn’t have one. I was kind of on my own. That’s why I made a lot of mistakes, but at the same time, I was able to learn from those mistakes. I think I recognized at an early age that in order to find out the way things worked, I was most comfortable with doing it and finding out myself.
Do you wish you had a mentor?
I do, but I think it’s very rare to find a competent mentor. There are different degrees of competency, but for me, it would have had to have been very specific to me. I mean, right on. But I think the best way to help people is if you’ve been where they’ve been, and I think we all have slightly different roads, and I think my road has been so unique that it would have been very difficult to find someone who thought the way I did and kind of came up the way I did.
You’ve been described as quiet or shy in various media outlets. Are you comfortable with those adjectives?
I don’t like them. I think if I were a college professor, no one would say I was uncomfortable about being shy because that might be expected. But I think because of people’s stereotypes, they think of a football player as someone who is very outgoing and I’m not. I’m comfortable if someone says I’m reserved or introverted. I think those are OK. But I don’t think shy is accurate.
When you look back at your NFL career, do you have a high point? And conversely, was there a low point?
Yeah, the high point was 2002 when I led the NFL in rushing. And the low point would be my rookie season. Just because I had battled so many injuries and we were 3-13 and [then-head coach Mike] Ditka got fired afterwards. It was a rough start.
Have you talked to Mike Ditka since then?
We’ve talked a little bit. Usually at high points, low points, we’ve talked. One of the greatest compliments he ever paid me was my rookie year in the last game of the season. We were playing Carolina and they were whupping us. We ran a little play-action pass, and the fullback didn’t block his guy. I saw that and kind of reacted and picked up the guy and the quarterback got the ball off. Ditka grabbed me and said, “If you keep playing football like that, you’ll play for a long time.”
Throughout your playing days, is there one coach who has influenced you the most?
I would say my coach in my first three years of college, John Mackovic, because I was 18 years old and the way that he approached football – and a lot of coaches say this – but for him, literally, football was a metaphor for life. The way he dealt with us on the field and off the field was exactly the same. He expected us to be gentlemen and within that, he gave us a lot of freedom to express ourselves openly. So I really felt that I had the support and space to grow.
When you were at Texas, did you have the nickname “The Texas Tornado”?
It wasn’t a nickname. When they came out with the Sports Illustrated article, that’s what they put on there. My only nickname was, they used to call me “Little Earl” after Earl Campbell.
Did you like that nickname?
It was a joke in the running backs room. We had a tailback named Shon Mitchell, and Shon was a comedian. He was from Austin and he was really funny. I was everyone’s favorite and would get special attention. So he used to make fun. The name was used more to make fun. I hadn’t won the Heisman Trophy just as a freshman, but everyone treated me as if I had, and he would use it as a joke. I liked that coming from him.
As a former Heisman winner, you still get to vote, right? Whom did you vote for last week?
You played outside linebacker and strong safety in high school before devoting yourself fully to running back. Is there a part of you that wishes you had stayed on defense to deliver the hits instead of absorbing them?
Well, that’s the way I try to run the ball. But even as a defensive player, I was a hitter, but I just loved the strategy of trying to figure out what the offense was trying to do. I loved the mental part of it.
What did you think of the "Run, Ricky, Run" documentary as part of ESPN's "30 For 30" series?
I was involved in it a lot. It started off as an idea that I had, and then over seven years, it progressed into the "30 For 30." But it's as accurate as you can be with the amount of footage that they had to work with and how much they had to leave on the cutting floor.
When you decide to end your playing career, would you entertain becoming a coach?
I don't think so. I love football, but I really don't believe that I would make the decision to be around this kind of intensity for the rest of my life. I've learned a lot, and I've done a lot, and it's been a great experience, but I don't think I was born to be a football player or a football coach. Obviously, it's been a big chunk of my life, but I think there are other things that I would be better served to pursue.
With that in mind, what are you considering?
I might end up in 15 years coming back to coach, but I'd like to go back to school. I enjoy learning. I want to go to medical school and eventually practice psychiatry.
There's different parts in the field and I think I want to be an analyst. My hero is Carl Jung just because he was able to look at human psyche scientifically using his own mind as an experiment. He was able to help a lot of people dramatically, starting from the inside. Being an introverted person, I spend a lot of time with my own thoughts. So I think I've learned a lot these past couple years, and I think I'd be able to help. And I would enjoy it.
Do you think patients would be more open to confiding in you based on who you are?
I think football players would. But I’d like to think that a lot of people would. I’ve just done so many different things that I think I can relate to so many different people.