On the eve of the NFL playoffs, Ricky Williams was standing in front of his locker with a book in his hand when a reporter approached him and started to ask a few questions. The reporter wanted to talk about what an interesting and strange trip his career has been, especially now that it might be drawing to a close, but he didn't want to offend Williams by suggesting he should hang up his cleats any time soon.
The reporter was attempting to verbally tap dance around the idea that Williams might be in the "twilight of his career" — while at the same time concerned that phrase might come across as dismissive — when Williams politely interjected.
"Man, I'm definitely in the twilight of my career," he said, and then he laughed and shook his head. "Definitely. I've just been lucky that going into my twilight has been gradual."
It's a little hard to believe it's been 12 years since Williams entered the NFL in 1999, if only because his career has taken so many unusual twists and turns during that time. He may not have maximized his potential as a football player, but his journey as a human being has been oddly fascinating. He's worn virtually every label you could throw at him, including: savior, petulant malcontent, moody superstar, weirdo, philosopher, quitter, drug addict, and relentless competitor.
This year in Baltimore, he managed to earn a label that would have been difficult to envision a decade ago, but it's one that he actually doesn't mind. He's become the Ravens wise old sage. He hasn't made a major impact on the field this year, rushing for just 444 yards on 108 carries. But he did become just the 26th player in NFL history to rush for 10,000 yards earlier this season, and he's definitely been an important figure in the locker room for a number of younger players. Ray Rice has said repeatedly he believes Williams' arrival Baltimore is the best thing that's happened to him since he entered the NFL.
"Ricky is a guy that, as much as he's been through, he still wants to learn," Rice said. "He asks me questions; I ask him questions. We're always picking each other's brains. He's humbled me."
And this chapter of Williams' career isn't finished yet either. People focused almost entirely on the portion of Ed Reed's comments this week where he said Joe Flacco was "rattled" by the Texans' defense in Baltimore's 20-13 playoff victory, but in the same interview, Reed also suggested Williams receive more carries. That's certainly a possibility Sunday when the Ravens travel to Foxborough to face the Patriots with a Super Bowl berth on the line. And if he does happen, Williams feels like he'll be ready for it. How could he not? At this point in his career, he's mature enough to handle pretty much anything.
"I think different people deal with different stages different ways," Williams said. "When people reach the end of their life, they tend to gain a some perspective. I look at it like I'm nearing the end of my football life, so hopefully I have some perspective, too."
Once a legend
Williams combination of intelligence and candor is one of the reasons he's grown, in recent years, into one of the most interesting interviews in sports. He's up front about the fact that he didn't handle it particularly well when he became famous at such a young age, but when you think about it, who would have? In a state that has a permanent case of football fever, Williams was treated like a god. Ravens defensive lineman Cory Redding was recruited to play for the University of Texas after Williams had already graduated, but he quickly realized the entire town of Austin viewed him more like a deity than a college kid.
"When you meet the living legend in Austin, you don't get too close to him," Redding said. "This year was the first year I actually got the chance to really know him. He's always been quiet and reserved, but I think in some ways he's the same guy I met back when I was a little snot-nosed freshman."
On some level, Williams says that's true, but he's a lot more comfortable now that he's 34 than he was when he was 22. You could even listen to the evidence over the airwaves of Baltimore this year. Every Wednesday during the season, Williams co-hosted a two-hour radio show from The Green Turtle in Owings Mills on 105.7 The Fan, and in addition to football, he spoke openly and honestly about his life, including some of his darker days. When a fan called in recently and wanted to know what it's like to still be under the thumb of the NFL's strict drug testing policy, Williams was happy to talk about it, and explain in detail the procedures he still has to adhere to.
It's a far cry from the player who used to hate interviews so much, he would wear his helmet in front of reporters and mumble one-word answers while refusing to make eye contact.
"Again, a lot of that is perspective," Williams said. "When I was younger, I think I viewed the media as more of an enemy. Now I realize, they have a job to do, they're just trying to do it, and I don't feel adversarial. And as I get more comfortable with what I have to say, it becomes a little more fun."
A different view
Williams believes the Ravens organization has actually played a big role in how he's feeling these days, and that it's one of the main reasons he'd like to return next year if the team still wants him. He signed a 2-year, $2.6 million deal prior the season, and still feels it's the best decision he could have made at this point in his career, even though he finished with the fewest carries of his career for a full season.
"There's been times when I've been on a good team and I've been successful, but I didn't enjoy coming to work every day," Williams said. "I think as you get older, your main concern becomes success, and it becomes the quality of life. Of course success goes into quality of life, but I think my main goal now when I wake up in the morning is 'How can I be happy when I go into work?' How can I take care of my body and maximize the time I have left?' "
Williams is a vegan, which he believes has helped stay in excellent shape at an age when other running backs his age see their bodies break down. And he's also a big believer in the benefits of yoga, so much so that he became a certified instructor several years ago. (He taught a class to raise money for charity at Stevenson University in December.) Williams even credits the spiritual side of yoga with helping him steer clear of marijuana, the drug he once used regularly to deal with anxiety, and the drug that ultimately led to multiple suspensions and a brief "retirement" from the NFL.
He's even tried to convince a few of his teammates to grab a mat and join him this year.
"Ricky doesn't say much, but he's real smart. He looks at the world so different," said Ravens fullback Vonta Leach. "He thinks outside the box in a way that just different from everybody else. He hasn't tried to get me to do it, but he keeps telling me yoga would be good for me. That tells you a lot. Not too many football players are yoga instructors."
Williams is fairly candid about feeling a bit torn between two worlds. Unlike Ray Lewis, who insisted last week he has no plans to retire right now and hasn't given any thought to what he'll do after football is over, Williams has already begun to formulate a plan. He plans to go to medical school, and eventually become a psychiatrist. Ask him what books he's been reading lately and he digs into his locker and pulls out a copy of Carl Jung's autobiography, "Memories, Dreams and Reflections." Williams says he considers Jung his "hero."
"Philosophically, when you have a profession where you're helping other people, your life is more rewarding," Williams said. "It's something I want to do. I enjoy science, I enjoy being around people, and I enjoy prestige. I know I'm going to miss the intensity [of football], so I thought 'How can I encompass all the things I'm going to miss and have a second career that's going to fulfill me for the rest of my life?' I love to learn, I spent most of my time reading, and I love the grind. I've had to fix myself over the years, and I think I understand that process, so I think I'll be good at [psychiatry.]"
In the meantime, there is still a lot of football to be played, and there is one more label Williams wouldn't mind wearing before he's done: Super Bowl champ.
"I understand when this is over, I'm going to miss it," Williams said. "When you take things for granted, and they're gone, you miss them more. But I think when you really appreciate what you have, and you suck all the juice out of it, you can take it and use it to propel you forward, to fuel whatever you want to do next."