People said Ricky Williams was crazy to forgo the NFL and return to the University of Texas for his senior year. The best college player in the country has his reasons.
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HE ISN’T EVEN SUPPOSED TO BE HERE, BUT HE IS everywhere. Sports Illustrated. The New York Times. Three separate interviews for ESPN as well as a major story in ESPN The Magazine. ABC Sports. Dozens of daily papers. He is the most famous college football player in the country. In mid-August, while his civilian classmates hit the Container Store and his football teammates caught their breath between two-a-days, Ricky Williams endured nineteen photo shoots. Dreadlocks, tattoos, and piercings have not gotten this much exposure since the first Lollapalooza.
And a lollapalooza is what Williams’ 1998 season ought to be. He is already a big-time achiever, regardless of whether you measure him by the exciting poetry of his on-field destruction (more than half of his yards come after contact) or the cold, hard numbers that made him the NCAA’s leading rusher and scorer last season. Let’s face it—in 1997, perhaps the University of Texas’ most disappointing year in the post—Darrell Royal era, Ricky Williams was The Show, period. No one would have blamed the junior for leaving UT and turning pro, taking the money and running. But, to the surprise of everyone, he came back for his senior year and a season that promises even more than last year’s. Like a gridiron McGwire (only much faster, according to professional baseball scouts), Williams is expected to rewrite several pages of the record book, including the all-time rushing marks in both UT and NCAA history. Ideally, he will keep on running right into mid-December, when he will report to 19 West Street in New York City to receive football’s most revered piece of hardware: the Heisman trophy, awarded to the finest college football player in the land. Then (again, ideally) Williams, his fellow Horns, and new head coach Mack Brown will barrel through to the first day of 1999 (or, more realistically, the latter part of December 1998) and win a postseason bowl game. The Longhorns have never done that during Williams’ UT career.
Why did Williams return? Really, it was never much of a decision: all that potential college glory versus Sundays with the Arizona Cardinals. Here are ten factors that influenced his decision and will define his senior campaign.
1. He’s a good guy. It’s one of those oft-repeated stories, the one that reveals how big a softie Ricky Williams is: He once accepted a date with a woman he wasn’t really interested in . . . and continued to see her. All this because the guy just didn’t have the stomach to reject her.
Now, one has to wonder who this poor girl is—and how many times she’s going to have to read about herself in some glossy magazine (at least once more, apparently). But the point is that when Williams stepped up to the microphone on January 8 to announce his intentions for the 1998 season, some witnesses had the sense that when it finally came time to look the University of Texas football community in the eye, he just couldn’t bring himself to dash its hopes.
The decision wasn’t quite so spontaneous, but it did come down to the wire. Just days before the moment of truth, Williams had no doubt that he was headed for the pros. “Definitely,” he says now. “I had all the paperwork signed to send to the NFL. I hadn’t turned it in yet, but I had a notary stamp on it and everything.” His mind changed depending on what was on TV. “It was during the NFL playoffs, and the college bowl games too. So every day I’d see an NFL game, I’d want to go to the NFL, and every time I’d see a bowl game, I’d want to stay in college.”
In the end it wasn’t a purely altruistic choice. “I told him, ‘Do what you feel is best for you,’” Mack Brown says. “‘If you don’t need the money, make it a very selfish decision.’ More than anything else, he did what he wanted to do.”
2. The record book. You’re not supposed to admit it. You’re never supposed to say anything other than: “Individual achievements are nice, but I can’t think about those things. It would be great to win the Heisman, but it’s more important that the football team does well.”
Ricky Williams can spin those kinds of clichés with the best of them, but he can also be more forthright. At the season’s outset he needed 1,928 rushing yards to break Tony Dorsett’s all-time career NCAA record of 6,082 and 20 rushing touchdowns to beat Anthony Thompson’s mark of 64. Make no mistake—he wants the glory. “That’s part of loving the game,” he says. “Having a chance to put my name in the record books is a once-in-a-lifetime thing. I knew that if I left, I could only be good, but if I stayed, I could be great.”
Merely looking at the numbers doesn’t do justice to the fact that, barring injury or a meltdown of the offensive line, Williams will leave UT as one of the greatest running backs in college football history. If he breaks the record, ’nuff said, and even if he falls short, he will still have outraced such celebrated backs as O. J. Simpson, Eric Dickerson, and Barry Sanders.
Meanwhile, the one mark Williams will erase for certain is Earl Campbell’s all-time University of Texas rushing record. At the beginning of the season he needed only 289 yards, and it had been suggested that the man they call Little Earl could cover that much turf in the September 5 opener against lightweight New Mexico State. “Ha, ha, ha, hopefully,” Williams said of this notion back then. His loose, genial laugh suggested that he realized how ridiculous it would be even to expect such a performance in a single game, but, yeah, you bet it had crossed his mind, lots of times. As it turned out, he racked up 215 yards before leaving the game with twelve minutes left in the fourth quarter.
3. The trophy. How does the best running back in the country put together the season Williams had last year and not get a free trip to New York for the Heisman ceremony? It’s not like Division I running backs gain 1,893 yards in a season as a matter of course. Only six have ever broken 2,000, and four of those guys won the famous stiff-armed statue. Next thing you know, they’ll give the Heisman to a cornerback.
Williams took the snub hard. “I knew I wasn’t going to win because of our team, but I thought I’d at least get an invite. I was kind of upset about that.” The implication was that on a losing team the yards don’t mean as much. So Ryan Leaf, Peyton Manning, and Randy Moss were summoned to the December ceremony, along with the winner, Michigan’s Charles Woodson. A cornerback. Williams came in fifth in the voting.
Williams hopes to take Manhattan this year, but showing up won’t be enough. “I want to win this time,” he says. There he goes again—being honest. The truth is, everybody—coaches and teammates, fans and journalists—wants him to win this time.
Of course, the usual caveat still applies. “Ricky would give up the Heisman to win games,” Mack Brown promises.
4. 4-7. Indeed. This season may hold the promise of supreme personal achievement, but it is really about redemption for the whole team. All Ricky ever hears when he runs into people he has not seen in a while is “What the hell happened against UCLA?”
“I just want to win,” Williams says. “Going four and seven, losing to, like, Baylor. That’s hard to swallow.”
Williams expects a turnaround this year, and with his backfield partner Ricky Brown plus a full complement of wideouts, he doesn’t expect to shoulder the whole load. “Not at all,” he says. “Our offense is going to be so good that it’s not going to be on me.”
Of course, this does raise the question—what about that NCAA record? Mack Brown acknowledges that he wants “a well-balanced team. It’s unrealistic to expect Ricky to get two thousand yards this year. That’d be great if he accomplishes that, but . . .”
You know the rest. Winning the games is what matters. “Last year we had high expectations, and we failed,” Williams says. “This year they’re going to be lower. I want to surprise the whole country. I want to be on a team where when you watch ESPN in the morning and before the games start, you’re one of the teams that they highlight. We want to be a team in the national spotlight again.”
5. No one expected him to stay. “I wanted to make everybody think I was leaving,” Williams said in the spring. “Everyone thought that anyway, so I figured I’d just play along with them. That was kind of fun for me.”
See, in case the hairdo, the pierced tongue, and the four tattoos hadn’t tipped you off, Ricky Williams is something of a non-conformist. A free spirit. Ricky Williams is not that far removed from being a teenager. Ricky Williams is from California.
Yes, it’s hard to believe, but college football is still played by, well, college kids. The hopes and dreams of the millionaire alums in the sky boxes are inextricably tied to the actions of the same kind of people they can’t have a conversation with at breakfast. And Williams is a perfect portrait of this generation gap. His hair and tattoos dominate the multipage ESPN magazine story about him. Michael Lavine, best known as a rock and roll photographer, contributes striking portraits that carry just the slightest undercurrent of menace, while Dan Le Batard’s article asks the reader to disregard the stereotypes but ticks them off anyway, resulting in an overriding theme of “Ricky Williams looks like a punk-ass gangsta, but he’s actually the sweetest man in the world.” Never mind that by late nineties youth-culture standards Williams’ look is downright mundane. Never mind that anyone with even a passing knowledge of Jamaican culture understands that the dreads are a symbol of peace and love rather than intimidation and violence. What the article really highlights is how conservative the sports world is.
Not that this is any surprise to Williams. “I get it so much that I just expect it,” he says. Austin in general is fairly hospitable to mavericks like Williams. But, he notes with perfect nonchalance, “I’m with the football program. A lot of those guys are older and more conservative.”
Even Earl Campbell has encouraged Williams to visit the barber, which is ironic, considering that 24 years ago Campbell was something of a UT radical himself, not only for his Afro but also for the very color of his skin.
6. Because he loves baseball. Okay, so this one backfired when Williams cut short his summer on the diamond to return to Austin. Back in the spring, however, it was a different story. Williams told reporters that even though UT asked him to spend the summer in Austin, “They need to understand that baseball is my first love, and I’m going to play it.”
Williams has always played baseball, just because he likes to. In high school he almost made the permanent switch to football but was told that his baseball “upside” was too good to ignore. Ultimately, however, he committed to Texas before he was eligible for the amateur baseball draft. He dropped a few rounds and struck a deal with the Philadelphia Phillies. They would pay his tuition to UT and give him a $100,000 signing bonus, much of which he gave to his two sisters for their college tuition. In return, he would swing the bat in the summer.
Unfortunately, he has never been able to get in the hitting groove. Williams says it’s not out of some Michael Jordan—esque difficulty with breaking balls but rather a simple matter of time and focus. “It’s just playing every day. It’s mostly mental,” he says. “To play this game you have to really love to be out there. As I get older and more mature, I’m getting better. I’m starting to love the game more, and I’m having more fun out there.” In the summer of 1997 he started off hitting .315 but then endured a bad slump. In his four years in the Phillies system he has never been able to rise above the lower two rungs of single-A ball.
Nevertheless, the Phillies believe that if he focused on baseball full-time, he could be a major leaguer. He is said to be the fastest player in the entire Philadelphia system. “If there was a way to steal first base, there would be no way to stop Ricky,” one baseball observer says. And he’s got power potential too, both at the plate and heading toward it—catchers don’t look forward to seeing him any more than linebackers do. “No, they don’t like it at all,” Williams says. “I don’t try to kill them, because I can hurt myself, but it gets my teammates pumped up.”
He even finds something to like in the eight-hour bus trips and low-rent motels. “It keeps my feet on the ground to go somewhere and be, like, literally, a no one.” But this summer, things were a little too spartan. After spending two seasons in Piedmont, North Carolina, Williams hoped to be knocked up to the third and highest single-A rung—the Phillies’ Clearwater team. Instead he got shipped off to Batavia, New York, to play in a short-season league. Williams says he had no problem with that. “I was excited to be at Batavia. They explained to me that they wanted to put me where I could get the most at bats.” But another problem developed. Clearwater, the home of the Phillies’ major league spring training, has a large, modern strength and aerobics facility. Batavia, well, doesn’t. Williams had joked with Sports Illustrated earlier this summer that one of the reasons he was glad to be playing baseball was he didn’t have to deal with UT’s imposing strength coach, Jeff “Mad Dog” Madden. But as the baseball season wore on, he worried about his conditioning.
“He called me up and said, ‘Mom, I’m not comfortable with the shape I’m in,’” his mother, Sandy, recalls. “‘I think it’s really important to be there with the team and to get my body in the best physical shape.’”
So he returned. And with the NFL beckoning, is it realistic to think that Williams will continue his two-sport career? “Definitely,” he says. “Definitely. Definitely. I’m thinking about my baseball career as being three or four years down the road.” If he sticks to this plan, Williams will not be the next Bo or Deion so much as the next Brian Jordan, an all-pro caliber football player turned all-star caliber outfielder.
7. College life and college football. The NFL will be around for a long time, but Ricky’s senior year is a unique thing. “There are certain things money can’t buy, like camaraderie, the team being together, loyalty,” he said when he announced his return. This is a year to play football with his friends, whereas next year it’s quite possible his teammates will feel more like co-workers. Yes, like any other student, he isn’t quite ready to jump on the career track. What sounds better—one more year of Sixth Street, Lake Travis, and Chuy’s or morning, noon, and night getting harangued by some whistle-and-clipboard-wielding assistant coach who’s a little on edge because he hasn’t gotten an offensive coordinator’s job yet?
Williams also loves the game of college football too much to leave it. The opportunity to meet and spend time with people like Campbell, Eric Dickerson, and Tony Dorsett (who told him at the Doak Walker Award ceremony in January 1998, “I hope you get 1,927 [yards]”) actually means something to him. Williams didn’t just win the award; he actually knows who Doak Walker is. In fact, Williams befriended the legendary SMU running back, and his faxes and letters have been a source of comfort as Walker recovers from the skiing injury that paralyzed him this past winter.
The only funny thing in all this is that despite the conventional line that Williams is setting an example that it’s better to get a degree than jump to the pros early, he will not graduate from college in the spring of 1999. (Does anyone graduate from the University of Texas in four years?) Williams’ degree progress was hindered more than anything by baseball, which cost him three summer sessions as well as the spring of his freshman year.
But lest you confuse him with Ohio State’s Andy Katzenmoyer, the Heisman candidate who spent the summer on thin academic ice even though he was taking classes like golf and AIDS awareness, Williams, an elementary education major, took seventeen credit hours in the spring of ’98. He will carry a full load again this year. If he continues to play minor league baseball between NFL camps, it will take him that much longer to finish up his studies, but he says he will finish. Even his mother isn’t worried. “He wants to be a teacher really bad,” Sandy Williams says. “That’s one of his dreams, and in order for him to fulfill that dream, he’ll need a degree.” By next May he’ll be one year closer.
8. The academic-apparel-industrial complex got to him. Well, no, of course not. But the university has publicly acknowledged the impact Williams’ decision has had on luxury box and season ticket revenue at the newly renovated Royal-Memorial Stadium. Losing teams don’t usually see increased ticket sales the following season (though the hiring of Mack Brown has something to do with that as well).
Meanwhile, imagine the financial implications of the most popular college football player in the country switching his uniform number. This season Williams is number 34, the digits he wore in high school (and, not incidentally, Bo Jackson’s number). Let’s just say there are a whole lot of Reebok-manufactured authentic University of Texas number 11 jerseys that need replacing.
9. Fame and fortune. But isn’t that what he gave up by not going to the NFL? Even as you read this, Ricky could have been hobnobbing with Terry, Howie, and JB in the studio. He could have been on the sideline sporting a cap that some apparel company paid him to wear. His agent could have been racking up endorsements and investments. Whereas by returning to UT, the only asset Williams has is the $2.8 million Lloyds of London will cough up if he is badly injured this season.
But injury is the only scenario in which returning to college doesn’t pay off bigger for Williams in the long run. Last year he was expected to be a top-seven NFL draft pick; this year he will most likely be in the top three and possibly the number one choice. The difference between the first pick and the seventh pick is usually several million dollars in cash and untold more in recognition.
And is there any doubt that Ricky’s Q-rating—the mysterious, heavily researched mathematical figure that is used to measure a celebrity’s popularity, likability, and sex appeal—will be huge? Campbell and Royal have warned Williams that his “radical” look could hinder his professional success in the outside world, but have they gotten a look at the world lately? (And is this the same Darrell Royal who hangs with Willie?) Unless Williams’ ambitions lie in the area of pro-am golf tournaments and motivational speaking, his dreads can only help him. Imagine a kinder, gentler Dennis Rodman, one who shows up for practice, one who has all the iconoclasm but none of the bitterness. Then imagine he’s a star running back instead of just the underrated rebounder on Michael Jordan’s team. Give him the Heisman and the all-time record and the number one draft pick. Throw in a college degree and a little left field for the Phillies on the side. Think Letterman and Vanity Fair and the shoe companies won’t come calling? Maybe Williams will be the next Bo Jackson after all.
10. Have we already mentioned that he’s a good guy?