By Michael E. Miller
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The thought initially came to him during the 2003 football season, his second with the Dolphins. He was 26 years old and had been playing organized ball for a dozen seasons. The first time he touched a football as an eighth-grader in San Diego, the kid — born Errick Lynne Williams Jr. — ran it down the middle for 75 yards while his coaches stood agape on the sidelines. The run was reversed, he recalls, due to a penalty on the play. Raised by a single mom who bought him a football so the neighborhood kids would be forced to play with him, Ricky didn't know much about the game: "I just loved to run."
Back then, sports were an escape from a childhood saddled with responsibility. His father, Errick L. Williams Sr., had abandoned the family when Ricky was 5 years old. (He has a twin sister, Cassie, and a younger sister, Nisey.) "We were a team," Ricky's mom, Sandy, says of her young family after Errick Sr. departed. And Ricky was the captain. From the age of 2, he would officiously tuck in his twin and switch off her bedside lamp at night. With his dad gone and his mom working, Ricky made ramen noodles and hot dogs for his sisters' suppers.
Ricky's first cousin on his dad's side was Cecil Fielder, the Detroit Tigers slugger and father of Prince Fielder, currently the most powerful hitter in baseball. Ricky apparently inherited their supreme athleticism minus the pudgy gene. He was gleefully violent as a football player. Rushing 2,000 yards as one of the best high school running backs in the country wasn't enough: He also moonlighted as a linebacker because he loved the crush of tackles.
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He hoped to become another Bo Jackson or Deion Sanders. After accepting a scholarship to the University of Texas, he deferred to take a five-figure signing bonus with baseball's Philadelphia Phillies as an outfield prospect. The bonus didn't go to some Lexus dealership. He paid for his sisters' college education and put a down payment on the Austin, Texas house where his mom still lives.
At UT, after his brief flirtation with baseball ended, he became the nation's most hyped young athlete this side of LeBron James. When he broke the NCAA's all-time rushing record in 1998, it wasn't his proudest achievement, he says. Rather, he reveled in the fact that he had made conservatives swallow their stereotypes. "There were these white people from the state of Texas who were shedding a tear [of joy]," he recalls fondly, "and I was this kid with dreads and piercings and tattoos from California."
He won the Heisman Trophy in 1998, his senior year as a Longhorn. He's still proud of the award — good friends say that if he left society to live under a bridge, which always seems a possibility, he would keep the Heisman in his backpack — but it was also the snare that trapped him in others' expectations.
Ricky's first decision that had the sports world scratching its collective head, his choice of Master P as his agent, could have been worse. The rapper and hip-hop mogul negotiated the rookie's absurdly incentive-laden 1999 contract with the New Orleans Saints. But Ricky's first pick for a representative was basketball wild child Dennis Rodman. ("I drink; he smokes," Rodman tells me in a mostly unintelligible, possibly drunken phone interview. "That's about the similarities, motherfucker.")
That summer, Ricky posed in a wedding dress, with Saints head coach Mike Ditka as his tuxedoed groom, for the cover of ESPN: The Magazine. The headline "For Better or Worse" now seems cynically prescient. The Saints forked over a dowry of years of draft picks to snag him, and the football-crazed bayou town played the role of demanding in-law. The team floundered. Ricky, who had grown up in a mostly white neighborhood in California, struggled with life in a place that was fiercely and economically segregated. "The poor people hate the rich people," he says when asked about New Orleans. "The rich people hate the poor people. So when you're black and you're rich, it creates some complications."
There was no place for Ricky. He became resentful of the NFL and the media. He began wearing his helmet during interviews, he says, to send a "message" to reporters who didn't care that there was a human being under there. He realized, for the first time, that people thought he was weird. He wanted to be back at UT, with teammates who were like family. "One day you're a boy," Ricky says, "and you open up your eyes and the next day you're a man, and there's not a transition period."
"He just wasn't comfortable with people and the media," Ditka says. "I think Ricky is a deep thinker. And sometimes when you think too much, you can kill yourself."
It was on a Saints plane trip that Ricky met Kristin Barnes, a lithe and loquacious blonde from Arkansas who was working as a Delta private charter attendant. She was decked out — as required by her bosses — in Saints swag and Mardi Gras beads. He was the strangely modest superstar who helped her collect and clean his teammates' dishes as the two chatted.