Run, Ricky, Run

Ricky Williams is the reason I never played college football.

Well, perhaps I should halt a bit. The real reason I never played college football was that I was 145 pounds, wasn't especially fast and I wasn't especially good at the game of tackle football. But Ricky Williams represented the point when I realized that college football was probably going to be beyond my grasp. And honestly, that maybe I didn't want to play college football all that badly.


Whenever we have dreams growing up, those dreams typically have two main points: a beginning, and an end.

You want to be a fireman because well, you get to slide down a pole and drive around in a really big truck and handle a hose that made Sunday afternoons with the backyard water slide seem like child's play. That's the beginning.

And the end typically comes when you realize that maybe being a fireman isn't for you because you're afraid of heights. Oh, and that fires are dangerous.

For me, Florida State quarterback Charlie Ward — and ironically now, the Houston Westbury coach — represented the beginning of the college football dream. Sure, I had seen college football before Ward, but he was the first one to give it national relevance, beyond watching the local team win the Aloha Bowl on TV. He was a sleek fighter jet, a player with awe-inspiring speed and a powerful arm who completed 70 percent of his passes.

When I'd go out in the backyard to play football with friends, I'd pretend that I was Charlie Ward, eluding the defense and hurling another touchdown pass.

But if Ward was that fighter jet, Williams was the nuclear bomb, the weapon after which, nothing was the same.


In the fall of 1998, I was in my junior year of high school. And playing in the largest division in Kansas, I played with, and against, some players who are now in the NFL (Darren Sproles was in our league). Several others were starters in Division I, while at least another wound up a Division II All-American. That's not a brag, humble or otherwise. I didn't play enough, or well enough, to brag about high school exploits. The point is just that I had seen talent up-close and personal.

Yet watching Williams on television was absolutely shocking. I often say about recruits now that they're members of the "things that big shouldn't move that fast" club. And Williams might have been my charter member.

Two years later, my dad bought me a glossy book published by ABC Sports, the College Football All-Time All-America Team. Williams, of course, is in the book (he's a third-teamer, while fellow Longhorn legend Earl Campbell is a second-teamer). The book listed relevant physical stats for each player. And the Texas terror Williams was summed up thusly: "5-10, 236 pounds, 40-yard dash: 4.4".


Once per year, the Kansas City Star did an insert about all the local high school football teams.

And on our team, they made a big deal about our huge offensive line (two players from my senior class were multi-year D1 starters), that averaged between 230 to 240 pounds per man.

Those players were high school bodies. And they were built like linemen. But Texas employed a running back who was the size of our linemen, and built like a Greek Adonis. Oh, and that 4.4-second 40 meant that he was awfully quick to generate his piston-like legs for more momentum, the better to run you over.

As a (really bad) high school safety, those attributes were enough to be terrifying. When you play free safety, there are two kinds of scary players that you don't want to see break loose. The first is a guy with the speed and moves to embarrass you. The second is a big player who can run over you. That made Williams doubly scary for an aspiring college footballer.


There are certain moments in life that you never forget where you were at. The same, of course, is true of sports. I remember watching Mark McGwire slug his record-setting home run live on my dad's recently bought big-screen TV.

And I remember sitting at a restaurant in 1998, watching Williams break a few tackles and burst into the clear, hearing Brent Musburger bellow "Hello, record book!" as Williams then, after a long run, found the right cutback to make it into the end zone against Texas A&M.

With one 60-yard touchdown burst, Williams broke the NCAA record for career rushing. While doing it, big No. 34 showed every trait that made him so overwhelmingly effective as a football player at Texas.

I remember being inspired. What a great, great accomplishment. And I remember also thinking: if college football has players like that, maybe, just maybe, I don't belong there.


The thing is, college football didn't have players like that. College football had a player, singular, like that. Williams's time at Texas was done before I ever would have tossed on a college jersey. But he came along at such an influential time, I'll never forget him.

Williams retired Tuesday after an NFL career that will have most saying 'what if.' He rushed for more than 10,000 yards, one of only 26 players ever to do so. But people will wonder what could have happened had Williams not been so much of a rogue, a wild card. By all accounts, Williams was different, somebody not defined by football. Some see that as admirable. Others, not so much.

What seems clear to me is that somewhere between "Hello, record book" and his first retirement, Williams seemed to fall out of love with football, or at least the pressures associated with playing football at the NFL level. What was amazing to me was that, in this last go-round, you could tell that he was enjoying himself again. That some of that old joy was creeping back in.


It isn't hard to find out what Ricky Williams means to Texas fans. Simply mention his name, and the smiles come out. The never-ending loop of Longhorn highlights start up in their heads and they talk about their memories of one of the greatest Horns of all time.

In Austin, it's almost like Williams enjoys a Rockwellian fame. Forget the pro career, the "Run, Ricky, Run" 30-for-30 and anything negative that happened after his time on the 40 Acres. He's still in a Texas jersey here, his burnt orange jersey glowing to the sky as he outraced defenders for yet another touchdown. His fame here was generated on Saturdays, and what he accomplished on Sundays is for another crowd.

But part of me wonders whether that's the way that it should be. See, I have a different image of Williams now, one that varies from the comic book superhero with the ability to bench press a Volkswagen. But, to my line of thinking, it's no less impressive.

Williams achieved the dream of so many young boys running across open-field lots in America. He made it to, and succeeded in, the NFL. Yet that wasn't Ricky's dream. His dream was to find himself. To know something more of himself than running with a ball under his arm. And I believe he found that before coming back for his final jaunt through the league.

Sure, maybe his speed wasn't quite as good with the layoff. Maybe he was rusty. Maybe he missed the 15,000-yard barrier because of the obstacles he laid in front of himself. But Williams bravely sauntered into a dark tunnel that most of us don't have the courage to. It was a flawed journey (as they always are), one that ran the gamut from marijuana use to alienating those close to him (according to the 30-for-30).

Williams failed during that time period. I think he would probably tell you the same thing. But here's the rub: after all of that, Ricky Williams emerged on the other side.

Williams represented the end of the college football dream for me because I realized I just didn't have the ability to go out and tackle players who had almost 100 pounds on me while still running faster than I did. That he let himself go with a bright NFL future ahead of him represented the death of the dreams of others.

But with the way he came back, found himself and began living on his terms, that could be the beginning of another dream. One that ultimately might be a more worthy accomplishment.

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