Wednesday, November 14, 2007

The Ballad of Ricky Williams

More like a man/Flying from something that he dreads than one/Who sought the thing he loved

Ricky Williams is back in football, and even though he’ll never tell you so, I don’t doubt that anybody is less happy about it than Ricky Williams. I grew up in Miami, and though I was never a big Dolphins fan, I wound up watching a lot of Ricky Williams. I was even living in Miami when he announced his early retirement from football to travel the world (or, more accurately, get high in as many different countries as possible). Having witnessed his prior violations from something of a closer vantage point than the most football fans, I couldn’t help but be taken aback at the most recent violation, which led to the suspension from which he now returns. The first violations had been foolish, but this seemed almost willful, and it is with this, in fact, that I think most NFL pundits took (and still take, in some cases) issue. Didn’t he understand what was at stake? Didn’t he realize the talent he has and the rare opportunity to once again use them he’d been given? What could possibly drive anyone to throw all of that away? These are questions without answers to the typical sports pundit, eager to expound and dissect and examine; however it is this same obsessive examination that prevents the answers from emerging. Explanations for the path of Williams’s career won’t be found in the realm of examination and psychological dissection; instead, they’re the result of a conflict between two warring passions that have been fighting inside of Ricky since he arrived in Miami:

Love and Escape.

Watch Ricky Williams’s early career with the Dolphins to understand the first half of the above tandem. Having been so unhappy in New Orleans, with an overbearing coach and a poor system, Williams arrived in Miami to find a city with open arms, ready to embrace the castaway. He flourished. The man ran like a big, destructive puppy. He was nimble enough to find holes in lines and powerful enough to demolish anyone who stepped into those holes. His routes were like symphonies whose collisions were like cymbal clashes; in Ricky’s eyes, you saw the joy of a man fulfilling what he believed to be his purpose.

That was love. The game loved Ricky, having blessed him with physical gifts and instincts that made him a natural for his role on the field, and Ricky loved the game, enjoying every milestone his talents allowed him to achieve. It was giddy passion, and it was the kind of blissful, idiotic love that is as charming to witness as it is impossible to maintain. This love proved to be no different.

Ricky Williams knows, perhaps better than any athlete ever, what a terrible thing that love can become. One day, maybe the result of his drug use, maybe the result of his deep psychological scars, or maybe just because the wind blew differently, something changed inside of Ricky, and the joy suddenly left his eyes. Football, the love of his life, just stopped being important, and all of a sudden Ricky shouldered the full weight of that unreciprocated love on his shoulders with every carry. So he did the only thing he could do: He left. Rather than face his jilted lover every day, he chose to leave it behind…except he couldn’t. Financial constraints tied him inextricably to that which he’d hoped to leave, and so he was forced every day to return to the scene of his betrayal.

Watch Ricky Williams’s play after his first return to understand the last half of the above tandem. If you ever visit a pound, you’ll see at least one dog that barks, growls, and leaps against the cage around him. The life is there, but now, with nowhere to go, that vigor has been converted into a frenzied effort to find one thing: Escape. Ricky played like a caged dog in 2005. The physicality was still there, but now there was no pleasure in anything he did. Then end zone meant nothing; all Ricky wanted to do was find the running lane would lead to freedom. The sadness that no run, no matter how long, no matter how dazzling, could take him to this destination inspired the sadness in his entire demeanor.

So of course he failed a drug test the next year, and of course he violated the drug policy yet again recently; it’s the only way out Ricky Williams knows, be it as a psychedelic vacation from the reality in which he’s trapped or as a literal expulsion from the league he can no longer bear to be a part of. It’s also the reason why, even if he has defeated his tendency toward self medication, I don’t believe Ricky will last long in this latest attempt at playing in the NFL. Williams isn’t in love with marijuana as much as he is not in love with NFL football. So despite what the media says about this “distraction” who “doesn’t get it” remember one thing: Ricky Williams understood, and understands, exactly what he is doing better than anyone on the outside can understand. Ricky Williams’s story is indeed tragic, but it is not the tragedy of squandered talents and lost chances at stardom that the media would have you believe. To Ricky, it’s about something much worse: it’s a tragedy of love, and the inability to ever fully escape that love.

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