As one of only 26 NFL players to rush for more than 10,000 yards, Ricky Williams will go down as one of the most productive running backs in league history.
But for all his individual accomplishments on the field, Williams’ unique 13-year (11-season) NFL odyssey may be remembered more for his life off it.
On Tuesday, Williams retired after helping the Baltimore Ravens reach the AFC title game as a backup for starter Ray Rice, ending his career as one of the most enigmatic star athletes in recent memory.
Williams, 34, has already retired once, after he was hit with a four-game suspension for violating the league’s drug policy before the 2004 season — only one of several strange turns to his career.
1998: Williams rushes for 2,124 yards and 27 touchdowns in his senior season at Texas, becoming the NCAA’s all-time career rushing leader. (He was passed by Wisconsin’s Ron Dayne the following year.)
1999: Williams is drafted No. 5 overall by the New Orleans Saints after head coach Mike Ditka unloads numerous top picks to move up in the draft.
2002: After three years in New Orleans, Williams is traded to Miami for two first-round picks and two fourth-rounders. Williams rushes for a career high 1,853 yards and 16 touchdowns on 383 carries as the Dolphins go 9-7.
2004: Williams tests positive for marijuana for a second time, earning a four-game suspension. After a brief conversation with Dolphins coach Dave Wannstedt, he retires. During his year off, Williams studied holistic medicine in California and was the subject of the revealing ESPN film, “Run Ricky Run.”
2005: Williams returns to the Dolphins, and rushes for 172 yards in Week 16 while splitting time with Ronnie Brown. In a “60 Minutes” interview, Williams said his massive contracts “bound me more than freed me” and admits he retired due to fear about his third failed drug test becoming public knowledge.
2006: Williams is suspended for the entire season for violating the league’s drug policy for a fourth time, and then signs with the CFL’s Toronto Argonauts, becoming the highest-paid running back in the league.
2007: Williams is reinstated after claiming he had given up marijuana. In his first game back, Steelers linebacker Lawrence Timmons steps on his shoulder, tearing his pectoral muscle and ending his season.
2009: Williams rushes for 1,121 yards as Miami’s starting running back after Ronnie Brown suffers a season-ending injury.
2011: Williams signs a two-year contract with Baltimore. On Feb. 7, in the team’s regular season finale, he cracks 10,000 career rushing yards.
Through it all, Williams loner lifestyle and focus on things beyond the game, frustrated and fascinated teammates and fans. For some, Williams will forever be cast as a supremely talented athlete with wasted potential. For others, his candidness and willingness to share personal struggles that included social anxiety disorder.
As SBNation’s Bomani Jones wrote Wednesday:
In the end, he played 11 seasons over 13 years. The last six years for the money, even though Williams thought pro sports were corrupt. He did it for the same reasons most of us go to work — grownups have bills to pay. It's almost ironic to think of that. Ricky looked and ran like a football player, but seemed nothing like one. He didn't seem like anyone. But when he returned to the NFL, he did so because he was just like us.
Truth be told, he’s only the Ricky. It’s fitting that his legacy will be less about football than himself. The man he was, the one he wasn’t, and the one he’s still becoming.
And Williams continued to impact those around him in his final season, supporting Rice’s career year as his primary backup.
“I had the best year with him beside me, and that was no accident,” Rice said. “I believe that Ricky Williams is a Hall of Famer. All that he has done in his career, he deserves that.”
So what’s next for Ricky?
“The NFL has been an amazing page in this chapter of my life,” Williams said. “I pray that all successive adventures offer me the same potential for growth, success and most importantly, fun. ... As for what’s next, I am excited about all the opportunities ahead — continuing my education, running The Ricky Williams Foundation and whatever other opportunities present themselves.”
"My world can be so much larger than that football and sidelines that confine. To me, that is what the @Rickykids is all about"-RW— Ricky Williams (@RickyWilliams) February 8, 2012
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