Robert Smith wasn't surprised.
Tailback Ricky Williams stunned Miami Dolphins Coach Dave Wannstedt when he telephoned Friday to tell his coach that he was retiring at 27 after five NFL seasons, and it was big news when Williams's decision became public two days later.
But Smith had spoken to Williams last month, and he could easily relate to Williams's comment that he no longer had the passion to continue playing football. Smith retired from the NFL after a 2000 season in which he ran for 1,521 yards for the Minnesota Vikings, walking away from the sport when he was 28 and about to cash in on his rushing exploits in free agency.
"I don't think there's any question he's feeling the same thing I felt," Smith said by telephone yesterday. "He told me he was going to retire after this season so when it happened, I was surprised about the timing, but I wasn't surprised about anything else. I knew he was going to retire. . . . Football was what I did, but it was not who I was. I think he [Williams] feels the same way. When we talked about it, I understood exactly what he was saying. There are so many more important things to do in life than sitting in a meeting room getting ready to play a football game."
Smith and Williams became the latest members of a distinguished list of runners who left the NFL in their primes. Jim Brown retired in 1966 at 30, after leading the league in rushing in eight of his nine seasons, and began an acting career with the 1967 film "The Dirty Dozen." Barry Sanders left the Detroit Lions in the summer of 1999 at 30, while on the verge of breaking Walter Payton's NFL career rushing record (a mark now held by Emmitt Smith).
"Barry had just reached the point in his career where he had enough money and he had enough of playing football," veteran agent Peter Schaffer, who represents Sanders, said by phone yesterday. "Everybody wants to group all of these running backs together -- Jim Brown, Barry Sanders, Robert Smith, Ricky Williams -- but I think it's just coincidental that they all play the same position. Each one of those guys made their decision individually. For Jim Brown, it was the movie. For today's player . . . the common denominator is going to be, when you make enough money, you can walk away.
"People are used to the way it was in the old days, when players retired because they lost their talent to play. They didn't have the same kind of money. Ronnie Lott, Willie Mays -- people like that kept playing until they couldn't play any more. A guy like LaVar Arrington is going to make $15 million or $20 million in the first six years of his career. At some point, it's enough. . . . That takes having to play more seasons for money out of the equation. Barry was very astute with his money and he had enough that he never had to work another day. There's a pain threshold in football. There are collisions. People can get hurt. People can get paralyzed. At some point that factors in."
Williams, if he remains retired, will forfeit about $11 million in salary over the next three seasons. Associates estimate he has made about $15 million over the past five years. They call him a smart, pensive person who has struggled to deal with social anxiety disorder and perhaps is a bit immature, not realizing that there are politics in the rest of the world just like there are in football. He reportedly has tested positive for marijuana in two drug tests. But clearly, he knows there is more to life than football: After his agent, Leigh Steinberg, gave him "The Da Vinci Code," Williams called to talk about the book for an hour. Over the weekend, Steinberg called Williams "an American original."
But even as Williams pondered his football future for weeks this offseason, he gave the Dolphins no hint of his plans.
"I was completely surprised, totally surprised," Wannstedt said. "Ricky showed up [for the team's offseason activities] a pound or two lighter than usual. He came to the practices. He came to the meetings. Why would you come out here and run wind sprints in 90-degree temperatures [and then retire]? . . . If he hadn't shown up, then maybe a red flag would have gone up."
Williams has said he won't reconsider his decision, but others aren't so sure. Steinberg leaves open the possibility of Williams returning to the NFL. And Williams is prone to stretching a tale. When he left Hawaii over the weekend for a trip to Japan, he said in a Miami Herald interview that he didn't have a return ticket. In fact, an associate said, Williams is scheduled to return to the Miami area this week.
Still, the Lions have not lured Sanders back. Smith said yesterday that he temporarily felt a tug to play again when he attended the funeral of former Vikings teammate Korey Stringer in 2001, but he never came particularly close to returning. He is involved in construction and software companies and has written a book, "The Rest of the Iceberg: An Insider's View on the World of Sport and Celebrity."
Smith said he won't play again and doesn't think that Williams will, either. "I doubt it," Smith said. "I highly doubt it. He seemed like he was happy with his decision. He seems ready to move on."
But Smith doesn't expect too many other NFL players to follow, even with the financial security provided by today's contracts.
"You have to be around NFL players and be around the lifestyle to realize that too much is never enough," Smith said. "So many of these guys have to make more money and become more famous. It's not surprising that people get addicted to the game and to the lifestyle."