The Miami Dolphins put aside their skepticism and welcomed back Ricky Williams on Monday. The prodigal-son tailback participated in the opening practice of training camp with the team he abandoned last season, then publicly issued the apology that he made first to his teammates Sunday when he addressed them in the locker room at the club's training facility.
"I realized by making that decision [to retire last summer], I affected the team in a negative way," Williams said during a news conference. "I'm very regretful that people were hurt in the process of me doing that, and I do realize that to a lot of people it comes off as being very, very selfish. So I do offer an apology to all of the people who were negatively affected by my decision."
Other Dolphins players took that as a first step for Williams in rebuilding his relationship with them.
"He owed us an apology," defensive tackle Larry Chester said. "He did that. If God can forgive me every day for the things I've done and will possibly do, then how could I possibly hold a grudge or have any animosity toward him as far as his decisions? We accept him back with open arms and hope for the best."
Williams abruptly informed former Dolphins coach Dave Wannstedt just before training camp opened last summer that he was retiring, then spent the year soul-searching and roaming the globe. The former Pro Bowl selection said Monday that he enjoyed his time away from football, and had trouble putting into words exactly why he was coming back.
"Why? I don't know," said Williams, who faces a four-game suspension by the NFL at the outset of the upcoming season for a violation of the league's substance abuse policy. "I mean, to answer that question -- I've been away studying a lot of alternative theories about life. To go into the answer, it can't be picked up in a sound bite or really easily understood. The best way I can put it is that I'm back here to work."
He acknowledged, however, that he has returned in part because of an $8.6 million judgment that the Dolphins secured against him for breach of contract. "I can't say it didn't play into my decision," Williams said.
He said his admitted past marijuana use is behind him, but he declined to specify how long he plans to remain in the sport. He said he never stopped loving football and missed being around his teammates, but found his time away to be "an incredible year." He didn't watch any of the Dolphins games last season, he said, and didn't speak to any of his teammates during his time away.
"The issue that I had was playing football within the confines of the NFL and being an NFL football player," Williams said. "I think I had a problem with some of the rules and just living that life. I wasn't very comfortable with it, so I had to walk away. . . . Before I left, I had a different concept of freedom. I thought freedom was doing whatever you wanted, whenever you wanted to do it. Being away and having a chance to learn a lot about myself, I realized that freedom is having the strength to be in any situation and be content. I see this as a good opportunity for me to work on that."
The Dolphins' new coach, Nick Saban, has a reputation as a taskmaster but has managed to win the trust of his free-spirited running back. He said he is not worried about Williams's previous transgressions.
"If my stockbroker called me today, I wouldn't be interested in what a stock traded at five years ago," Saban said. "I'd want to know what it's done today and what it's going to do in the future. That is the mind-set that we have on this. . . . I don't try to figure him out. I try to support him and be helpful to him in every way that we can so that he can be successful."
Several Dolphins players said they weren't holding any grudges, and Williams said the reception that he received from his teammates was "surprisingly positive."
Linebacker Zach Thomas said he didn't blame the club's 4-12 record last season solely on Williams's exit, and added: "It takes some time, but we're taking him back in. We are taking his word."
In his locker-room speech Sunday, Williams said he told his teammates he was committed to remaining with the club and pledged to do his best to limit the distractions created by his return.
"I didn't know so many people would come up to me and give me a hug and tell me they were happy to have me back," Williams said.
Williams's agent, Leigh Steinberg, was on hand for Monday's proceedings and will spend the coming weeks attempting to resolve two major financial issues with the Dolphins -- the $8.6 million judgment, and a clause in Williams's contract that reduced his salary from $3.7 million to $540,000 for the upcoming season because of his retirement. The two sides could negotiate a settlement of the judgment and might attempt to work out a compromise on Williams's income.
Williams weighed in at 213 pounds, 13 pounds lighter than his listed playing weight in 2003. Saban declined to speculate on the chances that Williams, 28, eventually will be traded by the Dolphins, who used the second overall selection in the NFL draft in April on Auburn tailback Ronnie Brown. For now, it was enough for the Dolphins and enough for Williams that he was back on a football field.
"I was here," Williams said. "And then I went to the other side of the world, literally, to a quiet place. . . . Sitting in there [Sunday] and hearing the music in the locker room and being around the guys, it kind of hit me. But the work I've been doing in the last year really helped me because I found myself in a positive, happy place."