In 1999, Ricky Williams received a $9 million signing bonus for joining the NFL’s New Orleans Saints, yet just five years later was living, by choice, at a $7-a-day campground. Despite earning tens of millions over a 12-year pro football career, the Heisman Trophy winner took time out from being a star Miami Dolphins running back to study massage and acupuncture at a strip-mall college.
Such biographical snapshots suggest a man who seldom fits NFL-player stereotypes and, since retiring from football in 2012—though he makes “celebrity appearances” and works as an ESPN analyst—is far from an archetypal ex-pro.
A cannabis user for much of his professional career, which was blighted by multiple failed drug tests, over just the past year the formerly dreadlocked Williams has evolved from being widely perceived as a stoner NFL underachiever into an outspoken cannabis advocate and high-profile poster-boy for America’s raging cannabis debate.
“The first time that I spoke publicly about my cannabis use was less than a year ago . . . I was blown away by how cathartic, how healing it was for me personally, but even more so I realized how much of an impact me speaking honestly about my cannabis use made on other people, and it’s been extremely rewarding.”
Growing up in middle-class San Diego, Williams never harbored football ambitions beyond college. Stunning high school stats landed him an athletic scholarship with the University of Texas, where continued sensational form culminated in his being awarded the Heisman Trophy in 1998.
Though selected as the fifth pick of the 1999 draft by the Saints, Williams has said that the happiest time of his NFL career was his first year at the Dolphins, to whom he was traded in 2002. According to Williams, this coincided with his “really” starting to use cannabis, which resulted in his briefly retiring in 2004 and later, while suspended from the league, playing in Canada, before returning to Miami and then the Baltimore Ravens.
The now California-based Williams has studied everything from Ayurveda to astrology and traveled widely in an apparent journey of introspection and self-improvement. Since first publicly discussing his cannabis use last year, he’s also become increasingly involved in both cannabis advocacy and “cannabusiness,” including becoming a partner in a “cannabis gym” scheduled to open in San Francisco in November.
“I would use cannabis to de-stress, mentally and emotionally for one, and physically dealing with injuries and allowing my body to get healed.”
Within seconds, a conversation with Williams reveals an eloquent, extremely intelligent and goal-oriented man who has replaced the constant challenges of pro sports with a plethora of business ventures, lofty personal goals, and stimulating spiritual and philosophical pursuits.
What does a typical week in the life of Ricky Williams look like?
Every few days is different. The past few weeks I’ve been traveling a lot. I was at an investor conference in Oakland, and then I was in Miami for a celebrity charity weekend. Then I was in Boston for an autograph signing and then Pennsylvania for a Fourth of July party.
Life as an NFL and college football star must have been full of adulation. Has life away from the game ever felt anti-climactic, or are you glad to be out of the spotlight?
At the peak of my career, yeah, I was seeking-out adulation, but towards the tail-end . . . I never really enjoyed the adulation.
So I don’t miss it, but I think the one thing that I thought I would’ve missed is just the constant activity and the constant challenge . . . But as soon as I jumped into [new ventures], they’re all so different and so new that they keep me stimulated, and they keep me inspired and, to me, that’s the most important thing.
You work as a football analyst for ESPN’s Longhorn Network. Do you ever want to pull on a helmet and join the game?
I enjoy the more relaxed role but, especially watching the University of Texas play football, I feel like I want to jump out there and coach more than I want to put a helmet on.
“My guess is in the next 10 years it will be federally legal for adult use, and I think it’s a wonderful thing.”
So do you have professional coaching ambitions?
I don’t. I coached at a college for a year, and I enjoyed it, I loved it, but it takes up so much of your time at that level that I think I’d get bored.
You’re a very spiritual man. How did this help you through the rollercoaster of a pro football career?
I think the idea behind spirituality is that you don’t get so attached to the everyday goings-on of your life, and you don’t get too attached to your personality.
When times became the most difficult I would rise above the situation and look down and get a better sense of what the right move is . . . I think ultimately spiritual connection or spirituality gives you optimism and faith that you can deal with anything.
You’re also a qualified yoga instructor. Why would you recommend yoga?
The way our society is, I think it’s easy to become disconnected from your life and from your body—and also from your emotions . . . Yoga is a way to bring those things back together.
You’ve studied Ayurveda, the ancient Indian system of holistic medicine. What did this bring to your life and do you still adhere to its teachings?
After I retired . . . I needed to find something to do. I needed to develop a skill, and so I started studying Ayurveda, and I just love the philosophy behind it. The tenants and the philosophy are . . . a part of my life, and I think they will be a part of my life until I die.
You had glittering careers in both college and pro football, but were the college years the more enjoyable for you?
For sure. When I was a kid, I dreamed of being a college football player—I didn’t have aspirations to play in the NFL. Unfortunately-slash-fortunately I had so much success in college, it became the next logical step to go and play in professional football. But, by far, I enjoyed college much more.
Why was that?
The tradition, the genuine love for the game; the fact that it was integrated into school, so it easily integrated into your life.
When you go from high school to college, you choose which college to go to, and in the NFL they choose you. So I think the freedom to put myself in an environment that I knew I could thrive in definitely made the college football experience more enjoyable.
You’re a partner in what’s billed as “the world’s first cannabis gym,” Power Plant Fitness, which opens in San Francisco in November. Just what is a “cannabis gym,” and why were you keen to be involved?
It’s not only a gym—it’s really about wellness, and I think a large part of wellness . . . is exercise.
I thought “people don’t have a place to go and practice wellness—cannabis users don’t have a place to practice wellness,” and so I wanted to create one.
What will be your day-to-day involvement with Power Plant Fitness?
I’ll definitely be a part of running Power Plant, but more specifically I’ll be teaching classes, and I’ll be offering services—I’m craniosacral therapist, massage therapist, and I’m an astrologer—and I can also see myself even doing some personal training.
CBS Sports recently described you as “arguably the most famous pot-smoker in NFL history.” Does this association get annoying for you, or are you now proud to be an advocate for cannabis, particularly in the context of sports?
It was annoying for a long time and I think just in the last year I’ve realized, as hard as I try, I’m not going to be able to escape it. So I try to embrace it more. And it’s been overwhelmingly surprising to me—it’s really added a lot to my life.
Purely as an athlete, how was cannabis beneficial to you—in terms of, say recovering from injuries, mental focus and relaxation off the field?
Those are the three main benefits that I received as an athlete.
I would use cannabis to de-stress, mentally and emotionally for one, and physically dealing with injuries and allowing my body to get healed.
I used cannabis before I’d practice yoga at the end of a night—one, to let go of the mental stress, but also to help deepen my breathing practice; my yoga practice. And it really allowed me to put the events of the day behind and get a good night’s sleep and wake up prepared to go and address the next day.
You’ve previously expressed that you were deeply fearful, during your NFL career, of your cannabis use being made public, yet these days you’re very public cannabis advocate. Does this shift in your attitude reflect that of American society, or has it been a purely personal journey?
I think it’s both. I think society becoming more open to it has facilitated my internal openness to it. The first time that I spoke publicly about my cannabis use was less than a year ago . . . I was blown away by how cathartic, how healing it was for me personally, but even more so I realized how much of an impact me speaking honestly about my cannabis use made on other people, and it’s been extremely rewarding.
You’ve reportedly been diagnosed with social anxiety disorder. How has cannabis helped you to curb its symptoms and continue to work in often public roles?
I’ve always been a rather reserved, introverted person . . . Using cannabis really helped me to be okay with being introspective—it allowed me to become more skillful at being introspective and to understand that I’m just an aware, sensitive person and not to take things so personally.
You’ve been reported as saying that cannabis was a better treatment for you than a major prescription drug because it produced fewer side effects. Would you care to expand upon that?
The main side-effect I experienced from using cannabis . . . was the fact that it was illegal and there was a big stigma around it.
[Paxil] made me more numb and made it difficult to focus . . . It made being a football player more difficult and I just got tired of feeling out of it.
What are your feelings toward attitudes to and rules regarding cannabis use in pro sports, particularly in the NFL?
I think their head’s in the right place and what they’re trying to do is right—meaning finding people that have a problem.
I was put into the [NFL] drug program and I feel like I was treated like a criminal and wasn’t helped at all. So I think . . . there is a correlation between cannabis use and behavior that’s embarrassing to the NFL [or] criminal behavior. Aside from finding THC metabolites in my urine, I was for the most part a model citizen for the NFL.
Now that we realize that cannabis isn’t so bad as we were once told and that there are people using it responsibly and using it in ways that allow them to be better football players . . . [the NFL] should reconsider their stance.
What are your thoughts on current cannabis legislation in the United States?
It’s moving in the right direction . . . Politicians are having conversations about it [and] there are even politicians that are pro-legalization . . . [They’re] doing a good job of representing their constituents.
My guess is in the next 10 years it will be federally legal for adult use, and I think it’s a wonderful thing.
You were recently quoted as saying that “my career and life were almost ruined because of a drug test.” But do you now feel that your association with cannabis has also put you at the forefront of a booming business and of a history-making social movement?
There was a point where I was on the verge of being, at least it felt for me, forever associated with being the stoner who walked away from millions of dollars and ruined his life. But I used cannabis to actually improve my life and to be able to come back and finish my career.
I think that I’m a great example . . . My life was almost ruined and I was able, using cannabis, to turn my life around, and now I stand here as an advocate and am really pushing for reform.