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The Life


Everything Hurts
ESPN The Magazine

I woke up screaming in bed one night after I turned over on my injured elbow, and it came out of the socket. Losing in the final minutes to the 49ers (Week 2) made it feel worse. I was in such bad shape before a game at Chicago (Week 4) that I needed Coach Ditka's help to put on my shoulder pads. Losing in the final seconds to the Bears made it feel worse. I felt so sore after a 40-carry game that I didn't answer my phone the next day because it hurt too much to get up, and I couldn't move my head anyway. Losing on the final play to the Browns made it feel worse.

I'm not looking for any pity points here. I'm not whining or making excuses. I'm a little uncomfortable drawing undeserved attention to myself, especially when we've started 29, but I did agree last summer to keep a diary of my first NFL season for The Magazine. I just didn't foresee my pro career starting this way back then.

After seeing us look so good and fresh in training camp, after feeling so comfortable and ready out there, the first thought I had was, "We're definitely going to win the first playoff game in franchise history this year, and I'm going to be a superstar." It's not like me to brag, but I felt confident about my team and myself. Our team's performance, like a game plan that gets thrown out when you're behind in the fourth, isn't the only thing that has not gone exactly as I'd hoped this season.

There are two kinds of pain I've felt in pro football, physical and emotional, and I can tell you they both sting like a whip. In the last few months, I've sprained and resprained and resprained my left ankle, hyperextended my right elbow, badly sprained my left big toe and felt a constant, raging fire in my feet from running on artificial turf, which must be the carpeting in hell. The physical pain has been excruciating and relentless, more than anything I've ever endured, but it's my pride that is hurting most. I've suffered a lot of emotional nicks this season.

Criticism of my contract caught me off guard.

The negative reaction to that infamous wedding-dress photo on The Magazine's cover (Aug.9) -- even though it wasn't my idea, even though my boss, Ditka, was in the photo, endorsing the joke -- was a little overwhelming. (I did think it might be funny to be on this issue's cover dressed as a nurse.)

Ron Dayne breaking my NCAA career rushing record, after I held it for all of one year, made me feel kind of small (and like Miss America).

And it's not the easiest thing in the world, seeing Edgerrin James, a great back I'm always going to be compared with, have more team and individual success.

But what hurts the worst, more than all those little things combined, is this awful feeling of failure that seems to grow with every loss.

Playing in pain? The Saints have a history of losing, and I was the one who was supposed to help stop the bleeding. But the wound is only wider now, because everyone in New Orleans was filled with hope this year, thinking they had finally found a cure, and I haven't been it. Not yet, anyway. We've been good enough to lead in the fourth quarter of most games, but I feel responsible for our terrible record, because I was brought in to take us over the top, punishing a defense late, sucking it of its spirit, and I haven't done it.

But, hey, it's not like that fourth-quarter push matters much, right? It's not like Ditka traded his whole draft for it or anything. I swear I wanted to cry on the way home after we blew a game against Atlanta (Week 5) -- and I had only 53 yards on 19 carries. Dozens of fans in the streets of New Orleans were wearing my No.34 jersey after the game, literally wearing their hopes on their sleeves. There were all these people wearing dreadlock wigs, wanting so badly to believe in something, and all I could think as I drove past was, "My coach, my team, my fans, my city -- I'm letting all of them down."

I know it's not all my fault. We've had injuries at quarterback, and that changes everything. Teams are stacking eight and nine guys in the box, daring us to pass, and Ditka told me that my hero, Walter Payton, never saw fronts like that. My perception is so off, every yard a struggle, that I'll make what I feel is a decent run, breaking some tackles in the backfield, and get discouraged when I keep hearing the stadium announcer say, "Williams on the carry. One yard." When you run for more yards than any collegian ever had, you aren't used to this.

I've felt so frustrated by injuries this year that I've wanted to release the anger the way my teammate Willie Roaf does, by throwing things, like his laptop computer, across the room. But it is not my nature to lash out. I'm so quiet and to myself that our QB Billy Joe Tolliver says that I'm going to go postal one day and shoot everybody. He says he's nice to me so that he's the last one I shoot. As painful as this year has been, though, Tolliver makes me feel better about my future. He says I'm the best football player he's ever seen, better than Marcus Allen, which is just about the best compliment I've ever heard.

Of course, 1999 could have been a lot worse than it has been so far. In February, I was at the ESPYs, doing The Dirty Bird on the stage of a New York club with Jamal Anderson and Terrell Davis, and look what's happened to them and their teams since. Every Sunday, an NFL player plays through pain that would make the average human cry and stay home from work for a few days. (That's not tough-guy bragging; it's the truth.) But there's a difference between being hurt and being injured. If you're hurt, you can play. If you're injured, you can't. The measure of a football player isn't how well he performs on Sundays but how well he performs in pain.

The physical pain is made much worse when the emotional pain is stacked on top of it. Everyone is happier when you win. The coaches grade you easier and yell at you less. Your teammates are better to be around. Losing is a different animal, though. They say a coach loses a player with every loss, has a player quit on him. I haven't seen that for myself yet.

When we lose, I just want to be alone. I've driven around for hours by myself after losses, even though my visiting family and friends have been waiting for me at my house, worried. One night, I left my agent, Master P, and two of his rapper friends, Silkk the Shocker and C-Murder, waiting at my house, because I knew they were going to baby me and I wasn't in the mood. Instead, I drove around most of the night, the words of a Saints fan echoing in my ears, like the soundtrack to my season. As I ran off the field, he yelled, "Ricky Williams, you ain't showed me s--!" The worst part was, he was right.

I've talked to former Saint Rickey Jackson about all the expectations. I love Rickey, because he is football without all the BS. He explained that I should try to conserve myself, because the sport is a cold business and all a running back is to his team is a pair of legs.

Everybody has told me I shouldn't play with these injuries. My friends. My agents. The trainer. Even my teammates. They remind me I am a rookie and I've got a career stretching out in front of me that I shouldn't risk. Alonzo Highsmith, now a Packers scout, told me I should never play if I'm not 100%, because he played hurt out of love for his coaches, and it cost him five or six years of his career.

But how can I sit? With all these expectations? Ditka traded so much for me. If I'm fragile, the jokes start about how Ditka's whole draft is limping on the sideline, useless. If I was just playing for me, maybe I'd sit. Maybe. Well, probably not. But it's moot, because I'm playing for me, for Ditka, for my team, for this whole city. Ditka just knows I'm going to be great, knows it more than I do, actually, and I don't want to betray that belief. I have to do everything I can to prove he was right, even if it means going into the huddle with an oxygen tank and stiff-arming tacklers with one of my crutches.

Let me tell you a story about Ditka. We were in Chicago the night before our game with the Bears, and my elbow was still killing me after almost two weeks of rest. I have never felt the kind of pain that was in that elbow, and I've always played in all kinds of pain, never missing a practice or game at Texas. My forearm was swollen to more than twice its size. I couldn't grip a fork, couldn't drive my car, couldn't even push the dreadlocks off my face. I needed help from female friends to even bathe myself (which wasn't such a bad thing). We've got a guy who works for the team, a martial-arts expert who can kill you a million ways with a toothpick, and he gave me acupuncture, which was a nice gesture, but it didn't make my elbow feel any better.

Anyway, I meet Ditka at his restaurant for dinner. He never asks me about the injury all night, never asks whether I was going to play, not even during the limo ride back to the hotel, when he told me, "I'm sorry if you don't like cigar smoke, but I'm going to smoke anyway." I love how carefree Ditka is, always himself, and I also appreciate that he has never forced anything on me.

So just before the Chicago game, in the locker room, Ditka comes up to me and says, "You're not playing." It was a statement of fact, not a question. I pretended to be okay. I said, "Yeah, Coach, I'll play." I could tell he was really happy. Then he had to help me put on my shoulder pads, because I couldn't do it for myself.

On the field before the game, I was so scared, knowing the Bears were going to be going after me at 100 miles per hour, trying to kill the gimp. I wanted to go up to Coach and tell him I'd changed my mind. When I came out during introductions, I could only slap hands using my left hand. I was shaking. One of my teammates came over and asked me how I was doing. I told him that, honest to God, I felt like I was about to wet my pants. He called me a pussy. Football players are real sympathetic souls that way.

It was hard to run that afternoon, because you have to lift your elbow to take the handoff. Still, I carried 21 times for 84 yards and was really proud of myself -- until we gave up two touchdowns in the final few minutes and lost again.

One of the Bears rewrenched the ankle too. It has been bothering me since I sprained it in the first quarter of my first NFL exhibition, and I haven't been right since. I signed and reported early and felt great, but then I missed 23 days of practice, and I lost everything -- my thinking, my rhythm, my confidence -- and had to start all over. There are certain instinctive things I haven't been able to do this season because of the pain, like using my arm for balance or cutting like I usually do on a strong ankle. Still, I've got more than 800 yards in limited action in 10 games, so I'm thinking I can put up huge numbers when I'm not really, really banged up, if there's ever a time I'm not really, really banged up.

The only time I felt truly, 100% healthy was in the 10th game against Jacksonville. It lasted all of a half. I rushed for about 80 yards in the first half. (And got my first NFL TD! Finally!) But then a dude fell on my big toe. I immediately thought it was broken. I got about 15 yards the rest of the game. Funny how something as small as a big toe can knock you out, no matter how big and prepared you are, just like something as small as a spark plug can kill an expensive car. I couldn't move my head after the Browns game, so I've literally been hurting from head to toe this year.

If there's one good thing to come out of all this, it's that I think I've earned the respect of my teammates and coaches. I hope so, anyway. After every tackle, one of my linemen always comes over and helps me up, which I think is a sign of appreciation. They treat me like a little brother. It has been important to me to show them that their little brother isn't gutless.

Some people think I'm playing because my contract is so heavy with incentives, but the money doesn't matter. I still keep the bank receipt with the $17 balance in my wallet to remind me how little I once had. Besides, we make so much more money than we deserve that it's crazy. I can live off my $8.8 million signing bonus forever, and I received $75,000 the other day just for doing a photo shoot holding up Sprint cell phones. Whenever I'm short on cash, I just start signing the trading cards stacked on my kitchen table, and next thing I know, I've got a $30,000 check in the mail. The money can wreck an athlete who doesn't have pride, and I understand how fans get frustrated with athletes who get fat on fame after they get paid.

That's why I structured my contract the way I did, so that I'm paid huge if I produce huge and guaranteed little if I produce little. My contract has gotten a lot of criticism, which I don't understand at all. I mean, it's my money to gain or lose, not anybody else's. My contract is based on production, which is how it should be. There's a huge difference between making a lot of money and earning a lot of money. People seem to write about my contract every week, as if it was something evil. But my honor is the only thing I can take to my grave.

The criticism hurts, though, I won't lie. I've got no problem telling you I spent a lot of my record-setting senior year lonely and crying in my apartment because my girlfriend started dating another player on our team. Shoot, I'll cry in my car sometimes if an old song comes on that reminds me of something happy from my childhood. Just because you're sensitive, though, doesn't mean you can't be tough. I'll get through all this, because I know there is something out there that can cure just about everything that ails me and my team.

It's called winning.

This article appears in the March 6, 2000 issue of ESPN The Magazine.



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