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The Life

September 2, 2002
Redemption Song
ESPN The Magazine

I'm in a good, sunny place right now. I'm not talking geographically; I'm talking physically, emotionally, spiritually. I'm happier than I've ever been. I'm more confident than ever. I'm in the best shape of my life. I'm a better player, better teammate, better leader, better brother, better son, better friend, better father and more complete person than I've ever been. I've grown more in the past six months in Miami than I have in the past six years. I did more bonding with my new teammates in one day at Disney World than I did with the Saints in my three years there.

I've had a lot of clouds in my life since I got into pro football -- too many -- but now I feel like I can see really clearly for the first time. And I can see the Super Bowl from here.

I choked in New Orleans. Period. I'm not going to lie to you. I was supposed to save the Saints, a franchise that had never won a playoff game, but I wasn't ready to be a savior. Coach Ditka picked me to lead the mutiny, to change the losing culture there, but I wasn't strong enough. I completely succumbed to it. I crumbled, folded, fell apart. All my self-worth was tied up in being a football player, and only that, so once I got hurt and didn't have a way to define myself anymore, my self-esteem evaporated quick, fast and in a hurry.

Ricky Williams
Williams knows he choked with the Saints, and he knows he's better than that.
My confidence got beat up pretty badly, and you can't lead without confidence. You almost have to be overconfident to lead, but when my body broke down, the rest of me did, too, and everything Ditka thought he was drafting went away.

I feel like I got Ditka fired. I feel like I betrayed him because I didn't believe in myself nearly as much as he believed in me. I let him down, and I let down my city, my teammates and, most of all, myself. It's too bad all of that had to happen, but it had to for me to get this fresh start in Miami, and now the Dolphins are getting a player more determined than ever to prove Ditka was right for trading his entire 1999 draft for me. I don't want to sound cocky because I pride myself on being humble, but I'm going to be the superstar Ditka envisioned. I know it.

The person I am today is the one Ditka thought he was drafting, the one strong enough to carry a team, and willing to say so. But I was so miserable by the end of my second year in New Orleans that I was ready to quit football and go play baseball if my agents hadn't told me I'd have to give back so much money to do it. I even had them call the Texas Rangers to ask about the possibility anyway. That's when the Saints decided to draft Deuce McAllister in the first round. I can't blame them.

I was in San Diego, spending my days catching, throwing and hitting baseballs while my Saints teammates got ready for football without me. I was in football shape, but I was only physically devoted to the game, not mentally devoted, and I was flat afraid to go back to New Orleans.

The problem wasn't with the city, the sport, my teammates or my coach, even though I blamed all of them at one time or another. The problem was with me. But I didn't realize it back then because I hadn't been told that there was a clinical reason -- social anxiety disorder -- for everything odd I was feeling, everything from the depression to the shyness. I didn't understand that some of the things that were holding me back were chemical. It was the most frustrating thing in the world, not being able to trace what was causing my erratic behavior, because I like to think of myself as more introspective than most athletes, and I didn't recognize or understand what was happening inside me at all.

I've always been shy, but in New Orleans there were times my shyness would cause me actual physical pain. I'd get so claustrophobic around people that I'd bend over from the sickness in my stomach. That's not a good way to be when you're famous, obviously.

That's the reason I wore my helmet during interviews at first, not because I'm stupid or interested in being different. The helmet created distance, a shield between my insecurities and the cameras and lights. But in trying to push attention away, I ended up attracting more. A lot of things in New Orleans backfired on me that way. It got to the point where I actually didn't want to get any better as a player, because I knew it would bring more and more attention from media and fans, attention I never asked for, attention I didn't think I had earned.

I actually spent two weeks without once leaving my house. I just kept wandering around from my computer to the television. I sent friends to the store for food. I had all this money and free time. I wanted to go to Europe where I could be anonymous, but I wasn't going to Europe if it meant I had to go outside to go to the airport. I don't even know how much endorsement money I cost myself, but it was more than a million dollars, easy. I'd have flights booked for an appearance and not want to go, so I'd just lie on the floor in my office and think of excuses to get out of it. I kept breaking commitments, so people stopped asking me for commitments because I was so unreliable. It really hurt my reputation.

But here's how helpless this disorder can make you feel: Imagine waking up butt naked in front of all your peers in the middle of a field, with nowhere to run or hide. Everything I didn't like about myself I thought people were seeing right away, upon meeting me. It didn't help that anytime I went anywhere, the room went quiet and everything became about me. I like that attention now that I'm more comfortable with myself, but I hated it then more than anything in the world.

I didn't like myself very much, so I couldn't imagine why anyone else would. The only thing I was good at, really, was carrying the football, and that's why I felt so incomplete. Looking back, I feel like a monster for the way I was treating people, especially women. I know there is a stigma attached to seeing psychologists and therapists, especially in the world of pro athletes, but when a friend suggested I talk to a therapist, I couldn't get there fast enough. I wanted some answers.

Among other things I've learned is that I'm way, way too hard on myself. I was never a monster, just imperfect, and just not nearly as good as I wanted to be. One of the biggest things I've done is learn how to love myself, flaws and all. Even the things I don't like about myself, I accept. People have made fun of me and made me self-conscious about talking so softly, for example, but I accept that as who I am and I'm not changing it for anybody. I'm at peace with who I am now, and once you've achieved that, all the other stuff disappears. How could I believe in myself the way Ditka needed me to if I really didn't even know who I was?

I've had so many epiphanies in the past six months that have given me renewed confidence, confidence that can't be taken away by an injury, by anything. I know I'm not alone, and I know I can help others by talking about this, which is why I've been keeping a diary ( I've got answers now, not questions. The old me, the confused me, is on vacation in the Bahamas, chilling with all his baggage. And the new me can devote himself to football, fatherhood -- I've got two kids, a daughter, Marley, 3, who lives with her mother in Boston, and a son, Prince, 5 months, who lives with me -- and a couple of new hobbies I have, computers and photography. I tell people I was a caterpillar locked in a cocoon when I was in New Orleans, but now I feel like I finally have my wings.

Ricky Williams
Ricky wants to show the Dolphins what he does best.
I'm not going to settle for just being good anymore. It's important for me to be the best again, to be what Ditka envisioned, to prove Ditka wasn't crazy. Honestly, I haven't felt this kind of desire since college. Once I won the Heisman, I treated that as a finish line, not a starting point. But now it's like I've overhauled my body, mind and soul. I used to be gone as soon as practice was over in New Orleans, but now I always stay an extra hour working on something, strengthening my hips, my ankles, my shoulders. The better shape I'm in, the less likely I am to get injured. I've lost 20 pounds and I'm down to my college weight, 225. After getting my blood tested and having a nutritionist show me exactly which foods work best as fuel for me, I can feel the machine working efficiently, my body grabbing at the food after workouts.

I threw away all my Saints stuff -- memorabilia, pictures, everything -- so I can start over new. I never took notes in meetings before, but now I'm taking notes all the time. I'm more prepared than ever. I don't want to go home. I want to stay at the practice facility and keep getting better. This is the ultimate team game, but I make everyone else on my team better by making myself better. I've already taken my game to the next level, and I still haven't even played a real down for the Dolphins.

I'm a damn good football player. It makes me uncomfortable saying that out loud because it sounds arrogant, but it's the truth. I'm something they haven't had in Miami in 25 years -- a power running game -- and I know I'm going to have a monster year. I'm the final piece, the last impact player added to a team with a lot of impact players. I'm the chosen one. If I want to go to the Super Bowl, I have to take us there. I can't wait around for someone else to do it.

I'm not going to be satisfied with just 100 yards every game or leading the league in rushing or getting 1,800 yards. I used to ask myself, "Can I play in the NFL? Can I help move the ball? Can I help the team win?" Now it's, "Can I take the team to the Super Bowl?" That's the only question I should have been asking myself all along. And yes, I feel I'm ready to carry a team. To get more out of yourself, you have to expect more out of yourself. Before your body can achieve it, your mind has to perceive it.

For the Dolphins to win, they have to give me the ball. Chris Chambers, Jay Fiedler, Oronde Gadsden, they're not going to complain if we run the ball. The defense isn't going to complain. It's on me. This team is so good, I just have to be myself, as good as I can be, and we'll win. They know how to win here. It's all they've ever done.

The environment here has helped me a lot. In New Orleans, we go to the playoffs and we get to be grand marshals at Mardi Gras. Here they're booing the team during the playoffs. They're tired of 11-5 in Miami, and I'm prepared to raise my game to meet those expectations.

I'm always asking the coaches what I can do better, different. Some guys don't like to be coached, thinking they know it all, and I used to be like that, not listening, defensive and insecure. But now I want everyone's advice, and then I sift through it to see what I can use. I've noticed the tempo of the entire practice can be impacted by how I approach it. I can invigorate the offensive line, make the defense mad, raise the stakes for everyone.

I thought I worked hard until I got here, but the Dolphins work harder than we ever did in New Orleans, and never even complain about it. I want to be the team's hardest worker, and that kind of thing rubs off, everyone trying to outwork the guy next to him. The defense is insanely competitive. The other day we scored on them at the end of a 9 p.m. practice, and they started yelling and cursing at the coaches for another try. You never see that. Everyone is usually dying to get off the field at that point. We have to be more like that on offense. That's part of my job. Coach Wannstedt sees how hard I'm working. He made me a captain before an exhibition game against Houston. It's the first time I've ever been an NFL captain.

I can't tell you how good my new teammates have made me feel. We went to Universal Studios as a team, and they posed for pictures I was taking without thinking it was strange. They asked me about my computers. We talked and laughed a lot. I met Method Man there, too, and he hugged me and told me how cool it was that I was talking about my disorder. I was speechless, humbled. And then, as a team, we went to Bob Marley's restaurant. Marley is my hero, and the guys asked me a lot of questions about him over dinner. I haven't felt that close to a group of guys since high school.

I've always looked too black for some people and talked too white for other people, so I've had a lot of trouble finding a place to fit in, but I feel like I fit here. I think that's because my teammates are so cool but also because I'm a lot more comfortable with where I am, and who I am.

So much of what I did in New Orleans was perceived as weird. When you're quiet, people just attach whatever they want to you, and I didn't talk much to anybody in New Orleans, not even when I was being talked to, so a lot of words got attached to me-moody, strange, conceited. I don't mind being mysterious or different, but I don't like being considered weird. I can be myself here, normal. I don't feel ashamed or lack confidence. I crack jokes, butt into conversations, make a concerted effort to be more open. The only time I felt accepted in New Orleans, really accepted, was when I had a good game, but I already feel that way here.

It was good to get closure when we played the Saints in the preseason. Before the game, I went over to the Saints locker room. I was nervous, confronting a fear. I never would have done something like that before. I reached out more to those guys before that game than I had in my entire three years with the team. I talked to guys I hadn't even talked to before. I was smiling, open, and I could tell they were happy for me. After that, it didn't even matter if I rushed for negative yards against them.

I even got to shake Coach Haslett's hand after the game. We had a rocky relationship. I wasn't the kind to follow rules because there are rules. The rebel in me wouldn't follow just to follow, and we were both stubborn, and he wouldn't give me the benefit of the doubt, because I was Ditka's guy, not his. We had misunderstandings, didn't communicate. I could have made his job easier and I didn't. If I'm complaining and he can help, it's my job to communicate, not his job to figure out what's wrong. He was right. I was wrong. But everything is positive, so I'm glad it happened, because it got me to where I am now.

This is my time. A door has swung open. You haven't seen the best of me yet. Coach Ditka even called me the other day. I hadn't talked to him in a long time. He said, "I would never take that trade back for the world." He still has faith in what he believes, hasn't wavered at all, and it was good to hear that faith again. I wanted to tell him how much I've grown, how much I've learned, but I didn't.

I figure I'll just show him instead.

This article appears in the September 16 issue of ESPN The Magazine.

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