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Ricky II
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MIAMI -- So how would you explain it? You had two local TV stations with their live trucks standing by, smack in the middle of a gorgeous Friday afternoon, waiting for Ricky Williams to put on a plain white helmet and run around on a practice field. You had almost every Dolphin talking about the excitement Williams generates, even though only a few of the players had actually spoken with him. You had Zach Thomas, Jason Taylor and Derrick Rodgers, players who barely know Williams, rushing to help him off the ground after the tailback slipped during a simple run to the left. You think Sammie Smith got such TLC?

Everyone wants to get to know Ricky. All the Ricky-bitten newspapers and TV guys and the 200 fans who showed up for his first minicamp practice as a Dolphin all asked the burning question: Ricky, how did you change the Dolphins today?

The answer is … plenty, if perception is taken into account. Aqua No. 34 jerseys are everywhere, even among the "crowds" of 2,100 at Marlins games. Dolphins media relations folks skirt about, alerting reporters that Ricky was (pick one) signing autographs/running at a medium pace/not available for interviews. As Thomas says, "There's a buzz around here."

All for a guy who just this year moved past, uh, Archie Manning to become the eighth-leading rusher in Saints history.

But on this weekend, how did Ricky change Miami on the field? Not much.

Williams, the 1998 Heisman trophy winner from Texas, knew it himself. "I'm a physical player," he said, "so people aren't going to see my best until we put the pads on."

Good thing, too, because he's eager to show what his best is, especially since he lasted only 38 games in New Orleans after the Saints traded their entire draft to acquire him. His best? There were days when he wasn't sure about playing, period. Coach Jim Haslett grew tired of trying to relate to Williams after two years, even though Williams went to Saints executives and asked not to be traded. Tackle Kyle Turley, one of Williams' best friends on the Saints, knew it was over in January. "It sucks we're going to lose him," he said.

There was something about Williams as a Saint that made you shake your head. He was labeled as quirky, which Williams resented but did little to defuse. He spoke of missing Austin, Texas, and wondered aloud why the team didn't move to San Antonio. When it came out last year that he had been diagnosed with social anxiety disorder, that didn't help matters either. Williams enjoyed his three years as a Saint so much that when he was traded to Miami in March, he threw away everything -- all his Saints jerseys, game balls, photos, everything. He should have known that when Mike Ditka's restaurant in downtown New Orleans started going downhill, well, his Saints career was next. For his part, when asked to describe Haslett, Williams chooses the word "insecure."

Speaking of insecure, let's consider the Dolphins running game. On the surface, Miami, which has produced three 1,000-yard rushers in the past 29 years, cares only about Ricky's productivity. He ran for 3,129 yards in three seasons with the Saints, including 1,245 last year, and caught 60 passes for another 511 yards in 2001. "I can't wait to play with him," said offensive lineman Leon Searcy. "I still haven't talked with him, yet, though. He doesn't say anything, and I know he's not mute."

The Dolphins seem eager to get to know the player who elevates the team to "paper champions," as Taylor puts it. No one really has. Coach Dave Wannstedt had the Dolphins go as far as to contact Earl Campbell to find holes in Williams' personality. All the checks came back clean. "There's been nothing bad," Wannstedt said. "You use the word, ‘quirky.' I mean, I don't know. He's a sharp guy."

Only 24, Williams has what should be the prime years of his career ahead of him. He's carried the ball only 814 times, and has good hands, which he showed in minicamp by catching short, hot passes and deep, reaching ones as well. "I've been pretty impressed as far as his speed," guard Jamie Nails said. "I didn't know he was that fast." Said quarterback Jay Fiedler: "Ricky is a guy that makes a difference."

So all that's left is getting to know the man himself. His after-practice press conference lasted 73 seconds. He signed for the fans for a while, but said little. Even when a fan would yell his name after a big run, he'd look at the fan, but wouldn't respond or wave. Rarely has a black facemask visor hidden so much.

Williams, for his part, isn't sweating it. He believes the yards will come. He knows the relationships will come. And if they don't? "I'm different, not weird," he said recently. "But I can see how people perceive that I'm weird from afar, not knowing me at all or trying to understand me. I'm not defensive about people thinking that. But I don't feel I owe them an explanation, either."

So how would you explain it? For right now, it's just enough that he's here.

Seth Wickersham writes for ESPN The Magazine. E-mail him at seth.wickersham@espnmag.com.



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