Ricky's gone -- not exactly breaking news

It was shocking in the timing more so than in the details, which is to say that you could see this one coming, if not precisely when.

Ricky Williams didn't fit the NFL stereotype? You'd never call that breaking news.

From the beginning of what proved to be a genuinely star-crossed professional career, in fact, Williams was the square peg in the round hole. He was the athlete who couldn't always bring himself to grips with his talent. He was the high-value player who not only professed not to particularly care about the money raining down on him, but went on to prove it in a variety of ways -- including, now, apparently walking away from a bundle of it.

He was the iconoclast in a league that values almost nothing more than conformity. He was the marijuana user who very openly acknowledged to the Miami Herald that he -- and, by Williams' account, players all over the NFL -- drank a special liquid designed to avoid detection in the league drug tests, yet who personally failed such tests twice. He was the global traveler who once took off on a European trip without notifying anyone from his then-employer in New Orleans.

And while it's always possible that the 27-year-old Williams will recant this latest stunner, his retirement from the game after five NFL seasons, there's no smart money riding on it. The people who know Williams -- who knew him as a basically happy college football player at Texas and a struggling designated superstar in New Orleans and a reconstructed force in Miami -- those people would tell you that Williams' leaving is more in character with the man than his sticking around ever would be.

He's not like the rest of them. Going, in the end, was more important than playing.

The timing of Williams' exit is something else again, but know that it often takes the approach of training camp -- in whatever sport you'd care to name -- to wrench a decision out of a basically ambivalent body. Plenty of athletes have retired on the eve of such camps. Plenty have come to hasty contract terms in that 11th hour. The beginning of camp has a way of forcing the issue, whatever that issue may be.

Williams was coming off back-to-back fine seasons in Miami, the first better than the second, but he just had no stomach for the NFL business. He cared less about the $3.75 million he was due for playing this season than about doing what he wants to do at exactly the moment he wants to do it. Increasingly a loner in a team sport, he felt obligated to his Dolphins mates, but not so much that it overwhelmed his other senses telling him to flee.

He wanted out more than he wanted anything else, and with Ricky Williams as a professional football player, that has been the case at least as often as not.

This is the nightmare scenario for the Dolphins, of course, but it is also impossible to believe that they didn't know the risks they ran by acquiring Williams from the Saints almost three seasons ago. Williams' history in New Orleans had been one of conflict, unhappiness and a developing personality disorder severe enough to require medication at one point. Even given the pressure that accompanied the Saints' almost giving up an entire draft in order to take him in the first round in 1999 and the performance-based nature of his strange contract, the emotional burden Williams carried was clearly extraordinary.

So the Dolphins undoubtedly knew they had a load on their hands, be it for good or for ill. The one thing they might never have imagined is that Williams would simply decide he'd had enough. But let's say it again: He's not like the rest of them.

One of the reasons it's difficult to process what has transpired is that there just aren't many similar situations in sports. It isn't often that a player walks away from any sport while clearly in his prime. We've become accustomed to seeing guys go the other way, really -- hanging around too long, whether for a paycheck or a belated stab at glory.

When I first heard the news of Williams' decision, in fact, my thoughts improbably strayed to another Williams: Brian, a fine NBA talent and a spectacularly weird comparison. That Williams essentially walked away from basketball and into an alternate universe, where, as Bison Dele, he sank into personal psychosis and a tragic end.

Ricky Williams, though, sounded upbeat and happy as he discussed his decision with Herald columnist and ESPN contributor Dan LeBatard on Saturday from Hawaii, where the one-time Pro Bowler was boarding a plane headed for somewhere in Asia. He said he felt free. He said he had no definite plan, but that "it's going to be fun." He sounded like a guy with all the money he needed, happy with his children, eager to do other things and proud of himself for conquering a fear by quitting football.

He sounded, that is, like a guy glad to be gone. To anyone who has known Ricky Williams for these past five fascinating but befuddling years, the surprise was only in the timing.

Mark Kreidler is a columnist with the Sacramento Bee and a regular contributor to ESPN.com