Williams trades demands of NFL for travel

MIAMI -- The first sign of a change in Ricky Williams came
when he returned from vacation in Australia last winter with a
shaved head, the distinctive dreadlocks gone.

Now he's gone, too. Williams has decided to retire at the peak
of his career, stunning the Miami Dolphins and leaving an enormous
void in their backfield less than a week before the start of
training camp.

Williams, who rushed for 3,225 yards in two seasons with the
Dolphins, phoned from Hawaii to inform coach Dave Wannstedt of his
decision, then continued his travels by flying to Tokyo.

"He wants to get on with his life, wants to move on to bigger and better things," Miami Herald reporter and ESPN commentator Dan Le Batard told SportsCenter.

Former Vikings running back Robert Smith, who stunned Minnesota when he walked away from the game at age 28 after the 2000 season, told ESPN Radio on Sunday night Williams had spoken to him about retirement in June.

"Ricky told me back in June that he was going to retire after the season," Smith said on ESPN Radio's GameNight on Sunday. "I guess I'm a little bit surprised that he did it before the season, but he told me back then he was going to retire after the season.

"I didn't say anything to anybody. It's obviously something he didn't want quite leaking out."

According to the Herald's report, Williams wants to travel the world and is tired of the demands and restraints of a professional football career.

"I just don't want to be in this business anymore," Williams told the paper. "I was never strong enough to not play football, but I'm strong enough now. I've considered everything about this. Everyone has thrown every possible scenario at me about why I shouldn't do this, but they're in denial. I'm happy with my decision.

"I'm finally free. I can't remember ever being this happy."

Williams has always been a breakaway threat. But retirement at
age 27?

"I was completely surprised," Wannstedt said Sunday. "My main
thought process was to try to get Ricky to come back here, sit
down, talk about some things and see if we can get this thing back
on track. He obviously chose to go another direction."

Williams, who notified Wannstedt on Friday, plans to file
retirement papers Monday or Tuesday with the NFL.

He said he had already told his mother, Sandy; his agent, Leigh Steinberg; backup running back Travis Minor; and friends and family of his decision.

The Dolphins hold
their first training camp workout Saturday.

His retirement after just five NFL seasons was first reported
Sunday by The Miami Herald.

"You can't understand how free I feel," Williams told the
Herald in a phone interview.

Williams seemed at peace with his plan to retire in discussing it with Smith last month.

"He was the kind of guy who had other things on his mind," Smith explained on ESPN Radio Sunday.

"It's hard for people who are so in love with the game.
They look at it from their standpoint: 'How can you give up this game, making all this money, doing all the things that I want to be doing? But they're not looking at it from Ricky's point of view," Smith said.

Long ambivalent about life in the spotlight, Williams said there's no
chance he'll change his mind. But Steinberg held
out the possibility that the retirement could be temporary.

Williams might be back in South Florida by the end of the week,
Steinberg said.

"Right now he seems at peace with his decision and intends to
retire," Steinberg said. "Whether it ends up being short term or
long term, we'll have to see."

However, listening to Williams, who plans to travel to Asia without a return ticket, the prospect of his returning to the team appears unlikely.

"I have no idea what I'm going to do," he told the Herald. "Who knows? I just know it is going to be fun. Going to school again. Going to travel for the next six months. I'm halfway intelligent. I'll figure something out. I don't feel like I have to explain myself to anyone. All I end up doing anyway is giving rebuttals, and it is boring. I don't want to do it anymore. That's it. I don't want to do this anymore. If people really care about me, that would be enough for them."

Williams told the Herald marijuana tests he failed had a minor
influence on his decision, but were only one of many factors. In
May, three South Florida newspapers reported that Williams tested
positive for marijuana and faced a fine of at least $650,000 for
violating the league's substance-abuse policy for a second time
since joining the Dolphins. The Palm Beach Post first reported the
story on its Web site.

Williams' attorney, Gary Ostrow, said there was no violation,
and a ruling on Williams' appeal was pending. But Williams told the
Herald he has gotten around drug tests in the past by taking a
special liquid players all over the league consume to avoid

"I don't know really what he was talking about," Wannstedt
said. He declined further comment on the subject.

Wannstedt said the retirement was a shock in part because
Williams stayed in great shape during the offseason, participated
in every practice and attended a team meeting as recently as June
22. Most teammates apparently had no clue about his retirement

"This," defensive end Jason Taylor said, "is certainly

Even Steinberg was stunned. The agent said Williams first told
him he was seriously considering retirement Wednesday.

"What a mind boggle," Steinberg said. "He said he simply
didn't feel the passion and motivation that is a prerequisite for
playing his position."

Money wasn't an issue, Steinberg said. Williams, who is single
but has three young children, was to make at least $3.6 million
this season, with incentives possibly pushing that as high as $6

After winning the Heisman Trophy at Texas in 1998, Williams
joined the New Orleans Saints when coach Mike Ditka used all of his
draft picks to acquire the standout running back. Ditka said Sunday that
he hasn't spoken with Williams in about six months and was taken
aback by the retirement news.

"I'd love to talk to him and try to talk him out of it," Ditka
said from Chicago. "It seems kind of foolish to me, but I don't
know what's on his mind. You're just destroying a great career.
He's a talent. To let that all go to waste doesn't make a lot of

Williams played three seasons for New Orleans but didn't blossom
until he was dealt in 2002 for two first-round draft picks to the

At times, Miami's biggest trade since 1970 looked like a steal.
Williams led the NFL in 2002 with 1,853 yards rushing and broke
nine team records. Last season, he ran for 1,372 yards despite
little offensive support.

It's just like Williams to go against the grain: He was never
the stereotypical football player, and his passions include
shopping, photography and film.

In 2001 he was diagnosed with social anxiety disorder, a
condition contributing to his extreme shyness, and in New Orleans
he often conducted interviews while wearing his helmet. He
professed to be happy during his two seasons with Miami, but the
trip to Australia may have whetted his appetite for more travel,
and he said it changed his perspective on what's important.

He's not the first running back to retire at or near his peak.
His friend Jim Brown quit at 30; Barry Sanders retired at 31; and
Robert Smith quit at 28.

Nonetheless, his decision was deflating for South Florida sports
fans, who had been buzzing about the Miami Heat's acquisition last
week of Shaquille O'Neal.

For the Dolphins, Williams' departure is the latest setback in
an abysmal offseason. It included an odd organizational reshuffling
with the hiring of former quarterback Dan Marino, who resigned as
vice president 22 days later.

Now, because of the timing of Williams' retirement, the Dolphins
head into training camp with few options for filling the vacancy at
running back. Eddie George, who might have been a possibility,
signed Friday with the Dallas Cowboys. For the moment, the job
belongs to three-year backup Minor, who has yet to start an
NFL game.

Officials at Texas anticipate that Williams will return to
Austin to earn his degree in education and pursue work with
children. While contemplating retirement, he talked with Longhorns
coach Mack Brown.

"When he asked me how I would feel about his decision, I told
him I would like him even if he had never played football," Brown
said. "Giving up something that you love to do is never an easy
choice, and I respect Ricky for the thought that he has put into
this. This is something he has considered for a long time."

Information from ESPN.com senior writer John Clayton and The Associated Press was used in this report.