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Wednesday, October 14, 2009

Ricky's Revenge

Lost in the smoke of the Miami Dolphins last second 31-27 Monday victory over the New York Jets was the game’s statistical hero, some guy people may remember as Ricky Williams. Williams accumulated a game-high 144 yards from scrimmage, averaging six yards per touch. Yet postgame praise focused on platoon mate Ronnie Brown (who was equally impressive) and his mastery of the NFL’s most overused two words: the wildcat. Sideline reporter Andrea Kremer sprinted past Williams to shove a mic in the face of Miami quarterback Chad Henne. There was zero mention of Ricky. I can’t help but get the feeling Ricky is just fine with that.

A self proclaimed vegan and active member of PETA, Williams has quietly become the NFL’s anti-Vick. After a multiyear absence, Ricky has made himself relevant in the one place where Vick has not: the football field. There’s no question he’s back as a football player, but the real dilemma for fans is whether he cares. Has Ricky really changed as a person since his suspension?
“I get defensive,” says Ricky when asked this question by the New York Times in a preseason interview. “I like to think I’m the same person. I just have more clarity.”
The problem for Dolphins fans is that the “same person” abandoned their franchise two days before their 2007 training camp for a dime bag of alfalfa and a bottomless box of cheezits. The fallout was not pretty for the Fins: a franchise worst 1-15 mark. Fans were unwilling to forgive, forever labeling him as the NFL’s posterboy pothead.

“Since I’ve become famous for it, I’m amazed at how many people ask me to smoke,” Williams says. “For me to move on with my career, this has to be behind me. I don’t want to keep being reminded of it on a daily basis.”

We can’t blame Williams for avoiding incessant questions about his past. Still, fans itch to know if he’s only in it for the paycheck because the cardinal sin in sports for fans is an athlete who doesn’t love the game. In the back of our minds we still dream of hoisting the Heisman trophy or shaking the commish’s hand on draft day. Ricky was blessed with the talent to enjoy these moments; so it’s infuriating for a lot of us diehards to accept the fact he chose hot room yoga over the professional gridiron.
“At the core, we’re all spiritual beings,” Williams tells the New York Times. “It’s something that I had been pushing down my whole life. The search for meaning, I guess, the whispering of the soul.”

Not exactly words that strike fear into opposing defenses, right? What fans really want from Williams is to see his passion for winning. They want him to tweet “just finished third cycle of roids. give thirty-four the damn ball!” How about a choreographed fine-inducing endzone dance, Ricky? Please, please at least remove your helmet during locker room interviews?

The reality is Ricky will never be the fire breathing athlete we adore. He is a unique flower, one who is fully aware of his own confusing legacy: “It’s like the open-minded, spiritual person and the football player, they get into a tug of war,” Williams says. “It’s not pretty. It’s ongoing. I have to find a way to reconcile both those parts of myself so that I can have some kind of peace.”

Ricky’s bruising running style shows little evidence he is searching for this inner-peace on the field. In a season which headlines have been dominated by Vick, the never ending Favre hype machine, and endless dissection of 32 variations of the wildcat formation, it’s a godsend to follow a player who still knows how to lower his shoulder and drive his feet into the chinstrap of the defense.

I doubt we’ll ever know if Ricky actually cares about the outcome of the game. All we can do is enjoy him on the field and try our hardest to appreciate this rare breed of athlete off it. One day Williams will likely disappear from the league with little fanfare. No matter how funky the smell, fans will miss the cloud of smoke he leaves behind.
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