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Austin Power

Texas's Ricky Williams is closing in on the career rushing record, but that's not all that ranks his performance this season among the best ever by a running back

Greatness doesn't always arrive with a flourish. Sometimes it grows quietly, revealing itself gradually to even those with the best view. Just last week Texas junior fullback Ricky Brown sat in a team meeting room at Memorial Stadium in Austin and looked to his right at senior tailback Ricky Williams. "I thought, There's a guy sitting next to me every day who's going down in history," recalls Brown. "In a few years I'm going to be telling my kids that I played with this guy, and man, those were some days."

For now, those are some days. College football history is dense with fabled running backs, from George Gipp to Tom Harmon to Doak Walker to O.J. Simpson to Archie Griffin to Tony Dorsett to Earl Campbell to Charles White to Herschel Walker to Bo Jackson to Barry Sanders. To that list it's time to add the name of Ricky Williams, who is in the midst of a season that ranks with that of any great running back in the college game.

What elevates Williams to this status is not just that he leads the nation in rushing, with 1,724 yards, and needs only 204 yards in his final two games (or three if Texas reaches the Big 12 championship game) to break Dorsett's NCAA Division I-A career rushing record of 6,082. It is not just that he has scored more points (438) and more touchdowns (73) in his career than any college player in history. Or that, barring his abduction by aliens, he has wrapped up the Heisman Trophy. Or that he has been the most dominant player in the country since Labor Day weekend. ("The best, by far," says Oklahoma defensive coordinator Rex Ryan. "You hold your breath when he has the football; you're scared to death.") Or that he's as appealing to NFL franchises as a sweet stadium lease. ("The only flaw we've seen is that he can't hit the curveball," says Terry Bradway, head of player personnel and scouting for the Kansas City Chiefs, referring to Williams's struggles as a minor league baseball player in the Philadelphia Phillies organization.)

Rather, the circumstances of Williams's performance raise him into the elite class. Most running backs produce great seasons by playing for great teams (Simpson for USC in '68, Dorsett for Pittsburgh in '76, White for USC in '79, Eddie George for Ohio State in '95) or by blossoming unexpectedly, without reputation or pressure (Sanders for Oklahoma State in '88, Troy Davis for Iowa State in '95). Williams has done neither of those. He is playing for a Texas team that was in shambles last season and hired a new coach, Mack Brown, only last December. Having rushed for 1,893 yards as a junior and finished fifth in the Heisman voting, Williams was Texas's only proven offensive option as this season opened. Yet the Longhorns are a stunning 7-2, with losses only to No. 2 Kansas State and No. 3 UCLA.

The Longhorns have developed a passing game because teams are fixated on stopping Williams. Texas is consistently selling out its 80,216-seat stadium and has fallen back into the loving arms of desperate fans who have endured tradition withdrawal since the Darrell Royal era ended in 1977. "Right now is about the best time I can remember for being a Longhorns fan," says actor and Texas graduate Matthew McConaughey, a regular visitor to Texas practices and the recent buyer of a $50,000 luxury suite at Memorial Stadium. All this success and goodwill is, in the words of Longhorns senior wideout Wane McGarity, "Thanks to Ricky."

There's more. Williams should already be gone. He would have been a top five pick in the NFL draft last spring, but he chose to return to Texas. He risks losing vast wealth nearly every time the Longhorns snap the ball. Last winter, fired Texas coach John Mackovic told Williams, "A running back can only take so many hits in his career." Williams doesn't disbelieve this, he simply disregards it. "It might be true," he said late last week. "But even if I am costing myself years at the end of my career, I don't care. I'm having too much fun."

Last Saturday's fun included 90 yards on 23 carries and one touchdown, and three receptions for 78 yards, including a 48-yard score against an Oklahoma State defense that crammed nine players near the line on almost every play. With both Cowboys safeties locked on Williams and committed to stopping the run, Texas redshirt freshman quarterback Major Applewhite threw for three touchdowns and a school-record 408 yards. Yet on the game's final drive Williams rushed for 42 yards on five carries, leading to sophomore kicker Kris Stockton's 29-yard field goal and a 37-34 Texas victory.

After the game Williams sat on a stool in front of his dressing cubicle, as always the last to leave the locker room. "We could have made yards running the ball if we had stuck with it," he said, exuding the workhorse's stubborn confidence. "But it was fun anyway—pass blocking, catching the ball for a touchdown, running it at the end. And we won." He smiled, and his long dreadlocks crisscrossed his face. A visitor said he surely hadn't lost his Heisman lead, and Williams asked earnestly, "You don't think so?"

Williams's decision last January to return to Texas for his senior season was shocking. Many observers compared it to Peyton Manning's decision to return to Tennessee for his senior year in 1997, but it was nothing like Manning's decision. Except for bedeviling annual losses to Florida, Manning's career had been a fairy tale, and his love for the college atmosphere was well known. Tennessee had a good team and a stable coaching staff. Texas had neither. As Williams contemplated his choice last December, he had had a solid college career but had never been the primary option in the Longhorns' offense. Even last year's big rushing total came on draws and counter treys that complemented Mackovic's pro-style offense. In the Longhorns' biggest victory of Williams's career, a 37-27 upset of Nebraska to win the '96 Big 12 title, he had seven yards rushing.

A year after that game, Mackovic was fired on the heels of a 4-7 season, and a major rebuilding loomed. Williams's departure seemed a slam dunk. "I would have left for certain," says senior guard Ben Adams. Even Manning advised Williams to leave. Mack Brown refused to press Williams toward a decision that might subject him to a miserable senior season and cost him money in the long run. But he did promise to make Williams the centerpiece of the offense. "I was so excited to be the man," Williams recalls. "And I believed we could be a good team." In his mind he made a list of four objectives for the season: 1) win at least 10 games, 2) become a team leader, 3) get better as a player and 4) break Dorsett's record.

Williams started his customary summer of minor league baseball (he has been under contract to the Phillies since 1995) but played only four weeks for Batavia of the Class A New York-Penn League before rushing back to Austin in mid-July to join strength coach Jeff (Mad Dog) Madden's cruel conditioning program and teammates who had already endured a month of it. Williams ran 40-yard sprints in a 30-pound-weight vest. He did endlessly repeated uphill runs. "I watched him the first day because I didn't think he'd survive," says senior middle linebacker Dusty Renfro. Williams barely made it back to his Chevy Tahoe after training that first day, but he finished the summer at a taut 223 pounds, free of baby fat, stronger and faster than at any time in his career, running a 4.4 40 and bench-pressing 406 pounds. And now he can also win a pose-down.

"I catch him looking sideways in the mirror, checking out his abs," says his roommate, walk-on defensive back Chad Patmon.

Williams exploded into the season by rushing for 215 yards against New Mexico State and 160 against UCLA before Kansas State's voracious defense held him to 43. He rebounded with 318 against Rice, 350 against Iowa State, 139 against Oklahoma (a 78-yard touchdown run was called back on a holding penalty far behind the play) and 259 against Baylor. He pounded Nebraska for 150 yards in Texas's 20-16 upset, ending the Cornhuskers' 47-game home field winning streak. "The guy is something special," says Nebraska defensive coordinator Charlie McBride. "The two best guys we've ever played against are Barry Sanders and Ricky Williams."

The season has been an endless montage of Williams highlights. Against Rice he drilled two consecutive tacklers to the ground with stiff-arms. Against Baylor he limped off in the third quarter after a defender stepped on his calf, then he returned to rush for 128 yards in the fourth quarter. Against Nebraska he made a touchdown-saving tackle after a fourth-quarter interception that would have given the Cornhuskers a 20-10 lead. "Three guys had kill shots on him on that play," says Adams. "Most star guys would have just fallen down. Ricky avoided all three guys and made the tackle." When Williams left the field in Lincoln, Nebraska fans chanted his name in admiration.

Every opposing team has hit him repeatedly—legally and otherwise. "The poor kid has got every defensive player on every team trying to rip his head off on every play, whether he's got the ball or not," says Brown. "I worry for him."

Brown, who came to Texas after building North Carolina into a national power, has become so attached to Williams that he frets after games over whether he has helped Williams get enough yards to influence Heisman voters. In August he challenged Texas players to make the Heisman a team award and installed his pet ground-friendly offense. He has given Williams the ball 287 times, and Williams has shown his thanks by jump-starting Brown's rebuilding program. (In Brown's first year at Carolina, the Tar Heels had a 1-10 record.)

Williams has also enabled Applewhite to grow into the quarterback position with an enormous cushion behind him. "We have a symbiotic relationship," says Applewhite. Symbiotic, maybe. Equal, certainly not. "Ricky's effect on our offense has been huge," says offensive coordinator Greg Davis. "He gave us credibility we would never have had otherwise." Williams also routinely bails out Applewhite by shouting proper checks to the quarterback from his tailback position before the ball is snapped.

Williams plays with a number-37 decal on the back of his helmet, in memory of former SMU great Walker, whom Williams met last year while receiving the award that is named after him. Following Walker's death in September, Williams switched from jersey number 34 to number 37 for one game, against Oklahoma. After scoring a fourth-quarter touchdown he pounded the jersey, pointed to the sky and shouted, "That's for you, Doak!" It was a rare sentiment from a 21-year-old whose generation often regards history as insignificant.

Williams's performance must now be included in any historical discussion of the best seasons ever. (Sample: His '98 is better than Sanders's 2,628-yard 1988 season, because Sanders came in as an unknown with no target on his chest and had three-year quarterback Mike Gundy and dangerous wideout Hart Lee Dykes on his team and no moldy tradition weighing him down.)

More important, Williams is meeting the demands on his own list. He is better, he is a leader, and Dorsett's record should soon be toast. Remarkably, Texas could win 10 games, even 11. Williams is healthy and, for the first time in his career, fulfilled. "One thing," he says. "I'd like to play UCLA and Kansas State again."

Fulfilled, but never satisfied.