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Growth Spurt At ease with his teammates and running fiercely over foes, a more mature Ricky Williams begins anew in New Orleans

Midway through the first quarter of the New Orleans Saints' 14-10
loss to the Detroit Lions on Sunday, Ricky Williams delivered a
message, the kind that witnesses don't forget--and that,
unfortunately for him, didn't count. The Saints led 7-0 as
Williams took a handoff from Jeff Blake and ran through a sizable
hole on the left side of the line. As Williams raced into the
secondary, Lions safety Kurt Schulz caught up with him near the
sideline. Williams stutter-stepped and then stiff-armed Schulz,
carrying him for five yards before going down. "I wasn't going
out of bounds," Williams said later, "so I decided to show him
how it was going to be." A holding call on New Orleans tackle
Willie Roaf nullified the 31-yard gain, but anybody who saw the
play should have been thinking one thing: This isn't the Ricky
Williams of a season ago.

The image of Williams as a sullen oddball is giving way to
something different: the vision of a young man who is maturing
and wants to play at the top of his game. While the loss to
Detroit was forgettable, Williams finished with 84 yards on 20
carries and gained another 52 yards that were waved off by
holding calls. He also caught four passes for 29 yards, and
although he fumbled twice, he went a long way toward proving that
last year's problems are behind him.

"I was impressed," said Lions cornerback Bryant Westbrook. "I
played with him at Texas, so I know what he can do. Look at how
versatile he was--he ran hard, he caught passes, he made big
plays. Everyone could see that he's going to be a good back once
that team gets on the same page."

As solid as Williams was, the effort he has put into growing up
has been even more noticeable. Last season Williams kept mostly
to himself, and for a good part of the year he was depressed by
nagging toe, elbow and ankle injuries and by the Saints' losing
ways. This season his teammates have noticed a more affable
Williams, one who is smiling easily, laughing more often and
impressing everyone with his work habits. "He's enjoying himself
more," says Jim Haslett, the team's first-year coach. "When I
got here, he didn't say much of anything, but I see him opening
up now."

"I keep getting asked by the media if I'm a different person
this year," says Williams, who gained 884 yards and scored two
touchdowns in 1999. "It's frustrating. Nothing's changed except
I'm not hurt."

Yet the world around Williams has changed. He has more friends on
the team, having bonded with rookie running backs Chad Morton and
Terrelle Smith. Many within the New Orleans organization think
Williams felt isolated last year because he was the team's only
drafted rookie. Also, this season the Saints made sure that
Williams would not be placed in the savior's role, as he was
after former coach Mike Ditka traded eight picks to select him in
the 1999 draft. The team has brought in veteran free agents such
as Blake, wide receivers Joe Horn and Jake Reed and defensive
tackle Norman Hand, stressing that the load will be shared.
Williams believes there is a greater sense of unity and purpose
on the team. "Just from the way we played, I could see we have
more pride in what we're doing," he said on Sunday.

"What's helped Ricky is having a supporting cast so that
everything doesn't fall on him, physically or mentally," says
assistant head coach Rick Venturi. "A year ago this whole team
was marketed on Ricky. Every jingle and every possible hook
involved him. Now he can be in more of a comfort zone, so he can
just play football, which is all I think he really wants to do."

One thing that hasn't changed about Williams is his disdain for
the spotlight. He hadn't quite realized how much he missed his
privacy until he visited Europe in the off-season. He made two
trips (a weeklong visit with two friends in April and a
three-week stay in June as part of an Air Force goodwill tour),
and each time he relished his anonymity. Occasionally a tourist
from the U.S. would recognize him and ask why he was in Europe,
but aside from that, Williams's stops in France, the Netherlands
and Italy left him thinking he should make more trips abroad.

"I want to go back there and stay until I have to come back
here," says Williams, who learned a bit of Italian and bought a
Ferrari overseas. "There's so much pressure that comes with being
famous. I can't go anywhere and be myself."

Williams is the first to admit his reputation is in need of
repair. Last season he came off as moody and immature, and he
added to his woes by declaring in the March 20 issue of SI that
Haslett was not respecting him and that the Saints' offensive
linemen were worrying too much about themselves. Williams also
referred to New Orleans as "not a great place to live and to
work." Haslett and many players disregarded the comments, but
others weren't so diplomatic. Says tackle Kyle Turley, "The issue
has been squashed, but it was natural for me to feel bitter about
it. You work hard for a whole season, and then someone says you
didn't try. You're going to be pissed off."

"When I read that story, the first thing I thought was, We need
to visit with Ricky more," says New Orleans general manager Randy
Mueller. "At the time, I had been here only a few weeks, as had
Jim [Haslett], and neither of us really had a relationship with
him. But we're going to build relationships. We want him to know
that we are in this together. I think he's bought into that and
learned to trust people."

"Even though the article was bad, all the things that happened
after it were things I wanted to happen," says Williams, who
didn't apologize for the remarks. "I wanted the team to be more
of a team, and that happened. I wanted Coach Haslett to respect
me more, and that's happened. I wish I had been more mature about
the comments, but I meant what I said."

Williams changed agents in the off-season, dropping rapper Master
P and signing with Leigh Steinberg. According to Steinberg, he
and Williams got together about 10 days after the SI story
appeared. "The Ricky I knew had been distorted in the public
eye," Steinberg says, "and a lot of that was because of his own
comments and actions. It wasn't like this was laid on him, and it
was time for a new approach."

Williams takes pride in being his own man, and he still feels
people judge him before they get to know him. One of his
concerns, though, is that he's always fighting battles he can't
win--for example, wearing his helmet during interviews last season
because a photographer once told him to take it off. Says
Williams, who now goes bareheaded during interviews, "There are
some challenges I don't need, and I have to do a better job of
picking my battles."

He also wants to do a better job of picking his friends. Williams
says one of his best friends recently called him and asked if he
could have a car. Williams wasn't sure if the man wanted to
borrow one of his vehicles or wanted one bought for him. Williams
said no. "He got upset and said that I had changed," says
Williams, who believes a number of his childhood friends now
react to him as a football player rather than as a person they
have known all their lives. "He told me that I treat strangers
better than I do those people close to me. My response was that
people who know me treat me worse than those who don't." Williams
says he may have lost a friend as a result.

Williams realizes that he can no longer be naive about the
business of football, either. "Last year my whole outlook was, I
will have fun doing what I love," he says. "I still have fun, but
now I understand it's different. I never thought I would look at
this as a job, but that's what it is."

COLOR PHOTO: PHOTOGRAPHS BY BOB ROSATO MAKING HEADWAY Williams stiffed Lions defenders as he rushed for more than four yards per carry on Sunday.

COLOR PHOTO: PHOTOGRAPHS BY BOB ROSATO HELPING HAND Blake was one of several veterans brought in to lighten Williams's load.

"There are some challenges I don't need," Williams says, "and I
have to do a better job of picking my battles."