Ricky williams was at a crossroads, and he pondered his next move. "Should we walk into town, or should we go to the river?" Williams wondered aloud last Wednesday on a gorgeous Northern California afternoon. "It's a tough call, because both experiences would be incredible, but we only have time for one before it gets dark. Town would be cool, but the river would be more dangerous."
The world's most notorious milk-carton athlete and I had spent several hours in the one-bedroom house he's renting in a small Sierra foothill town, catching up on things, butchering Bob Marley tunes on cheap guitars (Williams is teaching himself to play) and eating the delicious kichadi (mung dal, barley, assorted vegetables and fresh-ground spices) he made before going to Indian healing class that morning. Now, with the sun beginning to fade, we had finally become motivated to seek an adventure.
Read into it what you will, but the man who four months ago walked away from a $5 million-a-year job carrying the football for the Miami Dolphins chose the more ambitious option. Soon we were in his $100,000 Hummer, charging down a steep trail filled with holes bigger than the ones Williams ran through at Texas. Tree branches scraped burnt-orange paint off the hood as the vehicle slipped and slid through the trenches. "What's the point of having a Hummer if you're not going to take it off-road?" Williams asked with a laugh. "I mean, hey, if I'm not going to be rich, I might as well get the most out of my toys while I still have them."
In September an arbitrator ruled that Williams must repay the Dolphins $8.6 million in bonus money. But the most obvious solution to his money problems--a return to the NFL--is complicated by his facing a suspension for violating the league's substance-abuse policy and, more important, by his having no desire to play. In the five years I've known Williams I've never seen him more at ease. "I can't imagine being any happier than I am right now," Williams said. "If my decision to walk away upset some people, I'm sorry. But everyone has a right to be happy--it's what the constitution says--and football wasn't doing it for me."
After spending the first months of his retirement traveling--he visited Japan, Jamaica, Australia and Thailand--Williams became interested in ayurveda, an ancient Indian healing discipline, and enrolled in an 18month educational program at a small institute in California's gold country. "That's what I'll do with my life," he said. "But I'll heal people for free, and that way I'll have a network of places to stay and people who care about me."
He says he loves his new, stripped-down life. Thanks to a vegan diet Williams, who does most of his own cooking, weighs 210 pounds, 30 less than his playing weight with the Dolphins. The father of three children by three women doesn't have a girlfriend and says he hasn't been intimate with anyone in two months. With no TV he keeps abreast of the outside world by means of a high-speed Internet connection. While he hasn't seen the 1--9 Dolphins play--"I wish they weren't struggling so much," he says--he sat in the stands and saw his hometown Chargers defeat the Titans in October. And he adds that he got kicked out of an Angels--Red Sox ALDS game in Anaheim because he wasn't wearing shoes. ("I was barefoot," Williams explained, "because I cut up my foot during a hike in the Australian rain forest. I stepped in some quicksand and lost both my shoes while pulling myself out, and then I cut up my foot pretty bad.")
Other than twice-weekly yoga classes he isn't exerting himself physically. "I did play basketball the other night," Williams said, "and this guy I'd just met came up to me afterward and gave me a paper bag full of weed. He's like the fourth guy who's done that since I've gotten here." He last felt the pull of football while sitting in a hotel bar in Thailand in September and watching a few minutes of the Raiders' victory over the Buccaneers. The sight of Oakland coach Norv Turner, Williams's offensive coordinator last year with the Dolphins, made him sentimental, so he booked a flight back to the U.S. and contemplated a return. But, he said, "after two days of hearing all that noise about whether I'd come back or not, I was like, There's no way in hell I'm playing."
As the last rays of sunlight reflected off the river, we stood on the rocks above listening to the water's roar and admiring the foliage lining the canyon. "I've never had a chance to experience the fall like this," Williams said, smiling peacefully.
We got back into the Hummer and began our return to civilization. Soon we saw a man with a pronounced limp walking his bike. Williams stopped and told him to hop in and "just throw the bike in the back." When we dropped off the cyclist, the man, who seemed unaware of his benefactor's identity, gratefully pulled out a small Baggie full of thick, green buds and handed Williams the contraband.
Williams drove on, Marley's Positive Vibrations blasting through the speakers. "This is perfect," Williams said. "I knew coming here was the right choice."
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Ragulin was the scarred face of the Soviet hockey juggernaut. --TO RUSSIA, WITH LOVE, PAGE 22
ILLUSTRATION BY STEVE BRODNER