Ricky Williams: NFL Football Healer

Miami New Times/July 26, 2012

At the Center for Pranic Healing, a small studio in a dull Davie office complex, Ricky Williams is cradling in his thick arms a middle-aged woman with bleach-blond hair. He's wearing Gucci loafers, basketball shorts, and an Under Armour T-shirt, which she is soaking with sobs.

She's crying about her job, her boss, and her distant children. She's crying, she says, because she can't find some aspect of the spiritual healing described by her teacher — a former NFL All-Pro fullback — in her instruction manual.

At 230 muscular pounds of yuppie-comforting sympathy, he gives her a pregnant look: Why are you even worried about the manual? "You can call me anytime, you know," he says.

"If I could kidnap you for a week," the woman bashfully tells Ricky while playfully pounding his massive chest, "I just want to glue you to my hip."

At 35 years old, Ricky is just five months retired from 11 seasons and 10,000-plus bruising yards rushed as a member of the New Orleans Saints, Miami Dolphins, and Baltimore Ravens. But he looks as fresh and clean as the day he was born.

His once-trademark dreadlocks — a shock to the sports world when he emerged as a football superstar, but now standard issue in the NFL — were scraped away years ago. Also gone is the patchy homeless-dude beard that grew on his face like dark moss during his "troubled" period, when he gave up football amid marijuana suspensions and disappeared to Australia in the middle of an eight-figure playing contract.

The former vegan, who found himself curiously eager to eat meat upon his retirement from the NFL, has always taken an obsessive dabbler's approach to spirituality and healing. He's been declared a "yoga master." He's amassed a guru's knowledge in ayurvedic medicine, pranic healing, and cranialsacral therapy — practices traditional doctors deride as pseudo-scientific. He's studied massage therapy at a storefront college in Kendall and is a smattering of credits short of finishing his premed degree at Nova Southeastern University.

Tonight he's running a session in his newest passion, a spiritual practice called Access Consciousness, invented 20 years ago in California. His studio is full of people milling around massage tables. Ricky turns off the lights, and half of them climb onto the tables.

"Time to play, my unhappy friends," demands a voice from the stereo system in a corner, where Ricky has plunked in a CD. "You've been pretending it your entire life, that you're really as serious and unhappy as everybody else, but you're not... Beautiful people, we're here to change the fucking world!"

The unexpected profanity seems to set off a low clicking, like that of a baseball card in a fan, in the middle of the room. The sound becomes a long, pealing giggle. Ricky's laughter is contagious; soon everybody's chest is heaving.

Right now, having just retired from the NFL, Ricky is supposed to be beat up and afraid. In the past year and a half, two other recent NFL retirees, 43-year-old ex-linebacker Junior Seau — Ricky's childhood idol and buddy from their time together on the Dolphins — and Chicago Bears Super Bowl champ safety Dave Duerson, fatally shot themselves in the chest, preserving their brains for postmortem testing for dementia caused by gridiron concussions. Thousands of former players have filed suit against the NFL, claiming the league concealed information about the long-term dangers of the sport. Ricky's middle-aged colleagues, such as his mentor and fellow former University of Texas legend Earl Campbell, walk like 80-year-olds. Each has a ticking time bomb in his skull.

But Ricky, who has never been conventional, says a decade-plus of spiritual healing has rid him of the ill effects of his career. "I don't feel anything," he says, "like it never even happened."

Now he wants to move on from the Whole Foods crowd that typically attends his classes and share his techniques with fellow former running backs and linemen. Ricky believes he can heal the NFL.

Everyone asks him if he's ready for the next chapter in his life. "No, this is the first chapter," he corrects them. "That football stuff, that was just the prologue."

Six years after he failed an NFL urine test for the fourth and presumably last time, Ricky Williams — who says he no longer smokes weed — will likely never escape the pothead label. He sees it every time he logs on to Twitter, where followers send him emoticons of marijuana leaves and pictures of South Park's stoned Towelie and, presumably while snickering, ask if he's enjoying himself on 4/20.

It's about the only thing that pisses off Ricky, who says he has virtually eliminated emotion from his life. "I get upset that they're too stupid to put that aside," he says of the obsession with his former pot use, "so that they can see that I'm really trying to give them something that would actually help their lives."

Besides, he adds, it wasn't a need for weed that forced him out of the NFL for his infamous hiatus. It was an epiphany: You're allowed to look at the world any way you want.

The thought initially came to him during the 2003 football season, his second with the Dolphins. He was 26 years old and had been playing organized ball for a dozen seasons. The first time he touched a football as an eighth-grader in San Diego, the kid — born Errick Lynne Williams Jr. — ran it down the middle for 75 yards while his coaches stood agape on the sidelines. The run was reversed, he recalls, due to a penalty on the play. Raised by a single mom who bought him a football so the neighborhood kids would be forced to play with him, Ricky didn't know much about the game: "I just loved to run."

Back then, sports were an escape from a childhood saddled with responsibility. His father, Errick L. Williams Sr., had abandoned the family when Ricky was 5 years old. (He has a twin sister, Cassie, and a younger sister, Nisey.) "We were a team," Ricky's mom, Sandy, says of her young family after Errick Sr. departed. And Ricky was the captain. From the age of 2, he would officiously tuck in his twin and switch off her bedside lamp at night. With his dad gone and his mom working, Ricky made ramen noodles and hot dogs for his sisters' suppers.

Ricky's first cousin on his dad's side was Cecil Fielder, the Detroit Tigers slugger and father of Prince Fielder, currently the most powerful hitter in baseball. Ricky apparently inherited their supreme athleticism minus the pudgy gene. He was gleefully violent as a football player. Rushing 2,000 yards as one of the best high school running backs in the country wasn't enough: He also moonlighted as a linebacker because he loved the crush of tackles.

He hoped to become another Bo Jackson or Deion Sanders. After accepting a scholarship to the University of Texas, he deferred to take a five-figure signing bonus with baseball's Philadelphia Phillies as an outfield prospect. The bonus didn't go to some Lexus dealership. He paid for his sisters' college education and put a down payment on the Austin, Texas house where his mom still lives.

At UT, after his brief flirtation with baseball ended, he became the nation's most hyped young athlete this side of LeBron James. When he broke the NCAA's all-time rushing record in 1998, it wasn't his proudest achievement, he says. Rather, he reveled in the fact that he had made conservatives swallow their stereotypes. "There were these white people from the state of Texas who were shedding a tear [of joy]," he recalls fondly, "and I was this kid with dreads and piercings and tattoos from California."

He won the Heisman Trophy in 1998, his senior year as a Longhorn. He's still proud of the award — good friends say that if he left society to live under a bridge, which always seems a possibility, he would keep the Heisman in his backpack — but it was also the snare that trapped him in others' expectations.

Ricky's first decision that had the sports world scratching its collective head, his choice of Master P as his agent, could have been worse. The rapper and hip-hop mogul negotiated the rookie's absurdly incentive-laden 1999 contract with the New Orleans Saints. But Ricky's first pick for a representative was basketball wild child Dennis Rodman. ("I drink; he smokes," Rodman tells me in a mostly unintelligible, possibly drunken phone interview. "That's about the similarities, motherfucker.")

That summer, Ricky posed in a wedding dress, with Saints head coach Mike Ditka as his tuxedoed groom, for the cover of ESPN: The Magazine. The headline "For Better or Worse" now seems cynically prescient. The Saints forked over a dowry of years of draft picks to snag him, and the football-crazed bayou town played the role of demanding in-law. The team floundered. Ricky, who had grown up in a mostly white neighborhood in California, struggled with life in a place that was fiercely and economically segregated. "The poor people hate the rich people," he says when asked about New Orleans. "The rich people hate the poor people. So when you're black and you're rich, it creates some complications."

There was no place for Ricky. He became resentful of the NFL and the media. He began wearing his helmet during interviews, he says, to send a "message" to reporters who didn't care that there was a human being under there. He realized, for the first time, that people thought he was weird. He wanted to be back at UT, with teammates who were like family. "One day you're a boy," Ricky says, "and you open up your eyes and the next day you're a man, and there's not a transition period."

"He just wasn't comfortable with people and the media," Ditka says. "I think Ricky is a deep thinker. And sometimes when you think too much, you can kill yourself."

It was on a Saints plane trip that Ricky met Kristin Barnes, a lithe and loquacious blonde from Arkansas who was working as a Delta private charter attendant. She was decked out — as required by her bosses — in Saints swag and Mardi Gras beads. He was the strangely modest superstar who helped her collect and clean his teammates' dishes as the two chatted.

Together they would eventually have three children: sons Prince and Elijah and daughter Asha. It would initially be another stunted relationship, mostly because Ricky also had children with two other women — a daughter, Marley, in Massachusetts and a son, Kekoa Blaze, in Hawaii. (The Honolulu kid was a product of a trip to the local Solid Gold, says friend and former Dolphin Floyd Raglin: "I told Ricky: 'Don't fall in love with a stripper, man!'")

Ricky was traded to the Dolphins before the 2002 season. He became a common sight on South Beach, rolling around on a beach cruiser with a camera around his neck. And in Miami Gardens that first season, at age 25, he played up to almost superhuman expectations, but at the expense of his body. He led the NFL with a whopping 383 rushing attempts for 1,800 yards, was named First Team All-Pro, and started the Pro Bowl, even as the mediocre Dolphins missed the playoffs. After games, Ricky would sit in dark rooms alone to recuperate. He couldn't lift his arms above his head, and his knees were nearly arthritic.

It was sadistic overuse by head coach Dave Wannstedt, says Ricky's current business manager, Elkin King. "Wannstedt was trying to run his ass literally out of the league," King says. "You give somebody 380-something totes, you either love them or can't fucking stand them. And I don't think it was love." (Wannstedt, who is now a defensive coordinator for the Buffalo Bills, did not return a phone message left at his home.)

So when the 2003 season rolled around, Ricky was disheartened to see that Wannstedt was apparently sticking with the run-Ricky-into-the-ground playbook. "The Dolphins didn't get a good quarterback," Ricky says (the starting quarterback in 2003 was Jay Fiedler). "They didn't get a good receiver; they didn't do the things to build around me. They were just depending on me to do everything."

Without quite knowing it, he began fumbling for an escape valve from football. During the offseason, after a 10-6 2003 campaign during which Wannstedt ran him 392 times, Ricky picked the farthest English-speaking place on the map — Australia — and traveled there for two months to look at rural property.

In the outback, nobody knew Ricky Williams. When he returned to the United States, he had a revelation: "I started to realize no one here really related to me as a person. It didn't feel good."

No longer motivated to crack playbooks, he now rifled through stacks of philosophy textbooks. He rode a Harley-Davidson that helped him think. It was his meditation before he knew about meditation. He was on the hog a few weeks before the start of the 2004 training camp when he was finally hit by the implications of the phrase that had been bouncing around his head for a year: You're allowed to look at the world any way you want.

At dawn the next day, Kristen found her off-and-on boyfriend wide awake in a rocking chair and holding their 1-year-old son Prince at their apartment in Plantation. "I don't want to play football anymore," he blurted, and laid out his detailed plan. He would lead the Dolphins to a championship in 2004 for the final year of his contract and then travel to Peru for at least six months to learn Spanish. Then he would get a coaching job at UT.

If you were anywhere near a TV set in 2004, you know that's not how it worked out. Five days after that early-morning announcement, news broke that Ricky had for the first time failed a drug test for marijuana.

Kristin believes he might have subconsciously sabotaged his standing with the league to avoid explaining his urge to retire at age 27. Because why else, she reasons, would he smoke a joint the day before his scheduled NFL urine test?

In August 2004, filmmaker Sean Pamphilon received the strangest offer of his career. Ricky Williams had quit and disappeared to Australia after the failed drug test, leaving the Dolphins with a year on his contract. ESPN was on 24-hour indignant alert, treating it like the sports catastrophe of the century.

And now the AWOL football star was calling from halfway across the globe, asking Pamphilon to interview a list of friends and family members and put together a DVD.

Ricky explains he wanted his kids — whom he had left in the United States — to understand why he had abruptly retired. "I wasn't going to be in it at all," he says of the film. "It was just going to be something to have, to show to my kids or to carry with me."

To Pamphilon, it was too weird to turn down. Ricky essentially offered him a blank check for his services. The filmmaker, along with two crew members, ended up charging $66,000 for a 33-day shoestring production of interviews in Miami, New Orleans, Texas, and California.

While Pamphilon was conducting the interviews, his millionaire boss was living in a tent in rural Australia with a skinny semi-homeless man he knew only as Steve and whose spine was curved by scoliosis. Ricky had befriended Steve because the Australian native was wearing a Bob Marley T-shirt, and they spent their days hopping through giant tide pools, tending to papaya trees, and making an extremely simple pan bread that they ate for dinner. Steve philosophized about the "corn state" of a person — that moment after they'd been "cracked" and were in their purest form.

"I was in my corn state," Ricky says he realized. "I had dumped football and left my life behind. I was starting fresh."

He received intermittent calls from Kristin. "She wasn't even my girlfriend at the time," Ricky says. "She thought I was crazy. I think she was just calling to make sure I hadn't killed myself or whatever."

After hanging out for a month or so, the two new buds planned an Asian tour on Ricky's dime. The idea was to fly from Bangkok to Beijing to India. But once in Thailand, the pair got separated for a couple of days. Ricky couldn't get a visa to visit China because he had washed his passport in his pants.

So he trekked to the northern Thailand city of Chiang Mai looking for a particular pair of jade chopsticks. But while he was waiting in a bar lobby for a shuttle to the jade factory, the bartender switched on a little TV set and there was an NFL football game: the Oakland Raiders versus the Tampa Bay Buccaneers.

"All these feelings came back," Ricky says. He got Kristin on the phone: "Can you get me on the next flight going home?"

He ended up bidding adieu to Steve in Bangkok and catching a ride on a private jet with the musician Lenny Kravitz, who was on a world tour.

When Ricky returned, Pamphilon said the film project was bigger than he expected. The monthlong contract turned into a multiyear enterprise. The director filmed as Ricky studied the holistic medicine of ayurveda in the hills of California, returned to the Dolphins to fulfill his contract, and was suspended for a season after a fourth positive drug test. Pamphilon trailed him as he did a mercenary stint for the Canadian league Toronto Argonauts, returned to the Dolphins, where he was redeemed in the eyes of Miami fans, and finally married Kristin in 2009 — and, apparently, did a lot of brooding in dark rooms throughout.

Pamphilon sold the resulting film to ESPN with Ricky's permission. Run Ricky Run aired as part of the network's "30 for 30" series and was loaded with bombshells. Chief among them was the accusation, made by Ricky's mother, Sandy, that his father had sexually molested him before abandoning the family. (Errick Williams Sr., who denied any recollection of the incident in the documentary, couldn't be reached for comment for this story. He declared bankruptcy in 1990 and 2004 and now dabbles in the ministry. According to property records, he and his new wife, Patricia, filed for ownership of God's House of Deliverance Church in Roanoke, Texas, this June.)

Kristin and Sandy say they had no idea the film would be publicly broadcast. "If you had told me that this was going to be on ESPN," Ricky's mom says of her participation, "believe me, it wouldn't have happened."

Ricky also takes issue with the documentary's portrayal of him as depressed and grappling with social anxiety disorder. "I thought it would be one summer where I never even had to see him," he says of Pamphilon, "and it turned into this long, drawn-out five-year project where he got to blame me for everything in his life that wasn't going well."

Shown a working version of the movie, Ricky says, he demanded that Pamphilon remove his mother-in-law's conjecture that he might kill himself.

"Sean, suicide never, ever crossed my mind, not for one millisecond, during the whole process," Ricky remembers telling the filmmaker. "If someone else can't understand what it's like to be free, and they think that's killing themselves, that has nothing to do with me, so don't put that in the film."

Pamphilon allows that he removed talk of suicide. But he stands by the documentary, calling Ricky's protests "revisionist history."

At times, Pamphilon says, even he wondered if the exiled football star might be plotting his own death. "He wants a video library built for him so his kids know who their father is, and I'm thinking, Why the fuck don't you tell them yourself?" the filmmaker says. "Is this dude having me do this because he's going to kill himself?"

Ricky also appeared in a Pamphilon-produced segment on Fox in which he discussed having an anxiety disorder, and he once had a $500,000 contract to promote Paxil. But now he says he doesn't believe he ever had any such disorder or needed the drug. He was just confused by his inability to adapt to the NFL.

And he wasn't smoking weed to self-medicate, either. "I was using marijuana because I liked the way it felt to be high," Ricky says. "I mean, isn't that why everyone uses marijuana?"

He and the filmmaker — who recently made headlines when he controversially released audiotapes of Saints defensive coordinator Gregg Williams putting an injury bounty on opponents — have a strange relationship. Kristin calls Pamphilon Ricky's "girlfriend" because he calls so often, and they get into bickering fits.

They're currently not on speaking terms because of an argument about the effect of concussions, Pamphilon says. Ricky believes that thanks to his spiritual training, he is safe from dementia caused by football's hard helmet hits. He even posits that former NFLers effectively will the deterioration of their own bodies and brains to solidify the only identity they know: as former football players.

To Pamphilon, it's dangerous mumbo jumbo. "I've interviewed enough people to understand that if you've played the amount of games he's played at the positions he's played, I can't imagine how it wouldn't have an effect on his brain," he says of Ricky. "I really hope that it doesn't. But to think otherwise is just not grounded in reality."

Midmorning on a Monday, Ricky bursts through the doors of a SunTrust branch in Fort Lauderdale. "It's funny learning all this business stuff," he says with evident pride. "I've become a businessman."

He's there to pick up a credit card machine. He's bringing his Florida corporation — Errick Williams Group LLC — out of dormancy. Access Consciousness is not only spiritually "mind-blowing," as Ricky likes to say, but also extremely profitable.

Besides his sessions at the studio in Davie, he's spent much of the past few months traveling the world — Singapore, Jamaica, Australia, Dubai, Cancún — teaching wealthy people how to live without judgment or the rule of emotion, the ten­ets of Access Consciousness. A group weekend with Ricky and other "facilitators" can cost each student $2,000.

Ricky fits his frame into a chair in a cubicle across from a doting banker named Linda. He signs up for a Delta SkyMiles business credit card. "A hundred twenty dollars?" he says, laughing wildly, when told the fee. "That's nothing!" He then recites his social security number next to a reporter he first met that morning, has to call his wife Kristin twice because he forgot their address, and guesses that his corporation will make $20,000 a month in revenue.

That is, much to Kristin's chagrin, a severe pay cut. Ricky was set to make $1.5 million next season, his second of a two-year contract with the Baltimore Ravens. Between the Master P-negotiated rookie deal, the suspensions and first retirement at the height of his earning potential, child support payments on two coasts, and a general disinterest in capitalizing on his fame, Ricky has made only a fraction of the nine-figure fortune for which he originally appeared destined.

The plan with his wife was to buy a house with his Ravens salary in the upcoming season.

But Ricky, who plotted his retirement every season while dreaming about future travels and classes, felt misused in Baltimore in 2011. He was a backup to then-24-year-old star running back Ray Rice. "I don't think he could take how selfish that guy was," Ricky's business manager, Elkin King, says of Rice.

"Ray doesn't like to share the ball," agrees Kristin. When Ricky wasn't used even once for short yardage in an elimination playoff game against the Pittsburgh Steelers, it sealed Ricky's decision.

Days after the season ended, he walked into their bedroom at 6:30 a.m. and declared, "I just retired from football."

"I was pissed off," Kristin says. But she wasn't surprised. Instead of buying a house, they rent a unit in a posh apartment building in Plantation.

Though Kristin allows that she is still "pretty much a single parent," Ricky is becoming more of a dad. Having traveled the world alone, he took his first family vacation this summer, to Legoland in Orlando. He recently even cooked dinner for the brood: blackened grouper in a white-wine reduction. He tells his kids "monkey stories" in which he turns characters from obtuse Bible parables into apes, somehow making them easier to visualize.

Ricky believes that children "choose" their parents and eventually find out why they made that choice. He chose his deadbeat dad because it forced him out of childhood by age 6. "What kid doesn't want to grow up quick?" Ricky says. "Kids are powerless."

The argument pivots easily into a defense of his own sometimes-absent parenting. "All of my quote-unquote defects or whatever, [the kids] must know something I don't know because they chose me," he says. "So I don't ever have to feel bad about anything that I do as a parent."

Ricky, who doesn't eat or sleep on a regular schedule, ponders such logic at night, when he plays pool by himself in his apartment building's lobby or strolls the slumbering neighborhood. And he hatches plans. By August, his family will move to Austin — so he can finish his premed degree at UT — or Houston, or they'll not move at all, so he can take classes at Nova Southeastern. He changes his mind nearly every morning.

What Ricky really wants is his first NFL client — to teach him Access Consciousness and other healing practices. "It's not a harmonious relationship," he says of professional athletes and their bodies. "It's almost like slave and master." If Ricky can rid one player of that mindset, he predicts the word of mouth spreading rapidly through NFL locker rooms. He's always said he wanted to change the world. Maybe this, he thinks, is how he'll do it.

Mike Ditka trusts Ricky's healing magic. "If people want to be healed, if you want to live a whole life instead of a half life, I would try what Ricky has to teach," the grizzled retired coach booms when told that Ricky wants to recruit former football players. "I believe in that stuff."

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