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COMMENTARY

No surprise he runs free

Williams marched to his own beat

MIAMI -- The football lifers don't understand Ricky Williams.

The same probably goes for a lot of fans, too. There probably aren't many sports enthusiasts who can understand how a 27-year-old man in possession of such extraordinary athletic gifts can simply stop employing them. Perhaps they should have been paying closer attention.

Williams has always been different. He never has been one of those cookie-cutter guys. There always has been a complexity to this man, whether it was a diagnosed "social disorder" that saw him conduct interviews while wearing his helmet when he was with New Orleans, or the various pronouncements over the years that clearly separated him from the garden variety NFL star. There never should have been any confusion on the part of anyone: Ricky Williams was always a) uncomfortable with celebrity and b) interested in more than football.

The fact that he is not playing this season really should not have come as a shock to anyone. The unquestioned Preview of Coming Attractions is right there for all to see on page 265 of the Dolphins' 2004 media guide, where, after explaining that he had visited Thailand in the summer of 2003 and Australia last summer, the report continues:

"Both trips gave Ricky an opportunity to expand his knowledge outside the realm of football."

"It was a very interesting trip," Williams wrote of his one-month journey through Australia. "I'm one who really enjoys to learn, whether it's about football or life. Experiencing a different culture really taught me a lot about myself and about our culture. One thing that I really learned, which was a very valuable lesson, is that in life you really need to slow down sometimes and really smell the roses. There are so many things out there for us to love and for us to enjoy."

Does that sound like a future NFL assistant coach or network football commentator to you?

The foolish assumption most people make is that great athletes always really want to be great athletes. In most instances, that happens to be the case, but it's not always true. Sometimes people are pushed along by society, contrary to their deepest wishes.

There is no question that Williams is a great athlete. If you are a football fan, you don't need a recitation of the basic Ricky Williams resume, a portfolio that includes a brilliant high school career at San Diego's Patrick Henry High School and a career at the University of Texas that was spectacular enough for him to be the fifth overall pick in the 1999 draft. Then-Saints coach Mike Ditka was so enamored of him that he gave up six '99 picks -- plus first and third-rounders the following year -- to get him.

Williams also was a baseball player of note. He played four years in the Phillies' system. So we are talking about an elite athletic talent.

It now appears he was never really happy with any of it. It now appears that if Williams truly had his druthers, he'd have been happy hitchhiking around the world. He may or may not have liked the game in which he excelled, and the competition it provided, but he most definitely did not like what it meant to be Ricky Williams, Celebrity. This did not suit his personality and temperament.

However cruel a trick it was for the Guy Upstairs to give this much raw talent to this type of sensitive soul, that's what happened. A young man like LeBron James wants to be both a top-of-the-line player and a true star. Williams, meanwhile, doesn't care all that much about how far he can go as a player and he doesn't care at all about being a star. He was not happy being Ricky Williams, Miami Dolphin, so he dropped the charade.

He is happy -- finally. "People talk about the money I've lost," he told Mike Wallace Sunday on "60 Minutes." "But the knowledge and freedom I've gained from this experience is priceless."

The football lifers don't understand what he's talking about. As Bill Parcells would say, "Hey! It's football season. A football player should be playing football."

That's the thing. Williams refuses to define himself as a football player. He thinks there must be something else out there for him, and he spent a lot of time this summer while living in a tent in Australia trying to see what those things might be.

"I had about 30 books," he told Wallace. "Every morning, I would wake up about 5 and take my flashlight and I'd read for a couple of hours. Everything from nutrition to Buddhism to Jesus to trying to figure it all out. `What am I? What am I?' I just kept reading and reading and I couldn't figure out what it was. But I learned a lot."

He's going to lose some people when he says he's smoking copious amounts of marijuana daily and has no intention of stopping. He's going to lose other people who think he let his teammates down. He'll lose more people if he doesn't give back the $8.6 million in bonus money he has taken from the Dolphins under what are clearly false pretenses (and he filed papers yesterday trying to get the arbitrator's ruling set aside). And he'll never be comprehensible to people who think a gifted athlete has some inherent obligation to utilize the type of talent so many others lust for.

Well, guess what? It's his life, not theirs, yours, or mine. Playing football was not making him happy. Why should that be so difficult a concept for people to understand?

"I'm doing whatever I want to do," he told Wallace. "I valued freedom for a long time, and I finally feel like I've got more of it."

There may be many more professional athletes out there who are secretly envious.

 

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