Strange magic keeps Ricky running
September, 11, 2010
By Tim Graham | ESPN.com
Rick Stewart/Getty ImagesAt 33 and with a relentless running style, Ricky Williams should be slowing down, but the Dolphins running back is convinced his unconventional lifestyle and training methods keep him going strong.DAVIE, Fla. -- Upon walking into Ricky Williams' house, nothing indicates an NFL player lives there.
Quite the contrary. I'm not sure what the opposite of football is, but the items in his home might represent it.
Instead of seeing his Heisman Trophy on display, guests are greeted at the door by a statue of Ganesha, a Hindu deity known as the Remover of Obstacles, which comes in handy when Williams' gregarious 4-year-old daughter Asha barricades herself in front of the door to prevent visitors from leaving.
Williams' home features a conservatively classy decor accented with reminders that the owner, among the baddest ball carriers of the past decade, takes an "unfootball" approach to life and his remarkable career.
On the bookshelves in his meditation room are such titles as "The Complete Book of Spells: Ancient and Modern Spells for the Solitary Witch," "Moonchild" and "The Inner Planets: Building Blocks for a Personal Reality" mixed in with textbooks on holistic medicine, esoteric psychology, theology, the occult and philosophy. A statuette of Guan Yin, the Buddhist goddess of mercy, is perched on one shelf. An image of Jesus is on another.
Williams does yoga, has an acupuncture chart on his wall, prefers ambient music, burns incense every night and is a vegetarian who consumes as little as 1,000 calories a day during training camp. Football players are supposed to gnaw on animal bones, hit the clubs and crank music that tests the limits of an Escalade's subwoofer.
That's why Williams typically keeps his unconventional beliefs to himself. He knows they carry stigmas and suspects his teammates won't be overly tolerant.
"Pretty much everything I do," Williams said, "they think is weird. A lot of what I do, I don't do it in front of them because I don't want to weird them out."
Williams believes his metaphysical lifestyle and unorthodox training methods have helped him defy expectations in what would be a common running back's dotage. He's 33 years old and has remained relentless for the Miami Dolphins.
"It's the damndest thing," Dolphins coach Tony Sparano said in training camp, "but when I watch the guy run out here, your eye tells you to keep watching for the arrow to go down and for the drop-off. But I haven't seen it."
Williams is coming off a season in which he led the Dolphins with 1,121 rushing yards and 11 touchdowns, second-most of his career. He posted a 4.7-yard average, his second highest.
You get the sense watching Williams drive his shoulder into a would-be tackler rather than veer out of bounds in a meaningless preseason exhibition that he might know a secret or four.
He hopes that someday his celebrity and résumé will convince people to try something that challenges mainstream normalcy.
Williams will eagerly share his insights with those who seek him out. But in general, he displays his beliefs only at home and with those who are open-minded.
Buffalo Bills linebacker Reggie Torbor considers Williams among the top three most influential people he has met in football. Torbor spent the past two seasons with the Dolphins and would engage in deep, philosophical discussions with Williams on team charter flights.
"You get the picture painted before you meet him that he's crazy," Torbor said. "Couldn't be further from the truth. Just different, but different isn't always worse.
Al Messerschmidt/Getty ImagesIf Ricky Williams repeats his production from last season (1,121 yards), he'll surpass 10,000 career rushing yards.
"Just talking to him, man, it just opens things up. It's kind of like the horse with the blinders coming off. He just sees things from a different light."
When Williams retires from football, he wants to be what he described as a modern-day shaman. He's working on his pre-med degree at Nova Southeastern University and intends to finish at the University of Texas and then become a doctor of psychiatry who practices holistic healing.
"In primitive cultures, the shaman was the physician, was the psychiatrist, was the counselor, all those things," Williams said. "Healing happens on every dimension. It's physical. It's emotional. It's mental. It's spiritual. So I want to be able to provide that service to my patients."
In particular, Williams wants to practice craniosacral therapy, an alternative medicine that's viewed with skepticism by the mainstream medical community. Doctors claim positive results come from a placebo effect.
Williams swears by craniosacral therapy, saying it increases his confidence. He first experienced it while recovering from a broken arm with the Toronto Argonauts four years ago. Their training staff suggested he try it.
In July, he tweeted "I feel like I have a complete advantage over others" because of craniosacral therapy. Olympic swimmer Natalie Coughlin, who won six medals in 2008, is another proponent.
Williams invited me into his home to experience craniosacral therapy in his meditation room. Dr. Lisa Upledger, wife of chief advocate Dr. John Upledger, performed the therapy. It's a general body maintenance that consists of gently manipulating the head and neck to enhance function of the central nervous system.
"When I look at football players getting knocked around like they do, I just see all these impacts and bodies realigning and compromising," Lisa Upledger said. "These guys are able to get up because the adrenaline's up. The endorphins are high. They shrug this stuff off. It doesn't hit them until later.
"But even if I say it helps them improve .5 percent, which might be nothing, and add up those therapies over the course of the season, then maybe they feel 10 percent better by the end of the year. I think a guy functioning at that level might feel that it's the difference between winning and losing."
While Lisa Upledger performed the therapy on my head, Williams acted on a previous conversation we had about sports-related trauma around my right hip. I'd suffered a minor fracture in high school and a torn quadriceps eight years ago.
He braced my lower back with his left arm under my waist and placed his right hand on the knot of scar tissue for a half hour. While my CST experience seemed open to interpretation afterward, I did experience greater range of motion in my hip and leg.
Williams believes energy can flow from one person to another through touch and that a trained professional can channel healing powers into a receptive patient.
"When you put your hands on someone, as you become more sensitive you can really feel their rhythm," Williams said. "You can also sense there's blockages to the flow of energy or tension or tightness. That's the way I look at things."
Even with so many players popping up on injury reports, Williams won't force upon his teammates such a bizarre remedy as healing hands. The boldest glimpses he'll provide at the Dolphins facility are yoga poses to loosen up, something he wouldn't have dared to show three years ago.
Sometimes, though, desperation will coax a teammate to experiment.
"I'll only offer if I see they're in a lot of pain," Williams said. "And at that point, it's their livelihood and they say 'I'll try anything. It can't hurt.' As it goes, if they notice that it's helping they'll be more receptive.
"But I think the concept is so foreign it's difficult to be receptive to it. Even if it works, it challenges a lot of their beliefs. That can be frightening at times. So I think it's difficult for them to stay receptive to it."
Performance is Williams' best testimonial for being open to unusual methods.
He's borderline elderly for a position that relies on speed, strength and alertness while absorbing punishment. Williams' running style should have him worn to a nub by now.
Yet Williams is showing no obvious signs of deterioration.
"I really believe that I'm onto something and the transformation I experienced can benefit a lot of people," Williams said. "I figure if they see me doing it and that it has helped me -- they can see more wins, more yards, more touchdowns -- then they'll be more motivated to open their minds a little and try it."