WHEN I FIRST MET Ricky Williams, he was in the kitchen hut in a commune-turned-campground outside Byron Bay, Australia, squeezing the juice out of a giant stalk of celery before he headed back to his tent to finish reading a book called Gardeners, Gurus & Grubs. That sentence could not be written about any other athlete in the history of the world.
He had just retired for the first time then, having failed yet another drug test shortly before the 2004 season. While on vacation in Hawaii, he had decided more or less in an instant to leave the Miami Dolphins, football and his home continent behind. He flew to Japan instead. Then to Samoa, then to Fiji, then to Australia, where he found himself in a tent with a pile of books and a thirst for celery. We spent more than a week together, watching whales and playing poker. We also looked at the farm Ricky was going to call his home for the rest of his life. It had papaya and almond trees and an expansive view of the ocean. He was going to call it Corner Stone, after the Bob Marley song. Then the Dolphins went after most of his money, and the farm became one more object in Ricky's rearview. If I'm being honest, I was pretty broken up about it.
Now he's retired again, this time (probably) for good. Weirdly, I'm pretty broken up about that too: As long as Ricky was in the game, I could pretend that there would always be room in it for someone like him. He finished this part of his life with the Baltimore Ravens, as a backup but having become only the 26th man to rush for more than 10,000 yards over the course of a remarkable career. He's had, by my count, at least six football incarnations in two countries. His last moments in a uniform were spent watching Billy Cundiff sail his kick wide left. Ricky would have liked to play in a Super Bowl, because when he travels, that's what people ask him about, but he's getting out of the NFL alive and intact and solvent. He plans on going to medical school. He has defied nearly every possible odd.
That's why I believe Ricky Williams belongs in the Hall of Fame: not because of what he did on the field but because he survived it. He might have been built for football physically, but he wasn't made for the game in any other way. He talked openly about his anxiety and depression. Every one of those 10,000 yards -- 10,009, to be precise -- represents a small, singular triumph. When you strip away the myths and lies from Ricky's story, when you take away all the dumb pot jokes and jockisms, you'll find someone who fought to remain a man in full in a profession that's designed to make you less of one.
Ricky taught me a lot in Australia, but that lesson -- that we need to look past the surface of things, past the easy answer -- has been the hardest one for me to forget (probably because we talked about it while sitting around a fire in the swamps with a homeless man named Mystic Steve, eating flatbread, watching for snakes and passing around a bong -- that was some afternoon). Ricky called his worldview the Corn State. It began with the idea that the closer food was to its origins, the better it was for you, but he later applied that principle to larger parts of his life too. The closer you could travel to the heart of something, the more likely you were to learn the truth of it.
I didn't know it at the time, but I'd learned the truth about Ricky long before I'd even met him. I had emailed him to see whether he would talk to me. This is what he wrote back: I no longer work in a place where I am required to do interviews, so I don't. I do, though, talk to anyone who wants to talk. I have no secrets, nothing to hide. If you want to talk, come find me.
Ricky didn't tell me where he was, exactly, so I had to go looking for him. I think he did that partly to test my resolve and partly because he missed being chased. By some miracle, I found him in that kitchen hut outside Byron Bay. "Ricky?" I said, only half-believing, and he turned around. In that moment, I had no idea that our future would include whales. I just told him who I was and that I was happy to see him.
"I guess I have to tell you everything," Ricky said, and so he did.
That sentence could not be written about any other athlete in the history of the world.