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|Ricky Williams returns to New Orleans, this time as a photographer.|
This story appears in ESPN The Magazine's April 15 Photo Issue. Subscribe today!
RICKY WILLIAMS is a machine purpose-built to cover ground, starting with his zoom lenses for eyes. Since retiring from the NFL last year, he's continued his lifelong search for avenues and openings, the beginnings of every one of his runs. At 35, only his horizon has changed. In the last year alone, he's been to Australia three times, New Zealand, Canada, Italy and across America, from Florida to Hawaii. On Feb. 3, his travels took him to New Orleans. He'd been to a Super Bowl in 1999, before his professional career. Now he was at his second, after it.
He had a camera around his neck and another over his shoulder, shooting for The Magazine. He's taken pictures for years. "It's sometimes easier to show people my point of view rather than trying to explain it," he says. In some ways, the Super Bowl felt less like an assignment than part of a larger plan. It was in the city where he'd started his NFL life; one of the teams, the Ravens, represented the city where he'd ended it only the season before. "It was a nice story, a romantic story," he says today from his latest home, back in Austin, Texas, the site of his Heisman glory, the one place in the world where he's a statue.
He'd always had a strange relationship with football -- not the game but the universe. He'd sometimes been suspended from it, and he'd famously retired once before, when he fled the Dolphins in favor of a tent in Byron Bay, Australia. There were different stretches when he felt something like love. Now that he'd left the NFL for good, Ricky had gone through the same mental journey that all retired players endure before he'd decided that he had no regrets. He wondered, though, if seeing one of his old teams, in one of his old stadiums, might change his mind.
Ricky's greatest joy is surprising people by showing up where and when they least expect him. He is propelled by double takes, and walking the sidelines before the game, in his tan photographer's vest, he turned many heads. There were New Orleans cops and stadium workers with whom he'd been friendly years before. There were media staffers from the Dolphins. He talked to John Harbaugh and some of his former teammates, and Ricky felt sure that the Ravens would win, because they were so relaxed, determined to take it all in. He was happy too, watching his career play itself out again in front of his eyes, This Is Your Life. "It was a really, really cool experience," Ricky says. Even Roger Goodell looked at him twice before smiling and stopping to shake his hand.
Yet he was still expecting some kind of hurt. Maybe, he thought, it will arrive with the kickoff. But by then he was snapping shots of Ray Rice, Frank Gore and Ray Lewis (above), among many others. Watching the game through his cameras had the dizzying effect of bringing him closer to the action while also separating him from it. "Looking through a camera, you sometimes lose the bigger picture" is how Ricky puts it. When Baltimore built up its early lead, he looked at the scoreboard and waited again for the ache of longing, but it still didn't come. Even the blackout didn't open the doubts in him that it did in the Ravens.
The confetti, Ricky finally thought. The confetti will sting like rain. He was surprised when it became just another subject for his photographs. "The earth didn't shake," he says. "I realized it's just a football game. Yes, it's a big football game, but I didn't feel like I was missing out. I was just happy for my teammates, the way you're happy for a kid when they have success. I knew how much they wanted it."
And now he was certain that he didn't. "What a wonderful way to bring closure to my NFL career," Ricky says. It left him doubtless about his path. He didn't fly out until late the next day, and by then New Orleans looked different to him. It felt different. All the energy and anticipation, the desire and fear, had been drained from it. Workers swept the quiet streets, suddenly empty and open. Ricky saw them and wondered where he should run to next, because for someone like him, for the luckiest of us, only in photographs does the world stand still.
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