Street cred

Before the dreads, before the rushing records, before his biceps were massive and full of ink, Ricky Williams was playing football like any other kid -- whenever and wherever.

He'd line up wide, like most everybody else back when football was one quarterback and 10 receivers, and eventually snagged the nickname Little Tim Brown, back when Tim Brown was Tim Brown and had a whole lotta game.

Street ball was a proving ground for Ricky.

"When I was young, we moved around a lot to different neighborhoods in San Diego," he says. "Whenever we went to a new place that's how I earned my respect, that's how I got in, by playing street ball."

And that's how -- and why -- Ricky Williams fits perfectly on the cover of EA's new hyperactive arcade-style football game, NFL Street, right between Shannon Sharpe and Barry Sanders. Because Williams is style and substance and street in his own right.

No, he's not the stereotypical loud star with the rap album and entourage that some may believe go hand-and-hand with street culture.

Instead, he's soft-spoken, a man who chooses to let his game and sometimes his dreadlocks talk loudest.

"I take pride in that I bring a different flavor to the NFL," the Dolphins running back says. "Everyone has a different style. It's about not being afraid to express yourself. And I'm not afraid to express myself, to be myself."

The same goes for NFL Street, which follows in the line of EA's NBA Street, expressing itself by incorporating urban themes from art to music to fashion.

But this time EA's vision was to get the art and the music and all the street culture to the forefront of the game. So to get the flavor right, EA relied heavily on a few New York products, namely Justin Bua and the X-Ecutioners, who represent today's urban landscape and have connections to street football.

Pop in the game and the intro video sequence immediately introduces you to Bua, one of today's most popular urban artists who grew up in Harlem back in the thick of hip-hop's renaissance. He's standing in front of a clean grafitti wall, seemingly in need of inspiration. So he checks out the scene around him, a scene he's very familiar with, a scene he's still immersed in -- the breakdancer, the street baller, the poet, all in action.

And by the end of the video, the wall is full of color and life as Bua brings urban art and football together for the game's lead mural. This isn't Terrell Owens with a Sharpie.

His artwork is all about characters and expressions and that's what he loves about the NFL right now, right down to Johnnie Morton doing the Worm in the end zone. He believes today's players all have been affected by hip-hop in some way.

That's why Bua was so excited to help out with the project, especially since EA wanted art to be an integral part of the game.

"My goal is to put art on the map again," Bua says. "There's a misconception of what true hip-hop culture is -- that it's about money, bling-bling, fame, girls. But, ultimately it's about freedom of expression, rhythm of the street."

So Bua, whose artwork is all over college campuses and dorm walls, enlisted a team of young, up-and-coming artists to help with the game's artwork. He went from Brooklyn to Compton to Chicago to Minnesota until he got the right mix, then let them do their thing.

What they came up with was a wide variety of interpretations of steet football that EA features on the game's loading pages. And since museums aren't a big part of today's youth, Bua believes that, at the moment, this is the perfect venue to get the art out there and encourage kids to become artists.

To show them the relationship between art and sports. And music.

That's where the turntable group, the X-Ecutioners, made up of Rob Swift, Total Eclipse and Roc Raida, came in. They've done tracks for video games before, but NFL Street was the first time they scored an actual game.

"We were so excited about the chance to do this that we took a break from our album," says Swift.

The project took them six months. Besides dropping down a few tracks, along with various artists, the X-Ecutioners focused on creating music for different locations in the game, making sure each venue had distinctive music and rhythms. Because, obviously, playing on the roof and on the beach aren't all that similar.

Even more difficult was making music that reflected what was going on during the game. They had to figure out what an interception sounded like and create scratches that indicated that the ball was turned over. Or when somebody scored, they made sure the music and scratches got more energetic.

"It was challenging," says Swift. "You're working within certain restrictions. You have to coordinate what you do with different things happening throughout the game. When you're doing a record, you're not thinking about those things.

"But the game is so full of energy and what we do is so full of energy. It was a perfect blend."

But you won't realize that until you play the game, until your head starts bobbing to the music and your eyes become fixed on the art.

So Ricky and I put the game to the test.

Williams is a big-time gamer, dating back to using his favorite player, Bo Jackson, and on occasion the Chicago Bears for their defense, in Tecmo Bowl. These days he says his heart and soul is Madden, challenging anyone and everyone.

"I play online a lot," he says. "To me, that's the best invention ever."

But now it's face-to-face, or well, shoulder-to-shoulder and he's whooping me from the get-go, scoring two quick touchdowns with T.J. Duckett and the Falcons. "He's a beast," he says of Atlanta's RB.

Williams doesn't like to use himself, hasn't really since firing up NCAA Football when he was a fullback his freshman year at Texas, when he needed more carries. Instead he opts for running QB's, in this case Michael Vick, so he can take full advantage of the option.

"NFL Street's about making plays, not picking the right play," he explains.

Well, either way, I was just getting played. I was the Dolphins in tribute to the man to my left, and Duckett was plowing over cyber Ricky, who on defense was my linebacker.

"You're letting me down man," I said to him.

"My bad."

Maybe he really felt sorry because soon after my team styled its way to a 27-25 lead. Unfortunately, after that, the Falcons scored on the next two possessions to win 41-27.

"You gave me a run for my money," Williams said. "You almost came back."

Easy for him to say, he was the reason I almost came back, as his virtual double was my Player of the Game in the losing effort. Though his tackling skills were poor in the game (and I let him know it), he did end up with a defensive TD and two fumble recoveries.

But don't expect him to quit his job at running back. "It pays the bills," he jokes. Although he's quick to add that, if given the same chance to play any position in the NFL -- offense or defense, like Street allows -- there's no doubt in his mind he'd be successful wherever he lined up.

"I'm not afraid of anybody," he says. "For football, street or wherever you play, that's how it's gotta be."

Matt Wong is a writer for ESPN Gamer.