There goes the most interesting athlete in the history of South Florida sports.
Seven years ago we were burning his jerseys in effigy, cursing his name. We have called him a pothead and a quitter, questioned his loyalty and mocked his eccentricities. Yet he leaves us on good terms as the favorite son no one fully understood, the spiritual wanderer who searched a long time to finally find himself.
We miss him already, and he has barely gone.
Ricky Williams, 34, a free-agent running back, signed with the Baltimore Ravens on Monday. It was not huge news across the NFL, but it felt like it was in Miami, where nine years closer to an odyssey than a career comes quietly to an end.
What a long, strange trip it’s been, if I might quote kindred soul Jerry Garcia.
Williams might have been the greatest Dolphins running back ever. He would own all the club records and we’d be hoisting his name onto the team’s stadium Honor Roll by consensus if he hadn’t missed two full seasons and almost all of a third of his own doing. Even with that he leaves as the club’s No. 2 all-time rusher, just a few hundred yards shy of hallowed golden-era champion Larry Csonka.
No Dolphin ever ran for more yards in a season than Williams’ 1,853 in 2002, or more yards in a game than his 228, or for more career 100-yard games.
And yet one is hard-pressed to think of football first when one considers Williams’ time here, and how to judge his legacy. That is part of the problem, but also part of the unending fascination.
It’s as if he was the accidental athlete, a man who just happened to be extraordinarily gifted at football but never seemed quite comfortable in its world.
Williams was as good as any running back in the league when he abruptly quit two days before training camp in 2004, leaving a team in the lurch, teammates stunned, fans outraged. The outcry only rose in volume with the news he faced a league suspension for a drug violation, not his first.
He was an athlete who turned his back on his sport and its fame and riches to, as he would say later, “find myself and go deeper into myself.” He was a guy with long dreadlocks who loved to smoke weed and would spend much of that season out of football living by himself in a tent in rural Australia, meditating. Going deeper.
The late-night monologues sharpened the knives. He was a national punchline.
Williams returned to the sport in 2005 only to be suspended for yet another failed drug test, made to sit out the 2006 NFL season and instead playing in Canada. Reinstatement in the midst of the ’07 season was short-lived as he was lost for the year to an injury his first game back.
Things were changing, though. Perceptions of Williams were reforming.
Somehow by 2008 Williams was seen as an elder statesman, drug-free now, more mature, at peace, admirably accepting of his role as a backup to Ronnie Brown. Williams had become an unlikely favorite of Bill Parcells, no less, the gruff football lifer. A man who had been so self-centered in ’04 had at last found his own center and balance.
With the cloud of drug suspensions past and no longer a threat, we began to appreciate Williams for who he was. We began to see his layers. We began to feel the cool breeze of what made him, well, yes: odd. There was just something so damned refreshing about him. At times he seemed like a flower child dropped in the midst of this armored violence.
He was like nobody else. He was like that before we met him, was like that before we knew him, and never stopped being that person. He was flaky to some, but he never stopped being real.
Williams, on Twitter, sent this simple message out Monday afternoon: “Thank you, Dol-fans, it’s been fun.”