Ricky Williams on Life After Football

Ricky Williams has never been afraid to reinvent himself. He walked away from the NFL in 2004, to the shock and ire of fans, the media, and, he says, virtually everyone who knew him. Williams’ stellar UT football career (1995-98) had made him a two-time All-American and only the second Heisman Trophy winner in school history. He smashed a multitude of NCAA records, 20 of which he still holds. And then, after his pot-smoking habit got him in trouble and he missed several games with an injury, he left the Miami Dolphins to travel the world for a year. Writers mocked him as one of the “10 Biggest Quitters in NFL History” and “a disgraced hero.”

Thursday morning, though, sitting up straight on stage at the AT&T Conference Center for a Q&A during a UT conference on black student-athletes, Williams didn’t look like a quitter or a disgraced hero. Nor did he utter any mystical New Age aphorisms—although he is a yogi, a teacher of self-help workshops, a massage therapist, and a tweeter of such inscrutable lines as “How much are you ready and willing to receive??” and “Capture the Action!” Instead, Williams spoke candidly and eloquently to a crowd of athletic advisors, university administrators, and other people in the business of college sports. He spoke about the tremendous pressures placed on student-athletes and how hard it was to find his own identity.

“There was one point where literally everyone in my life thought I had lost my mind,” Williams said. “To walk away from the NFL and just leave? It was by faith. I kept on going knowing that at the end things were going to turn around.”

Moderator Leonard Moore, history professor and senior associate vice president at UT’s Division of Diversity and Community Engagement, prompted Williams to talk about the fact that no one told him he was smart until he was 27. Williams told the crowd that this realization, which happened after he had left football to travel the world, gave him a confidence that sports never did. He was chatting with a stranger he’d met in Australia at the time. “In response to something I’d said, [this stranger] told me, ‘Wow, that’s a really good point. I never saw it that way,’ and that was a mind-blowing moment for me,” Williams recalled. “No one had ever acknowledged that my perspective had value.”

Williams has since returned to UT to finish his undergraduate degree, and he’s also eyeing a PhD in psychology. Moore announced to generous applause that Williams will join the McNair Scholars, a program that supports graduate students from underrepresented backgrounds. Williams said that a presentation in one of his classes about the program gave him the idea of pursuing grad school. “I didn’t even consider I could ever do that. ‘Dr. Williams’—I like the way that sounds. It excites me. I didn’t ever consider I could get a PhD, but I know it’s going to open even more doors in my life,” he said.

Several athletic academic advisors in the audience asked Williams what they could do better. He said that most universities’ advising structure is inherently problematic. “I think the advising should be separate,” he said. “When academics is so closely tied to football, it really forces you to stay in that bubble. Because the academic advisors answer to the football staff, what advice can they give you?”

Williams’ advice to aspiring young athletes is simple. “Look at the big picture,” he said. “A lot of us when we get to college and get a scholarship and three square meals for the first time, we feel like we’ve made it already. But guess what, life continues. Ask yourself what you would like to be doing when you’re 50. And then go for that.”

Photo by Anna Donlan


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