It wasn’t always smooth sailing, nor did it always appeal to our logic and rationale, but Ricky Williams’ career will never be duplicated. I’m not referring to yardage or touchdowns either, no statistic can measure Ricky’s legacy. No, Ricky Williams was unique and accomplished something unprecedented in the NFL.
He earned it back.
I’m not going to give you the run-down of Ricky’s career, Brian covered that already, I’ll just focus on what he did in Miami. After blowing Dolphins’ fans minds for two straight 1,500+ yard seasons Williams left the Dolphins high and dry in 2004.
To say the first time Ricky Williams retired was a bad day for Dolphins fans would be understatement. At the point he quit, he was one of the most beloved players on the team and was absolutely integral to Miami’s success.
I still remember where I was the night that Chris Mortensen, the harbinger of doom, announced on Sportscenter mere days before the start of camp that Ricky had informed the Dolphins he wanted to retire. Miami would go 4-12 that season.
It was devastating. The fans lost it, jerseys were burned, obscenities were laced through conversations about the myopic running back and for several years ‘Ricky’ became a dirty word.
Ricky would come back later, fail another test, go to the CFL briefly and then suffer a season ending injury in his only game of the season at Pittsburgh in 2007.
By the time he returned under Cam Cameron Miami was winless, flirting with 0-16 and looking for any kind of spark. Many thought Williams might be exactly that, only to have their hopes dashed as Williams was stepped on by Lawrence Timmons and sent to IR. Most figured Williams was done at that point. Many felt he was getting what he deserved. But either way his outlook was bleak.
And then something amazing happened.
From 2008-2010 when Williams paired with Ronnie Brown, he slowly began to climb back into the good graces of Dolphins fans. Little things did it at first, a touchdown run here, a little burst there. Then in 2009 Williams returned to form. With Ronnie Brown injured he put Miami on his shoulders once again, averaging 4.7 yards per carry to the tune of 1,121 yards and 11 touchdowns.
I remember the exact moment it happened for me, it was the same for many Dolphins fans, Dolphins at Panthers in 2009. Miami had just that week learned Brown would be out for the rest of the year and Ricky wasted no time assuaging the doubts of Dolphins fans.
Williams caught a TD and ran for one early, but with the game close and about 4-minutes remaining in the 4th quarter, he broke a 45-yard touchdown score to put Miami up 24-14 for good. That was the moment I think Williams finally broke back through.
It may have been before that moment for you or it may have been later, but for most Dolphins fans Ricky rebuilt the faith. Sure there were still jokes about cannabis use, Dolphins fans never forget, but make no mistake about it Ricky made it back into our good graces.
Just look at the abundance of number 34 jerseys you still see at Dolphins games. Look at the negative response many fans had toward the team when Ricky walked (even as he leveled criticism at the franchise). By the time he ended his career in Miami last year, Williams was back in the realm of the beloved.
That’s his legacy. That’s what nobody has ever done. Ricky Williams being popular again in Miami would be like if Michael Vick was able to rebuild the bridge in Atlanta. It would be like Albert Haynesworth smoothing things over in Washington. He screwed the Dolphins, truly screwed them, but by the end of his time in Miami you almost couldn’t help but be endeared to the guy.
There’s just something intriguing, almost mesmerizing about Ricky Williams. He draws you in with infective charisma and a deceptive intellect. He once gave interviews in a helmet because of social anxiety and now he leaves the NFL with a platform he plans to use publicly to address mental and spiritual health.
And I think that’s potentially the essence of why he’s got such magnetism, why you can’t help but like him. We got to watch him grow and evolve in Miami.
There has always been something so very human about Ricky, something identifiable. He was a man struggling to live up to his potential and the expectations that came with it. He made mistakes, he ran afoul of the league several times, but he came out the other side a different person. A better person.
More than any fan-base in the league, Dolphins fans get that. You may not appreciate how he impacted the team in the middle of the 2000′s, I sure don’t, but you saw him grow from it.
He came back, he flashed that potential again and we couldn’t help but let him back into our hearts. It was as much for the plays he made on the field as the growth he made off of it.
Ricky’s isn’t the story of a one-dimensional football player. He’s a man who asked us to view him as more than just an athlete and grew into his own skin right in front of us. You can’t gauge Ricky’s career through just a football lens, it does it an injustice.
No, Ricky gave us a glimpse into the reality of the NFL, he pulled back the curtain and let us see that these players are men, not commodities. That they hurt more than just physically and can sometimes buckle under the weight of the scrutiny. Ricky was public about his flaws, sometimes maybe too much so, but he showed us all something we may never see again in the NFL, a truly genuine perspective.
I’ll always have a soft-spot for Ricky. He could have been one of the best, but he’ll always be one of the most memorable.
Farewell, Ricky. And good luck.