Last night, ESPN ran its latest “30 for 30” feature, "Run Ricky Run," a compelling documentary about someone I got to know over a two-year period more than a decade ago.
I met Ricky Williams in the summer of 1997 when he was playing professional baseball for the Single-A Batavia Muckdogs in the Phillies’ farm system. He was a client of the athlete representation firm for which I was working, Woolf Associates in Boston. When a legal problem came up in Austin, Texas, that September, I went to assist Ricky and his mother Sandy. It was the first of a dozen trips to Austin over the next 16 months.
I talked to Ricky or Sandy a few times a week starting that fall. At the end of the 1997 season, Ricky, a running back at the University of Texas, decided to enter the 1998 NFL Draft. We filled out the necessary paperwork and had it notarized at the Disney Hotel hosting us for the ESPN College Football Awards.
When we left Orlando, Ricky went home for the holidays, leaving me the paperwork to send in to the league. Since Ricky could be a bit fickle in his decision-making (as we now know), I held the forms until talking to him again since there would be no turning back once I sent them in. Sure enough, Ricky called after Christmas to say he wanted to stay at Texas. I explained the financial impact of the decision and the fact that as a running back, his earning years would be more limited than all other positions. To him, however, it was not about money; it was about life experiences.
"Why should I go somewhere like Chicago or St. Louis," he asked, "when I can stay another year in Austin? Next year, I have no choice, but this year I do." So he was staying. The Chicago Bears picked Curtis Enis fifth in the 1998 draft -- they would have picked Ricky and changed a bit of NFL history -- and Ricky returned to Texas, asking me in his quiet and endearing voice, "Will you still represent me a year from now?" I said I would (you think?).
Ricky went on to win the Heisman Trophy and became the "it" player in football. After the Cotton Bowl, I formally signed Ricky to a representation agreement and then traveled with him to all kinds of events, fighting off agents along the way.
One event was the Hula Bowl in Maui. No one understood why a top-five pick in the NFL Draft would risk injury in a second-tier all-star game. Simply, he wanted to experience Hawaii.
I remember Lloyd Carr, the coach of Ricky's team there, saying, "He's just here for autographs, right? I'm not going to play him." I told him no, Ricky wanted to play, and he did, in a driving rainstorm. Ricky was not one for the established way of doing things -- again, as we now know.
Soon afterward, I noticed some new people hanging around him and asked him about them. He explained that they were from No Limit Sports, part of a new operation headed by music entrepreneur Master P. Ricky wanted a different experience than just having a football agent; he then asked if I would be interested in working for Master P (Percy Miller) in negotiating contracts for him and others.
As this was happening, I was getting calls from the Green Bay Packers. I had a client there, Matt Hasselbeck, but he didn’t need a contract so I ignored the calls (hey, I had Ricky and Master P going on). When I finally called back the Packers, they inquired if I would switch sides and work for them. Long story short, I ended up in Green Bay and Master P found another negotiator.
I’m often asked about Ricky and my thoughts on him. He was different than any player I’ve known, both good and bad. He had a childlike curiosity about him, which is refreshing, but could also be distant and moody. He brought people into his life and often saw how they reacted when he tried to push them away. His friends were not always football players, and he had interests that went way beyond the game. He was genuinely interested in many people he met, wanting to hear their opinions about things.
I never saw any drug use with Ricky. Obviously, it’s something he’s done and has admitted to, but I never saw it.
More than anything, Ricky was/is, well, interesting -- and interested in things that most athletes find peculiar. There are a lot of athletes with a lot to say -- and many more with very little to say -- but few of them with interests that go well beyond football.
Now Ricky – turning 33 next month -- is considered an elder statesmen and respected leader on the Dolphins. He seems settled and happy as a father, husband and teammate, his wanderlust appearing dormant for now. Good for him.
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