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One must wonder if Ricky Williams really knows why

Editor’s note: The following column from the Best of West collection was originally published in the Port Arthur News on July 28, 2004.

Maybe Ricky Williams saw 49-year-old Earl Campbell hobbling around with a cane, looking more like a man of 79, one too many times.

Maybe Williams, whose affinity for marijuana is well documented, was shoved over the edge by resentment toward an NFL drug-testing policy which has nailed him twice, and had a $650,000 fine hanging over his head.

Maybe the so-called free spirit in Ricky really did convince him the world was his oyster and the millions of dollars he could earn playing football just weren’t worth the aggravation. Or the pain.

Maybe. Maybe. Maybe. With this guy, who could possibly know for certain? He doesn’t even know, although he thinks he does.

As recently as last Friday, the UT Heisman Trophy winner was supposed to be headed to Asia on a one-way ticket to figure out the meaning of life.  On Monday, however, having flown from the  Bahamas, to Miami to Hawaii, to Tokyo in a five-day span, he was in Los Angeles.

Maybe he just likes to fly. Maybe the Dali Lama wasn’t taking visitors.

Next stop, reportedly, was to be Martha’a Vineyard on the East Coast. But only if he didn’t hook up with rocker Lenny Kravitz and tour with him for a while.

About the only place Williams doesn’t seem to have on his travel docket is the end zone. Or the Miami Dolphins locker room, where the timing for his flight of fantasy left teammates feeling shipwrecked. And the pot smokers among them feeling betrayed.

On his way out the door, you see, Ricky spilled the beans to the Miami Herald on the masking agents he used to beat the NFL’s drug tests. “Everyone knows about this,” he said. “It’s no secret to anyone. You have to be an idiot to get caught.”

Williams then admitted he was an idiot for having neglected to consume the masking agent before getting nailed the last time.

Talk about burning bridges. Having blown the whistle on how players sidestep the drug police would seem to eliminate Ricky having another change of heart and deciding to return. The NFL, which comes without a sense of humor chip, won’t take kindly to his disclosure.

Williams is now persona non grata.

Ricky’s mother, as you might expect, seems to have the best handle on her son’s actions.

“As a fan I’m heartbroken,” Sandy Williams told the South Florida Sun Sentinel. “I think the majority of people think he’s nuts. But I raised him not to be selfish but to look out for himself. And he took it to the limit.”

Williams, of course, isn’t the first heralded running back to retire at the height of his career. Hall of Famer Jim Brown was the first to do it. Barry Sanders, who will be inducted into the Hall of Fame in a couple of weeks, did it when he was closing in on the NFL all-time rushing record.

Robert Smith of the Minnesota Vikings was the latest to make an early exit. He did it at the age of 28, after leading the NFC in rushing the year he was to become a free agent.

Former Lincoln great Little Joe Washington, who lasted in the NFL for a decade and is nearing double digit knee surgeries, says it’s no longer a surprise when a running back makes the choice Williams did.

“Anybody who carries the ball as many times as Ricky did, who is the center of attention the way he was, takes a beating the average person can’t comprehend,” he said. “You are as defenseless as you can possibly be, there are no rules to protect you and big, violent guys are intent on hurting you.

“You have to really want to do it. And it’s a position where you can’t get away with going through the motions.”

Washington agreed with the contention that seeing Earl Campbell’s physical woes may have gotten in Williams’ head.

“I wouldn’t be surprised at all if he looked at Earl and saw Ricky Williams 15 or 20 years down the road. They have very similar running styles and the same type build. He takes a lot of the straight-on shots Earl took.”

Williams’ workload, in fact, had become even heavier than Campbell’s. After averaging 271 carries a year in three seasons with New Orleans, he rushed 383 times in 2002 and 392 in 2003. Probably 85 percent of those were between the tackles into the teeth of an eight-man front.

It had to take a huge physical and mental toll.

Williams, though, because of his reputation for being a bit weird, for being a borderline hippie who arrived 35 years late for Woodstock, hasn’t been given much slack over his decision. Especially by those who point out the Dolphin organization bailed him out of a bad contract when it didn’t have to.

Ricky, for those  who missed it, allowed rapper Master P to negotiate his first NFL contract. The incentive-laden deal turned out to be a disaster that had Williams playing for peanuts. After sending New Orleans two first-round draft choices for Williams, the Dolphins restructured the deal.

Williams certainly earned what Miami paid him and more, yet he left the organization, its already-under-the gun head coach Dave Wanndstedt and his teammates in a terrible bind.

If he’d packed it in a month earlier, even a week earlier, the Dolphins would have had some opportunities at other backs. Corey Dillon was available earlier in the summer. Eddie George was on the market last week.

“I respect a person’s right to walk away from something that he doesn’t enjoy. But in respect to his teammates he should have done it earlier, NOT one week before training camp,” said former Dolphin coach Jimmy Johnson.

Then again, who knows. Maybe Ricky all of a sudden concluded South Beach just wasn’t big enough for both he and Shaq.

Port Arthur News sports editor Bob West can be e-mailed at rdwest@usa.net.