Failing a Drug Test Was My Way Out of Football, and I Took It

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Beneath my prowess on the field was a sensitive, philosophical human drowning in the barrage of projections about what a star athlete should be. The version of my story I see most often portrayed in the media is that I am the National Football League’s most famous underachiever. At the height of my career and physical ability, I quit football to smoke weed – that getting high and throwing my life away was more important than making millions and fulfilling my destiny to become one of the NFL’s greatest running backs. The more compassionate media sources painted me as generally troubled. They referred to my early NFL days when I occasionally donned my football helmet during interviews. They attributed my diagnosed mental health disorder to my abrupt abandonment of the Miami Dolphins just weeks before training camp.

Americans hate stories of opportunities and talent gone to waste. We demonize quitters, draft-dodgers, abandoners and the like. Now add “drugs” into the picture and it’s easy to see why people were upset. Overnight, I went from a (less than ideal) model of what our society celebrates – success, money and hard work – to what we deplore and protect our children against – debauchery, irresponsibility and selfishness. In hindsight, I can see how my actions must have looked to football fans who only saw me through the lens of sports writers and 10-second sound bites. A deeper truth lies beneath.

Miami Dolphins and Ricky Williams: On weed and testing

The decision to retire early started brewing at the end of my second season with the Dolphins. 393 carries at 3.5 yards a pop wasn’t fun. It was painful – for my body, my spirit, and most significantly, my ego. At each level of football, from Pop Warner through the NFL, my rushing and touchdown numbers always increased. The 2003 season was the first time I had ever experienced a drop-off in production, and for me, that was a wake-up call. I’d fallen into the trap of what Yogis refer to as Maya: the false idea that fulfillment in life comes from chasing society’s ideals. In my pursuit of excellence on the football field, I’d neglected my pursuit of excellence as a human being. To the majority of people in my life – friends, family, teammates and fans – that neglect was more than okay. For me, it was no longer an acceptable way to live. I had to wake up and grow up so that one day I could finally show up.

There is a saying among creative people, “The pot boils faster with the lid on.” It means that when you have a good idea, keep your mouth shut and do it. Sage advice I did not take. Instead, I excitedly picked up the phone and called all of my closest friends and confidants to share the thrilling news. They all agreed: I was crazy. The funny thing was, I’d never felt so lucid.

The unanimous backlash I received from my closest friends and family shocked me into reconsidering my exit plan. Instead of retiring immediately, I decided to play one last season. I could then leave everything on the field before riding into the sunset to begin living MY life. I dedicated myself to finishing the last couple of weeks of off-season team activities (OTAs) stronger than ever for my triumphant grand finale…

I bet you can see where this is going, especially if you already know the story.

Following OTAs, we had six weeks off before training camp. I told myself I was going to keep pushing my body in preparation for my final season. In reality, I couldn’t stop fantasizing about my post-football life: all of the traveling, reading, learning – I was intoxicated with thoughts of personal growth and free time. And no more being chased across the world by NFL employees clutching their wildly hypocritical piss cups. As synchronicity would have it, I received a text from a good friend who was touring Europe with her boss, Lenny Kravitz. I hinted to her that I wasn’t doing much, and less 24 hours later, I found myself in Vienna.

160617-rickywilliams-8367In 2004, the NFL’s drug program didn’t reach European soil, so I had a reprieve from the tyranny of Dr. Brown, the hypocritical medical director of the NFL’s failed drug program. Traveling with LK and his band was the best of both worlds: I was able to enjoy star treatment while being practically anonymous. I was sure everyone assumed I was one of Lenny’s bodyguards. The experience was entirely new and completely liberating. While I did smoke a bit in Europe, it wasn’t until the final stop in London that I willfully set down the path to career suicide.

I was face-to-face with the realization that my triumphant final season wasn’t a worthy endeavor. As I puffed on my pipe, I could feel the underlying tension in my psyche drift out the window with the Super Silver Haze smoke. I confidently picked up the phone, called the NFL, and told them I would be home for one day before hitting the road again. I had a solid plan: if I announced my retirement before the drug test was made public, I could take advantage of the NFL drug policy’s confidentiality and ride off into the sunset. And that’s precisely what I did.

The public opinion immediately followed my retirement was more positive than I envisioned. My good friend and supporter, journalist Dan Le Batard – now of ESPN’s “Highly Questionable” fame – led the initial wave of media coverage. He wrote about how cool it was for a talented and young football player to walk away from the game of his own volition, à la Barry Sanders and Jim Brown. I liked that narrative and felt that it was biographically accurate. But when I confided in Dan about the drug test, his professional obligations unfortunately took priority, and public opinion shifted overnight.

Ricky Chose Drugs was the theme of the following morning’s headlines. Apparently, drugs are the natural explanation for walking away from money and fame, from the modern American Dream. But that wasn’t my American Dream, and people had a hard time considering any other plausible reason to leave it all behind. I dreamt of my inalienable rights – life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness. And by my account, retiring when I did was the first step to lasting fulfillment.

I felt the pressures and judgments come at me from all sides – society, family, peers, church, employers.  I was punished, ridiculed and written off for making cannabis a part of my life.  I’ve been in that incongruous mental space, where on a visceral level I knew and felt the ways that cannabis was helping me and improving my wellbeing in so many ways – physically, emotionally, psychologically, spiritually and creatively.  I was growing into a deeper, kinder person.  I was minding my own business.  I wasn’t hurting anyone.

I’m sure many of you can relate to being in this confusing place from your own unique personal experiences.  Yours just didn’t make international headlines.

So what are we left do when something resonates with us? When something feels right and true and good to the core of our being, and we’re shamed for it?

We’ve all been there at one time or another in our lives — probably many more times than just once, if we’re honest. We pull back, hide, retreat and question why we enjoy something that others tell us we shouldn’t. Sometimes, we succumb to the voices and cut ourselves off from that thing. And that’s what I did on and off, for many years.

160617-rickywilliams-8503Still, the widespread view of me as a stoner, a pothead, and a dope-smoking hippie (I’ve heard them all) continued throughout this period to be reinforced in its various, sometimes comically simplistic ways. Like the flurry of tweets and posts about me on 4/20, or the social media comments of a photo with me and Snoop Dogg — that we must only be in each other’s company to get high.  (Surprise! We didn’t break bud together. At least not at that particular meeting…)

At some point, the energy behind my frustration at the hyperbole and the caricatures transformed into something else. Through an alchemy of sorts, instead of allowing my energy to dissipate by turning myself away from the labels, I started shifting my position. I began to embrace it, finding the ways in which the pre-conceived notions could work for me.

But it hasn’t always been this way. It’s been a wild ride, some of it sweet, some of it painful; some of it really painful. Many of you already know this and are familiar with the images and sound bites from my highlight reels. If you’ve seen Run Ricky Run, you’ve seen a version of it there, too.

Coming out publicly about my lifestyle, my points of view, and my hopes for the future of cannabis certainly isn’t without its risks. I’m currently an analyst for ESPN, which is owned by Disney, a mainstream, publicly-traded company associated with family values.  I don’t know what the result of my public support of cannabis use in a more “out-there” way will hold for me, nor for my business and personal relationships that developed when I was much more private about this part of my life. But at the same time, I’m well aware that these “what if’s” in life — the “should’s” and “should not’s” — will always arise. And I’ve learned that when we give those distractions and outside voices too much attention, it’s to the detriment of our own truth.  We’re eroding our ability to listen to our souls.  And I’m not sure what in this life is more important than that.

What’s been pretty thrilling, though, is getting to witness 8 states legalizing marijuana for either medical or recreational use this past November.  That means that the governing bodies of 33 states — over half the country! — have now formally recognized the powerful health benefits of this plant.  65 million people live in states that allow recreational use.  Wow.  This is a far cry from those darker days that began in 2004, when only 6 states had legalized cannabis, all for only limited medical use.  And yet: President-elect Trump recently tapped as our next Attorney General a U.S. Senator named Jeff Sessions, who last April said that marijuana is “not the kind of thing that ought to be legalized”.  And that is just one of the many anti-cannabis remarks he has made over the years.  The schizophrenia continues.

Through it all, I’ve become increasingly aware of and fascinated by the common threads between our current culture’s vacillating, uneasy relationship with cannabis use, and my trial-by-fire experiences that began over a decade ago. So many have told me that I was ahead of a major cultural curve – our generation’s end of Prohibition and a significant civil rights movement, rolled into one. For me, it feels like déjà vu, only now playing out in the collective psyche instead of my small private world.  I couldn’t be more excited that I no longer feel so alone on this long strange trip, and that you’re riding along with me.

About Author

Ricky Williams is a Heisman Trophy winner and a record-breaking running back from the University of Texas and the NFL. Currently living in Los Angeles, Ricky is now best known as a sports analyst, TV personality, public speaker and a vocal advocate for the therapeutic treatment of body and emotional trauma. He is also a strong supporter of the efforts to legalize and regulate cannabis in the U.S., as well as the growing movement to reform the NFL’s drug policy.

13 Comments

  1. Ricky,
    I applaud you for understanding yourself well enough to take your own path in life. Sports in general, and the NFL in particular, involves people projecting their own hopes and dreams and fears on elite players, almost to the point of owning them. Combine that with money and adulation and a person can get twisted around, doing things everyone else wants you to.

    Kudos that you made your decisions.

    What you have unfortunately discovered is that fans (and even more, sportswriter) want to blame something other than the person for anything they feel is failure. Its easier to blame the drug than their idealistic expectations of you.

    Seems to me you were true to yourself. But it also illustrates how far we have to go to normalize cannabis. Nobody would have cared if you drank a little (or even a lot), but it’s a weakness and failure if you smoke a little weed.

    Maybe someday weed will all be as normal as booze. But probably not for decades.

    Most of us keep our heads down and off the radar, so it’s both encouraging to see people stick their head up for personal freedom, but also discouraging when people try to lop it off. But you’ve always been a football player. You can handle a few hits. But I wish you didn’t have to.

    On the other hand, between getting out of football and toking on some therapeutic weed, you’ll likely still have a sound and functioning intelligent mind many years down the road. You certainly have one now.

  2. RIcky —

    I’m not a football fan and wasn’t familiar with your story. Your essay is beautiful, and so is your message. More of us should let go of everyone else’s expectations and follow our inner knowledge like you have.

    • The discovery of a tomb in China (2700 BC) uncovered 796 grams of Cannabis female flower; identified as the most effective part of the plant for medicinal use. No other parts of the plant were buried in the tomb identified as a Shaman (healer).

      It’s a shame that our government and society relate unacceptable behavior to the consumption of a plant that has been used as a medicine for millennia.

      When you search online for approved clinical studies (in the US) on Cannabis nearly every study prior to 2014 was conducted to investigate harm and drug abuse – not the benefits of the plant toward healing and pain relief.

      It’s not surprising that public comment regarding Cannabis as a medicine is being aggressively pushed forward by families with children suffering Dravet’s Syndrome Epilepsy. Charlotte Figi’s story was widely broadcast by Dr Sanjay Gupta, who has changed his thoughts entirely about Cannabis as a result of her miraculous recovery. Amazing what facts can do to the public mindset instead of “alternative facts” and outright lies!

      The Charlotte’s Web strain of Cannabis was developed in Colorado and has successfully turned around the health of Charlotte Figi. Charlotte suffers from Dravet Syndrome Epilepsy. At the age of 5, she was suffering 300 Epileptic seizures a day. At the time her parents discovered the Cannabis tincture now named after her, Charlotte was in a medically induced coma and was prescribed 50 pharma drugs a day. Western medicine deemed these invasive and life threatening treatments as appropriate – the only solution they could find.

      Today this child is off ALL pharma drugs. Charlotte is thriving and experiences 1-3 seizures a month. Her ONLY medicine is a Cannabis tincture; “Charlotte’s Web”. Families are flocking to Colorado who suffer from this genetic disorder – finally hope of recovery and treatment where there was none.

      Recent studies have unequivocally determined that Cannabis is effective for the treatment of pain as well as other diseases that western medicine only has a pharma drug (with horrific side effects listed in pages of warnings) and/or debilitating surgeries as a remedy.

      A 2014 study determined that 40 people a day die in the US using opioids (80 % of all opioids are sold in the US) – no person has EVER died of Cannabis use. It is also determined that in states where medical Cannabis is legal the rate of opioid use and death decrease steadily and consistently. People in pain are using Cannabis as a substitute for opioids. Yet, Cannabis is still listed as a Schedule 1 drug.

      Americans consume approximately 99 percent of one specific opioid; hydrocodone. Hydrocodone is listed as a Schedule 2 drug! In the eyes of our government Hydrocodone is safer than Cannabis?!

      The Health Effects of Cannabis and Cannabinoids: The Current State of Evidence and Recommendations for Research (2017) is a study published recently that was conducted by the Committee on the Health Effects of Marijuana: An Evidence Review and Research Agenda.

      The 378 page study document clearly outlines the positive effects that are experienced by individuals using Cannabis as a medicine for a variety of ailments. Yet, our government still schedules it as a drug with absolutely no medicinal value? Our government sees hydrocodone, a powerful painkiller that kills people every day in this country as safer than a plant that has caused ZERO deaths?

      Listed as a Schedule 1 drug, this limits any Cannabis medical research done on a clinical level by the established and recognized institutions.

      In fiscal year 2015, the NIH supported 281 projects totaling over $111 million on cannabinoid research. Within this investment, 49 projects ($21 million) examined therapeutic properties of cannabinoids, and 15 projects ($9 million) focused on CBD. All others were focused on harm and abuse.

      We can only hope that as more evidence and research is conducted that the Schedule 1 listing for Cannabis will change and finally allow Cannabis to be studied as a medicine and not as a drug that harms.

  3. Hey Ricky. Also wasn’t familiar with your story, but man… that is some seriously inspirational action. Keep fighting the fight!

    It’s people like you that are helping millions to shake what is a pretty insanely incorrect stigma.

  4. I am sorry Ricky Williams. While I never spoke the words when you left the NFL, I thought them. I owe you an apology. I am THAT person you described. Actually, I WAS that person you described. The marijuana industry changed me. The people who fight the battle changed me. Meeting you changed me. Keep up the great work Mr. Williams. You may learn your legacy was never meant to be confined to 100 yards.

  5. Thank you for sharing your story, I feel very connected to it. I enjoyed watching you play football sir, but I am much happier to have you in the universe doing what you are now.

  6. Dear Ricky,
    I so admire the COURAGE it took to speak your truth (when it wasn’t popular to do so) and your ability to step away from what sounds like a very lucrative NFL career. I’m a licensed clinical psychologist, who has utilized marijuana responsibly, my entire life. As I work primarily with teens and families, I definitely am still “in the closet,” which is why I have so much respect for what you wrote here. You have a friend in Northern CA if you ever make it up this way
    : )
    Keep Shining!

  7. Keep at it Ricky, you are on the right path. I once was on 5 types of opiates of pharmadrugs (legally prescribed) 5 years ago and had tried medical Marijuana for the first time when I was 19. I am 23 years old now living near Los Angeles, CA and have been off ALL pharmadrugs since receiving my 1st medical card in Riverside 2013. Pharmadrugs are no good, can alter your mind and personality, especially when mixing with alcohol. Marijuana will never do that to an individual, otherwise the labels would say, “do not mix with alcohol.” just like most pharmadrugs. It did not take long for the pharmadrugs to take over my mind, which is why I needed a healthy alternative. I suffered from anxiety, depression, and many more mental issues. I am glad that all those issues are now wiped away. Cannabis is the next step in the medical industry and will most likely take over the pharmaceutical industry which is why I think people don’t want cannabis legalized. It will put a good amount of businesses, out of business.

  8. Brad Montgomery on

    Ricky, you are one of my biggest inspirations in life. Growing up as a kid, I was always obsessed with baseball and football. My childhood dream was and still is to make it to the MLB. I was always one of the smartest in my schools, very kind and dear to my family and friends. I was known as the “good kid”, the “sports geek”, and the “golden child” from my family and peers. I had almost no enemies in my life. I started partaking in cannabis use in 2009, the end of my freshman year of highschool. I had no illnesses or anything, I was a perfectly healthy young teenager. When I first started smoking weed though, it wasn’t just “fun” to me… it completely and vividly changed my entire perspective of life and thought processing. I felt everything so much deeper in my life. People and animals and silly little things like trees blowing in the wind and the ocean breeze on my face meant so much more to me than ever before. Before smoking cannabis, I could walk past 100 strangers in the world and not think anything about them. But after smoking cannabis I began to think much deeper thoughts. I would walk past 100 strangers and think to myself “I wonder what that person’s life is like. I wonder what that person goes through on a day to day basis. I wonder what that person cries about on the inside, at night when they are in bed thinking… or do they even have a bed to sleep on?” It was those thoughts that confirmed to me that even as a healthy human being, cannabis had altered my mind in such a way that I began to care much more about life itself. And not just my own life for once, but everybody else surrounding me. Now, getting caught by the police smoking weed my junior year is where everything sort of took a negative turn in society’s eyes. The cops told my baseball coach what happened. He cut my buddies who were on the team with me who I was smoking with. He wanted to cut me so bad, he never did cut me though because of my ability to play on the field, which completely confirmed to me that this game was a business and not just a game anymore… he ridiculed me. He told my parents who ridiculed me still to this day. He told the school principal about me. Who then made an example of “what not to do” to the entire school, and how drugs like marijuana ruin your life and career. I remember the next day at school how many people talked shit to me, and old “friends” who never spoke to me again following this. My football and baseball teammates looked down on me for the first time. I was the team captain, but not anymore. Teammates began to think that I was lazy, not a hard worker, I was not going to go to school for a scholarship because of what happened last Saturday. I remember that state of confusion…. and I laughed because of their ignorance. I was so upset though. How could they say or even think that? My coach ended up giving up on me. I finished the season with the best statistics on the team, fielding and hitting. But I also witnessed all of my other teammates getting scholarships and offers from colleges, while I had nothing to show for my season. I never got a scholarship. Ended up playing the last 3 years at my local community college. Sadly, my highschool coach knew the college coach very well, and told him about me and my cannabis use. I worked my ass off there, but never saw the field once in a game. I still have a positive mindset and am still forever greatful for the way cannabis changed my well being and life on the inside, but it saddens me to see how much negative backlash I received from one simple thing. Your story inspires me Ricky, to live my story just like you. People always referred me to you as the baseball playing Ricky Williams. The guy who threw his talent away to smoke weed. It’s silly because I still have passion for the game more than I have ever had… but nobody will ever see it that way as long as I keep smoking weed. (Which I will) what I am forever greatful about is that I am not alone, and that my story couldn’t possibly be worse than yours. You are one strong minded individual, and I will always look up to you as one of my true role models. Thank you Ricky, and sorry everybody for the long comment.

  9. Ricky, I went through a personal work dilemma on a more “common” level back in 1991walking away from the best job I ever had(12yrs) and have suffered the economic backlash that continues to this day. When I go to work Monday at my new semi-decent job that I just got last week, I am forced to resign because of their draconian random testing. I did it in 1991 and, now, in 2017 I will again. At 60 these idiots have ruined the economic part of my life. They have created an underclass with these tests. We plan to move to Colorado but I have asked my wife to bury my ashes there if I don’t make it. I refuse to be buried in the State of my birth, Georgia, because I hate the politicians here with a passion. They are truly despicable.

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