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.
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.
In 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 well–being 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.
Still, 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.