Ricky Williams still rushes to a different rhythm

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Texas alums Ricky Williams and Cedric Benson share a moment at the end of the regular season in Cincinnati
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  • Ricky Williams
    Ricky Williams
    American football running back

BALTIMORE – Ricky Williams sits alone.

Inside the Baltimore Ravens' locker room the air is alive. Players argue about a bean-bag toss game they play after practices, then mock a teammate who has inexplicably decided to do an interview naked. Music thumps. Giant men laugh, and their laughter rattles off cinder block walls in the symphony of a football team that feels invincible.

Only Ricky Williams sits alone.

He is huddled on a stool in front of his locker, sweat clothes on, ready to leave. It's a strange image, loaded with contrasts. He doesn't belong here, not with these men, many of whom are almost 10 years younger than him. And yet he feels very much at home. He isn't the star on this team, which is two wins from the Super Bowl. The bulk of the offense is carried by Ray Rice, an effusive bowling ball of a man who in the spirit of running backs relishes the chance to run the ball 25 times a game. Williams is an afterthought, a backup who has carried the ball more than 12 times in only one game this season. Often he might have the ball in his hands on only four or five plays, and this is fine with him. In fact he prefers it. His body has absorbed enough beatings for one lifetime. Let someone else get the pain.

"How many 34-year-old running backs do you see still playing football?" asks Williams, whose Ravens take on the Houston Texans in Sunday's AFC divisional playoff game.

He gazes around the room, at unfamiliar faces and at a scene that isn't him, certainly not now, not as the end of his football life beckons. He's here because he isn't ready to give up the game, because there is still a private joy in walking into a room like this, pulling on pads and standing on a Sunday sideline. The Ravens and the Detroit Lions were the only teams to call when football started again after the lockout, and he picked the Ravens because they have a reputation for treating players well and they stood the best chance of going to the Super Bowl. He wants to play in a Super Bowl because he has lived overseas and all people abroad know about American football is the Super Bowl. When he tells them he plays football, they ask if he played in a Super Bowl.

Williams talks a lot about "quality of life" and being happy in his place, something he never seemed to be in Miami or New Orleans where he was a star. On the last game of the regular season he rushed for his 10,000th yard. It's something only 26 men have done and it speaks to a certain commitment as a player even if Williams shrugs it off as something he will "think about later."

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After the game, Rice told the team about the accomplishment. The players clapped. They chanted "Ricky! Ricky! Ricky!" and asked him to stand up and make a speech.

"It was really a neat moment," coach John Harbaugh said. "We caught each other's eye there for a moment. It's hard to explain how valuable those [instances] are."

As for the speech the players called for?

"He did not provide one," Harbaugh said.

How do you bond with a teammate who was still in junior high school when you were on a magazine cover standing with Mike Ditka and wearing a wedding dress? Williams is friendly with the other Ravens players but there isn't a great connection. He lives downtown with a pile of books he brought out of storage because he doesn't really have a permanent home. His hero is early 20th century Swiss psychiatrist Carl Jung. He knows he doesn't exactly fit and yet he seems to fit perfectly. It's just another contrast of Williams' career – the one in which he can run for 10,000 yards despite missing two years in the middle after positive tests for marijuana chased him off the field.

On another team, one with greater expectations for him, he might be uncomfortable. But the Ravens' locker room is always carefree and Harbaugh has a boyish enthusiasm. Everybody seems secure. The coaches don't yell much. And that fits Williams at this point in his life. Here he is content to fade into the background.

"I do feel like a loner but I think it's because I look at things differently than other people," he says. "There's a quote out of Carl Jung's autobiography and … he's talking about when he was a kid and he saw a pattern when he was a kid of aloneness and separateness because he sees things that most people don't and he wants to talk about them, but most people don't.

"And so I kind of feel like that. When you look at the world like that, especially as a football player, chances are you aren't going to find a lot of people to relate to."

When football is over Williams wants to be a psychiatrist. Maybe this is a remnant of his past and the diagnosis, a few years ago, of his social anxiety disorder. He says that because he was an education major at the University of Texas, he has been taking math and science courses in the offseason in preparation for an attempt to get into medical school. He doesn't know how long it will take to get there mainly because he isn't sure he is ready to leave football. It could be after this season, but more likely he wants to play at least one more year. He's still having fun. And he feels "explosive" when he runs. If he didn't have that sense of speed he would be gone by now.

The only time teammates seem to approach him at this point is when they begin to the see the end of their own careers. He recognizes the look in their eyes, the panic that comes from facing a truth that they won't be able to do the only thing they have known. They have heard the same stories all football players hear, that the first two years after football are the worst, and they wonder how Williams has peace. They wonder if they can handle what is about to happen.

"I don't feel [the fear]," Williams says. "I was talking to my doctor about this the other day. And because I have found something that I love and that I want to do when I'm done I'm sure I'm going to miss it, but because I've been able to look that monster in the face I'll be better prepared. Some people are afraid of it so they try to delay it as long as they can."

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For now, he will stay with football, a game that has infused and tormented him so much in the past. He doesn't fit the box the game makes all the players squeeze inside, but the Ravens aren't trying to box him. They leave him alone. He can be whatever he wants just as long as he's there to spell Rice when the situation demands.

He smiles. For a moment the thoughts of a career almost over flash before him: the fiasco of his draft, Ditka and the Saints, the trade to Miami, the suspension, the years away, the headlines, the debate, the cheers, the scorn. All of it.

"Sometimes I look back and I cringe because I didn't realize the situation I was in at the time because I was inside it," he says. "I think I have a tendency to look at things subjectively rather than objectively when I reflect on my experience. It was a wonderful time and I learned a lot but from the outside – yeah – it was kind of a roller coaster."

Then he remembers something John Mackovic, his coach at Texas, said when he told him he was staying for his senior year. "Don't ever have any regrets," Mackovic said. "Make a decision and stick with it."

Williams nods. No regrets for a non-conformist not quite fitting in a league that demands little original thought. He glances around the room again. A group of teammates are yelling about something. No one seems quite sure what it is, but they are smiling, their shouts are all you can hear.

Silently, Ricky Williams picks up his backpack and heads for the door.

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