Ricky Williams takes

the High Road

A decade ago he smoked his way into becoming an NFL punch line; now 20 NFL teams play in states where some form of marijuana is legal—and that number will grow. A pothead reputation, Williams has found, is not such a bad thing

By Greg Bishop

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Enigmatic former All Pro NFL running back Ricky Williams expounds on his complex relationship with marijuana, pain and family.

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he joint moves from smoker to smoker, puff-puff-passing its way to Ricky Williams. He takes the handoff, inhales deeply and blows out a plume of smoke so thick that it temporarily shields him from the sun.

It’s March, and Williams is in Barcelona at something called Spannabis—part trade show, part research conference and 100% festival of copious cannabis consumption. Reggae beats thump from towering speakers. T-shirts read RARE DANKNESS and DIE HIGH and NICE PEOPLE TAKE DRUGS. Vendors sell marijuana-infused beer, energy drinks and espressos, not to mention the cookies, brownies and licorice ropes. . . .

This is Comic-Con for weed.

The 39-year-old Williams is deep into a conversation about astrology—the positions of stars and the movements of planets, how the assumptions we’re born with interact with the lives we’re born into. This is a typical Ricky conversation, deep and cosmic, tangential to everyone there but him. “I’m a Gemini,” he says, “and if we’re getting it right, we’re saying Wow at least five times a day. Geminis are about having an open mind. This is what we’re here to do—to have all these experiences.”

Williams is exploring a variety of pot ventures, including a cannabis-friendly gym, a sports-themed cannabis social club and more.
Robert Beck

This marks Williams’s latest experience, after involvements (some but not all of them ongoing) in sports broadcasting, photography, fatherhood, coaching, yoga, Ayurveda and other holistic medicines, Tai Chi, massage therapy, The Celebrity Apprentice, herbology, psychology and global exploration. Those pursuits came after his most familiar one, as a Heisman Trophy–winning and All-Pro running back—just one of many connected stops on what Williams calls his “path.”

Another protracted drag from the J and Williams heads inside the convention center in the name of . . . research. He strolls, largely unnoticed, past stalls peddling 24-karat-gold rolling papers and a display case filled with glass Cheech and Chong bongs. Past the pipes shaped like elephants and skulls and the Super Mario Bros. Past the pictures of marijuana strains named Super Lemon Haze, Exodus Cheese, Peppermint Kush and Tangerine Dream. He stops at various purveyors and sounds some version of the same theme: I used to play in the NFL, and I’m interested in the therapeutic benefits for retired football players. . . .

“Right on,” one California-based vendor says. “You have all these stars jumping into the industry now—but you were here before anyone else! You’re like the dude who walked away from the NFL.”

Indeed, America’s most infamous stoner athlete—the one who spent a decade traveling the world, reading hundreds of books, collecting experiences and passport stamps in an attempt to shed that reputation—has circled back to embrace it. He reads headlines that say scientists have found that smoking weed does not make you stupid after all and he tweets, “I knew it!” He wants now to become the face of cannabis-and-sports. He wants to start a revolution.

ACCORDING TO WILLIAMS, HE LOST BETWEEN $5 MILLION AND $10 MILLION IN SALARY AND ENDORSEMENTS WHEN HIS NFL CAREER STALLED OUT BETWEEN 2002 AND ’06. HE WANTS TO MAKE THAT BACK AND THEN SOME.

Go where you’re celebrated, Williams told himself six months before Barcelona. So he chose to leave his wife, Kristin, and their three children in Austin in order to feed his impulses, as he so often does. He’ll spend as many as 300 nights a year on the road, checking in with his family sporadically. Friends describe this wandering lifestyle alternately as “irresponsible” and “just him.”

As the sun sets on day one at Spannabis, Williams has swapped contacts and scheduled meetings with a host of potential business partners. What’s obvious is that two green things are in abundance. Cannabis, sure, but also cash. “The way the industry is growing, it feels newer, and it feels fresh,” Williams says. “It’s like I have the chance to make a difference and be a superstar.”

He pauses, then repeats in a whisper, “Be a superstar again.”

he million-dollar party is under way at the Casa Llotja de Mar, a 14th-century palace near Barcelona’s waterfront. There’s a VIP room upstairs, beyond the risotto station and the paella station and the open bar, where DJ Felix da Housecat is spinning. Ornate tapestries hang beside gold chandeliers. Hired dancers in sequin headdresses gyrate next to revelers holding joints in one hand, drinks in the other.

The soiree is courtesy of Advanced Nutrients, a Canadian hydroponics company that sells products like fertilizer to marijuana growers. Tonight’s bash is also a continuation of Williams’s weed renaissance, his first strides into a marijuana industry that has never been more accepted. Or more profitable.

Laws, policies, attitudes—they all seem to be changing. In June 2015 the House of Representatives voted to slash the Drug Enforcement Agency’s budget, halving the allocation for cannabis eradication. President Obama has said that he believes marijuana to be no more dangerous than alcohol, while an Associated Press poll in March found that 61% of Americans favor cannabis legalization. In May, the House voted to allow doctors to recommend medicinal marijuana to veterans in the now 25 states (and Washington, D.C.) where it is legal. And last month, for the second time, the Senate Appropriations Committee voted 16–14 to permit marijuana businesses access to federal banks, which would remove a major operations hurdle for an industry that so far has worked almost entirely in cash. (This bill is being held up in the House.)

The end began in Miami, where Williams failed four drug tests and missed at least part of four seasons due to suspension or injury.
Bob Rosato

Those changes have ushered in both a gold rush and a green one. Marijuana Business Daily, in its annual report, forecast that the cannabis industry’s economic impact in the U.S. could reach $44 billion by 2020, which would represent a 687% increase from ’13. The website predicted retail sales of between $3.5 billion and $4.3 billion in ’16 in states in which marijuana is legal for medical or recreational use.

Williams appraised that shifting landscape—half the country having legalized medical marijuana; the celebrities, like Whoopi Goldberg and Snoop Dogg, who have created their own cannabis-based product lines—and decided he wanted in, for reasons both financial and altruistic. He figures he lost between $5 million and $10 million in salary and endorsements when his NFL career stalled out because of four failed drug tests (all, he says, for marijuana) between 2002 and ’06. He wants to make that back and then some.

WILLIAMS ESTIMATES THAT BETWEEN 60% AND 70% OF NFL PLAYERS SMOKE MARIJUANA, INCLUDING QUARTERBACKS HE PLAYED WITH AND SOME COACHES.

Williams is cofounding a cannabis-friendly gym in San Francisco, Power Plant Fitness and Wellness, where patrons will be able to smoke marijuana or ingest edibles, then work out, take yoga and meditation classes, undergo acupuncture, or get massages. His partner on that venture is the same man, Jim McAlpine, who created the 420 Games, a marijuana-themed series of 4.2-mile races on the West Coast in which Williams participated this year. Williams is also interested in someday opening a chain of sports-themed cannabis social clubs named 34’s, after his jersey number; creating marijuana-infused nutritional supplements (like breakfast bars) and healing products (like massage oils); and giving speeches as a cannabis activist. “That money can make what I lost seem tiny, like pennies,” he says, perhaps generously.

For now, Williams is early in his fact-finding phase. Before the trip to Barcelona he read The Cannabis Manifesto by Steve DeAngelo, who argues for legalization and details the history of cannabis as medicine. He scoured the online library at his alma mater, Texas (where he is four classes away from completing his undergraduate degree in psychology), to pour over marijuana research dating to the 1960s.

In May, Williams traveled to Portland for the Arcview Investor Forum, where he listened to cannabis-related pitches. He went as an investor, entertaining dozens of ideas for everything from genetic sequencing research to regenerative organic farming techniques. “To say that conference changed everything is an understatement,” he says. Now he wants to create what he imagines as an advocacy group for marijuana (and other issues) made up entirely of athletes. He even came up with a name: Professional Athletes for Change. Together they’ll argue for more research and acceptance.

Williams has also partnered with Weedmaps, a tech company whose app helps users locate medical dispensaries. Two friends, Doug Francis and Justin Hartfield, founded the outfit in 2008 after spending most of their mornings smoking and brainstorming company ideas. The company now has 240 employees, with offices throughout the U.S. and in Spain (and staff in France, England, Germany and the Netherlands). They’re headquartered in tech country, in Irvine, Calif., with a smoke room and a studio for filming promotional videos for a YouTube channel.

Williams’s deal with Weedmaps includes a stake in the business but remains otherwise open-ended. He’ll blog for them, make appearances, film TV spots and start dialogue, especially in the sports industry, alongside other athletes, both active and retired. Just as important, he’ll provide Weedmaps with a voice closer to the mainstream, someone associated with marijuana but, until now, outside the industry. “He captures the zeitgeist of both the athlete and the pot user,” says Marc Emery, a Canadian marijuana activist nicknamed the Prince of Pot.

Williams barreled over defenders to gain 6,354 rushing yards in his first five seasons. Since then, only five backs have had such a strong beginning.
Ronald Martinez/Getty Images

To that end Williams hopes to chip away at some old stoner stereotypes, diminishing notions that people who smoke marijuana lie on the couch all day watching TV, gorging on Cheetos. That was never Williams’s relationship with cannabis. He identifies more with what he calls “the archetype of the mystic,” and points to a favorite quote from 19th-century philosopher William James: “The sway of alcohol over mankind is unquestionably due to its power to stimulate the mystical faculties of human nature, usually crushed to earth by the cold facts and dry criticisms of the sober hour.”

Cannabis unlocks “the part of us that connects with something bigger,” Williams says. “It’s the part that’s active during dreams. You become not so attached to your own stuff. If you integrate that [approach], then addictions—alcoholism, food, porn; all these behaviors that plague society—we’ll start to change them. Those things are a side effect of a lack of integration. That’s how I use cannabis.”

The party ends, and Williams meets up outside the palace with his new teammates from Weedmaps. They’re headed to the rooftop bar at the W hotel. “This, Williams says to no one in particular, “is where I’m supposed to be.”

uring his four-day stay in Barcelona, Williams buzzes the door at Betty Boop Bcn, one of dozens of cannabis social clubs across the city. Picture a typical bar, but with joints instead of cocktails, budtenders rather than bartenders; a place where members and their guests can legally procure and consume marijuana. For medical purposes—wink, wink.

Williams settles into a leather couch across from concrete walls spray-painted with graffiti and depictions of the curvaceous cartoon character the club is named for. Everyone around him is dabbing, only this isn’t the dance that Panthers quarterback Cam Newton made famous. Dabbing, in the marijuana community, is the process of pressing cannabis extract (known as butane hash oil) against the heated surface of an “oil rig” pipe. The extract contains levels of THC up to 90%—in other words, more than three times as powerful as the strongest joint.

“We have a ton of stories about how [marijuana] has benefited people,” Williams says, “but we’re just on the surface in terms of how it works.”
Robert Beck

Wow,” the Gemini says as he exhales.

Williams can hardly believe that he ended up here. He says he has never identified as a pothead, never worn shirts emblazoned with marijuana leaves. He smoked a handful of times in high school but didn’t appreciate marijuana until his senior year at Texas, in 1998. He broke up with his girlfriend that fall, and she started dating his teammate, a Longhorns quarterback. Here he was, a Heisman front-runner who couldn’t sleep at night; he was enjoying one of the best seasons in college football history (2,124 rushing yards, 28 touchdowns) and yet he was still depressed.

One night that fall he smoked with a friend and slept soundly for the first time in weeks. It wasn’t the high that changed his mind. It was the relief.

Williams says he didn’t consume pot regularly until after the Saints famously traded eight picks at the 1999 draft to move up and select him fifth. He fractured a rib during his third season, in 2001, and team doctors prescribed Indocin, a strong anti-inflammatory that made Williams feel numb and disconnected from his body, causing constipation almost as painful as the injury itself. The numbness stoked what doctors later diagnosed as his social anxiety disorder, and it made him question the sanity of his profession. (In Williams’s retelling of his story, the basics have remained consistent over the years, but sometimes he gets fuzzy on dates. Asked three times when he first started to smoke marijuana regularly, for instance, he gave three different answers: his first, second and third seasons.)

Williams officially retired from the NFL on Aug. 2, 2004, following his third failed drug test.
Lynne Sladky/AP

Often, Williams watched as Saints teammates filtered into the training room, doctors doling out pills like gumdrops. He took the antidepressant Paxil for anxiety and withdrew into his home office, where a friend, Chantel Christopher, delivered him meals. “He would sit in that room, on the computer all day,” she says, “like a zombie.”

In regular marijuana use Williams found a pain-relief alternative that worked for him in ways that painkillers did not. He joked that only dumbasses failed the league’s once-a-year tests for recreational drugs—then he failed one in May 2002, shortly after being traded to the Dolphins, because they tested earlier in the off-season than the Saints. Still, he led the league in rushing with 1,853 yards that season, his first in the NFL’s drug program, where he met with psychologists and passed dozens of drug tests through most of ’03. Then, in December of that year he separated his shoulder on Monday Night Football against the Eagles. Williams smoked that night and was tested the next morning. In the off-season the results of his second failed drug test in 19 months went public.

ONLY DUMB-ASSES FAILED THE LEAGUE’S ONCE-A-YEAR DRUG TESTS, WILLIAMS JOKED—THEN HE FAILED ONE IN MAY 2002.

“My image was soiled,” Williams says. “That was my biggest fear. I wouldn’t say that I contemplated suicide, but my thought was, If my image was tarnished, I was done, my life was over. I’m almost ashamed to say that.”

Suddenly the gifts that had magically appeared at the front door—hello, new mattress—stopped arriving. Contract negotiations with Miami stalled. Sponsorships were not renewed. “He was the bad guy, instantly,” says Kristin, who met Ricky in 2000, when she was a Delta flight attendant on his plane, and married him nine years later. Williams began to openly question whether he wanted to play football anymore, and the answer his soul returned surprised him. “Because it was no,” he says.

Williams made a deal with himself the following April: He would play out the 2004 season and then retire, unless—unless—he failed another drug test before training camp. And then off he went. He toured Europe backstage with Lenny Kravitz, returned to Florida for one night and took a drug test, then jetted to Jamaica to visit Bob Marley’s family. His sojourn then continued to the Bahamas, where he found out he had indeed tested positive again, and he immediately retired. Then back on the road he went: Hawaii, Tokyo. . . .

He knew, deep down, that he had failed on purpose. He had given himself an out. “People often tell me about how much courage it took for me to [walk away],” he says. “But underneath, I felt like a coward. I’d had the idea that I didn’t want to play football anymore, but I didn’t have the courage to make the choice.”

Those events, he says, led to a new beginning. “Everything up to there, you could call it training or practice,” he says. “But that moment, that’s my new birthday.”

It’s also the exact moment when Ricky Williams and marijuana fully intertwined.

n September 2004, Williams decided to return to football, and he did so in the most Ricky Williams way possible. After passport issues prohibited him from catching a benefit concert that his agent, Leigh Steinberg, had organized at the Great Wall of China, he found himself stranded in Thailand. He planned to fly instead to the Himalayas, where he would hang for six months with a friend from Australia who went by the name Mystic Steve. But while he was waiting for a ride to Chiang Mai airport, Williams spied a game between the Raiders and the Buccaneers on the TV in his hostel. Right there he decided he would come back. He needed the money anyway. He called Kristin and said, “I’m coming home.”

Williams (seen here with Jim Brown in 1999) refuses to let others define him. “In my search for the truth, I’ve learned to be comfortable with myself in a way that I don’t have to apologize for.”
Walter Iooss Jr.

By then, the name Ricky was widely used as a synonym for aberrational behavior. Days earlier, the Dolphins had won an $8.6 million judgment against him over his signing bonus. And his solution—the way he would leave behind his status as the pothead who threw away fame and fortune—was to . . . change his name. He would become Rio Don, swap jersey numbers, from 34 to 21, and play for Oakland. He even signed a batch of footballs for Steinberg: rio don, #21.

“Luckily,” Williams says, “that idea didn’t stick.” What did stick is the stoner tag.

Only Williams did not return to football right away. He says he saw a TV interview in which one of his Dolphins teammates, Jason Taylor, expressed disgust over Williams’s soul searching, and so he figured the climate was not yet right. Later that fall, as the 2004 NFL season went on without him, he packed up his Jeep Wrangler in Florida and drove with Christopher to California, stopping only for gas. “To add to the strangeness of all this,” says Steinberg, “he goes to study Ayurveda, and he [moves to] the one city in the world whose name you can’t say, in respect to what’s happening, without laughing: Grass Valley.”

Mike Wallace and his 60 Minutes cameras found Williams there, and when Wallace asked Williams if he still smoked marijuana, the retired footballer said, “Mmm-hmm.”

“A seminal moment in pot history,” Williams jokes now. “That’s when I was immortalized.”

He hated how the reputation stuck: the monologue where Jay Leno said the racehorse Smarty Jones planned to retire and “smoke dope with. . . Ricky Williams,” the Texas jerseys changed from Longhorns to Bonghorns, the doctored photos that depicted him running toward bags of weed or smoking superimposed joints. “It bothered me that people thought I quit football to go smoke,” Williams says. “That’s not true. People put way too much weight on the reasons they do things.”

In the spring of 2005, he made good with the Dolphins; he served his four-game suspension and played 12 games for them that fall before failing another drug test in early ’06. He then spent that season with the Toronto Argonauts, in the CFL, where there’s no testing for marijuana.

“I feel like I have the soul of a healer,” Williams says, “and I want to see what’s possible here” with pot.
Robert Beck

Every story written about him mentioned the failed tests. The hardest part, for Williams, was having to explain over and over that he didn’t leave the NFL simply to smoke pot. From 2005 through ’15 he fought to change perceptions about him, but as states began to legalize marijuana and that industry trudged into the mainstream, Williams came to realize that in combating the stereotypes he also was perpetuating them—and hiding his true self.

Last October his friend and former Saints teammate Kyle Turley invited Williams to talk about his experience with marijuana at a conference in Phoenix. For the first time, Williams told his story to a group of strangers. He told them he wouldn’t have won the 1998 Heisman Trophy, or played 11 NFL seasons, without cannabis. They showered him with a standing ovation.

Go where you’re celebrated? He’d finally found that place.

n the cavernous halls at Spannabis, as revelers ignore the NO FUMAR signs posted on every wall, Williams explains how difficult it is for active athletes—celebrities with brands and reputations to protect—to speak their minds. He lauds Eugene Monroe, the former Ravens tackle who pushed the NFL this spring to increase research into potential medicinal uses of marijuana.

“The NFL is in a position where they could invest in something that actually takes care of [their players],” says one vendor who is selling seeds.

Exactly,” Williams responds. “That’s the other side of the story. Because the league didn’t take care of me.”

Williams doesn’t understand the NFL’s ultraconservative approach to marijuana. He is not alone in that regard, but he is uniquely steeped in his understanding of league rules, which, in a nutshell, are this: The NFL views cannabis as illegal under its “substances of abuse” policy, which is separate from its policy on “performance-enhancing substances.” For the former, the league tests nonoffenders once a year, before the season; violators are tested more regularly, sent to mandatory counseling and fined game checks—the times and amounts depend on how many tests they fail. Williams lived this for almost 10 years, and it shaped his ideas about how the system might work better. Not that anyone has asked.

BY HIS OWN CONSERVATIVE MATH WILLIAMS ESTIMATES THAT HE WAS DRUG-TESTED MORE THAN 500 TIMES—MORE, HE THINKS, THAN ANYONE IN SPORTS HISTORY.

He’d start by tweaking the testing program, which doesn’t measure drug use so much as motivation and intelligence. He watches players like Martavis Bryant and Josh Gordon flunk test after test, and he wonders if they feel the same ambivalence toward football that he once felt.

By his own conservative math Williams estimates that he was drug-tested more than 500 times—more, he thinks, than anyone in sports history, and so often that he was eventually able to pee on command. That he failed only four of those tests strikes Williams as a “pretty good ratio.” Kristin, meanwhile, still has flashbacks every time she sees a FedEx truck pull into the driveway. One tester liked the cherries she supplied; another helped fix a window frame. “Some of them were like family,” she says.

Williams, who soothed his football sores with marijuana, can’t understand why Roger Goodell (above) and the NFL won’t embrace the drug's medicinal value.
Erick W. Rasco

Nothing in the league’s policy deterred Williams from smoking marijuana when he wanted or needed to. It didn’t address what the league described as substance abuse—or Williams’s belief that sporadic marijuana use didn’t constitute abuse at all. Instead, Turley says, the league’s policy turned Williams into a target. “The NFL took it upon itself to try and ruin someone,” Turley says. “I can’t imagine the career Ricky would have had if these idiots had left him alone and just let him play football.”

Williams acknowledges that choices he made are what landed him in the NFL’s drug program, but he doesn’t believe the program fully addressed what issues might lie beneath those choices. (He says, however, that the therapy he completed was helpful). He found the process more punitive than rehabilitative, set up to shame marijuana users rather than help them. “I was treated like a criminal,” he says.

What Williams wants is an NFL drug program based on cutting-edge rehabilitation techniques, driven by addiction experts. That approach would mirror President Obama’s intention to increase drug-treatment spending by $1.1 billion. Separate from that, but still under the NFL’s drug policy, he wants the league to consider marijuana a potential pain-relief alternative to opioids. He’s not advocating rampant marijuana use, but he says the league “owes it to its players” to examine every possible option, cannabis included. “I definitely think the NFL could do more,” he says.

Williams’s new passion for pot led the growers at Urban Greenhouse in Phoenix to name a strain after him: #34 OG.
Robert Beck

At Super Bowl 50, last February, commissioner Roger Goodell said the NFL was aware of scientific developments in marijuana studies but maintained that the league’s current policy remained in the “best interest of our players.” (Goodell has also said he remains open to changing his stance as more information becomes available, and The Washington Post reported recently that the league had set up a conference call with marijuana advocates.) Williams wonders, though, why the NFL remains so comfortable with the opioids that teams provide those players. He points to a class-action lawsuit, filed in May 2015, by a contingent of retirees who allege that teams systematically fed them painkillers to keep them on the field while failing to properly educate them about the associated risks. (A recent attempt to have the case dismissed was denied by a judge.)

Turley personifies Williams’s concerns over league-prescribed opioids. He took his first painkiller after blowing out his knee in 1996 at San Diego State. Over most of the next 20 years he countered anxiety, rage, depression and chronic headaches, in addition to a long list of injuries, with a cocktail of painkillers, muscle relaxers and psych meds. “If you were around it, you know,” he says. “It was the wild, wild West.”

Nine NFL seasons eventually left Turley broken. In 2009, his wife found him trying to jump from a third-floor window. “Suicidal and homicidal tendencies became part of my daily living,” he says. “I couldn’t be around a knife in the kitchen without having an urge to stab someone, including my wife and kids.”

“CURRENT NFL POLICY DOES NOT ALLOW FOR EVERY POTENTIAL OPTION IN MITIGATING PAIN,” SAYS EUGENE MONROE. “THE NFL SAYS IT’S DOING EVERYTHING IT CAN. IT’S NOT.”

Turley says he finally kicked his painkiller habit in February 2015, when he began using only marijuana. He surfed more and lost 10 pounds. He says marijuana saved his life, his marriage and his relationship with his two children. He is now an outspoken advocate for marijuana reform and the founder of the Gridiron Cannabis Coalition, which is dedicated to the advancement of medical marijuana.

“There are so many of those stories,” says Monroe. “People who lost loved ones . . . addictions to painkillers. . . . Current NFL policy does not allow for every potential option in mitigating pain. The NFL says it’s doing everything it can. It’s not.”

Williams, meanwhile, estimates that between 60% and 70% of NFL players smoke marijuana, including quarterbacks he played with and some coaches. He believes that cannabis will be legalized nationwide in his lifetime, and he plans to grow his own plants, the same as when he planted his first garden—tomatoes, jalapeños, lettuce and bell peppers—in San Diego at age 13. He hopes Goodell remains true to his word and that the league embraces marijuana’s potential if future research supports such a move.

“Follow the laws,” he says. “And follow the science.”

illiams stops at a Spannabis booth specific to cannabidiol (or CBD), one of the two most prevalent compounds found in marijuana. CBD doesn’t produce a high, unlike the other abundant compound, THC. But CBD seems to hold more potential scientific benefits. One study, published by the British Journal of Clinical Pharmacology in 2013, found that in experimental models CBD reduced nausea and vomiting, suppressed seizures, and combated psychosis, inflammatory and neurodegenerative disorders, along with tumors, cancer cells, anxiety and depression. Williams asks several questions about the benefits of CBD.

“Is this for you?” the vendor asks.

“It’s for me specifically, but in a broader sense it’s for other athletes,” Williams says.

“THE NFL EMPTIES YOUR TANK,” WILLIAMS SAYS. “I LOOK AT JUNIOR SEAU. I PLAYED WITH JUNIOR. HE LITERALLY GAVE EVERYTHING HE HAD, AND WHEN I HEARD ABOUT HIS SUICIDE, I UNDERSTOOD.”

Ahhh—football players,” the vendor responds. “Like anything else, we’re the healers; but we’re also the destroyers.”

“Amen,” Williams says.

The more laps Williams makes around the Spannabis showroom, the more he speaks about his own experience: the trauma inflicted on his body, the torn right pectoral muscle, the broken left ankle, the dislocated right elbow, the broken ribs, the separated shoulders, the neck pain, all the inevitable results of thousands of collisions. Some days he feels tingling in his left arm, a numbness that dates to 2006. “I get scared sometimes,” he says. “I’m like, This can’t be normal. Is it going to get progressively worse the rest of my life?”

He wonders where exactly cannabis fits in among the various healing techniques he’s mastered. He believes that additional research will validate his own experience, in which marijuana wasn’t a panacea but proved beneficial as part of a more holistic approach to health. It eased his pain, sharpened his focus and boosted his creativity. “We have a ton of stories about how it has benefited people, but we’re just on the surface in terms of how it works,” Williams says. “I feel like I have the soul of a healer, and I want to see what’s possible here.”

Williams watches players like Martavis Bryant and Josh Gordon flunk test after test, and he wonders if they feel the same ambivalence toward football that he once felt.
J. Pat Carter/AP

The research that Williams seeks is already under way. In Colorado Springs, at the Realm of Caring Foundation, the focus is on cannabis research, education and advocacy. The foundation partnered with Johns Hopkins to commission a study of current and former athletes—largely football players—called When the Bright Lights Fade. (Monroe has donated $80,000.) “My hypothesis,” says Heather Jackson, the foundation’s CEO, “is that football players who are using cannabis as part of their therapy are seeing a better quality of life than those who are not. The NFL spent $100 million on concussion research but not one dollar on something [like this], with known medical benefits.”

Jackson admits she is biased. “This plant,” she says, “saved my kid.” Her son, Zaki, started having seizures when he was four months old, up to 200 a day. Doctors tried 17 different pharmaceutical combinations to slow the seizures and none worked. Then, in July 2012, Zaki started taking CBD-based medication, and in the first 48 hours he didn’t suffer a single seizure. He hasn’t had one in almost four years. Now 13, Zaki has grown in several cognitive areas since discovering CBD. He has learned his colors and numbers, and he can ride a bicycle without training wheels, climb trees and speak in full sentences. Jackson says that her son’s experience led her to start the organization and conduct this study, among the largest of its kind. She’s not arguing for unchecked marijuana use, but rather specific, targeted research, and she’s not dismissing the real dangers from any drug, cannabis included—addiction, dependence, overuse. She wants to see if what worked for her son will work for others too. “This isn’t even a conversation about marijuana anymore; it could be dandelion roots,” Jackson says. “I identify with these players who want relief. I was trying to save my son’s life. They’re trying to save their own.”

In Doylestown, Pa., at Kannalife Sciences, researchers are working with Temple University to explore the idea of CBD as a potential treatment for chronic traumatic encephalopathy, or CTE. Dr. Bennet Omalu, of Concussion fame, served on Kannalife’s board. One founder, Thoma Kikis, explains that his company has taken a more biopharmaceutical approach than others exploring the same area. They want to synthesize CBD and distribute it in pill form to increase both its effectiveness and the rate at which it is absorbed into the bloodstream. “Cannabis research is going to be the new wave of medicine this century,” he says.

Especially, Williams hopes, for football players. “The NFL empties your tank,” he says. “I look at Junior Seau. I played with Junior. He literally gave everything he had, and when I heard about his suicide, I understood. We have to teach these guys that everything’s connected: the body and the mind, all the trauma. With all the damage we’ve suffered, we’re one group of people with an amazing capacity to heal. We just need the tools.”

The infrequency with which Williams visits his kids (above with Asha) in Austin speaks to the wandering spirit that led him to explore alternative views in the first place.
Robert Beck

The biggest obstacle that cannabis researchers confront is marijuana’s status as a Schedule 1 drug, meaning that it’s classified by the U.S. government as a substance with high potential for abuse without medical purpose. Ryan Vandrey, an associate professor who studies human behavior pharmacology at Johns Hopkins and who is helping craft the Realm of Caring study, falls somewhere between marijuana truthers and those who insist the plant has no benefit at all.

Vandrey is intrigued by the research possibilities. He says there’s clear scientific evidence that cannabis “contains properties that are helpful for pain management.” The key, he says, is to separate the pain control from the intoxication, to make cannabis use more specific and more targeted. For athletes, perhaps that means they won’t smoke marijuana; maybe CBD will be infused into their food or administered through creams and oils or synthesized into a pill. But Vandrey also suggests that it’s too early to tell just how beneficial cannabis might be. “There’s not enough information yet,” he says. “We need to study policy changes, regulation, quality control. We’ve got a million questions to address.”

wo weeks after Spannabis, Williams will be back home in Austin with Kristin and their three children: Prince, 14; Asha, 9; and Elijah, 6. (Ricky has two other kids with two other women.) He will help Prince with his math homework and play catch with Asha in the backyard—but he’ll leave the next morning for another speaking engagement. “I don’t think he has an attachment gene,” Kristin says. Asked what he’s most attached to, she says, “His freedom.”

Kristin long ago acclimated to Ricky’s whims. On their second date he told her that most of his friends were women and that he liked to travel, bunking in hostels, absorbing different cultures—and that he would never travel with her. That, she says, is Ricky: seeker, wanderer, explorer; someone who says his five children understand that he’ll never be what most people consider a normal parent. He once considered moving to Australia, told his friends it would be permanent, and then changed his mind. Kristin recalls one night after the 2011 season when she and Ricky stayed up late discussing how he wanted to play for the Chargers in ’12 (despite the year remaining on his Ravens contract), what his goals were, where they would live. . . . “The next morning,” she says, “he comes into the room at 6:30, flips on the light. I’m dead asleep and he says, ‘Guess what? I’m retired.’ ” (Williams remembers this differently; either way, he never played another down.) “That’s what every day was like,” Kristin says, adding that sometimes three or four days will pass in his absence before one of her children asks, “Where’s Dad?”

WILLIAMS WANTS TO BECOME THE FACE OF CANNABIS-AND-SPORTS. HE WANTS TO START A REVOLUTION.

A number of people close to Williams feel burned by his itinerant lifestyle. They describe him as selfish, and yet they love him all the same. The couple has decided to divorce, but Ricky says Kristin remains supportive. “I trust him,” she says, “because no matter what he does, it always seems to work out.”

Williams jokes that Austin, long his home base, is the only city in the U.S. with statues for two potheads, himself and country singer Willie Nelson. He’s a football analyst for the Longhorn Network, and he spends a lot of time in his office-library. Whereas he once collected houses and sports cars, he now amasses books, which he rearranges according to his mood every time he stops home. He has been known to leave Gucci loafers behind in hotel rooms in order to fit recent purchases—volumes like Back to Eden, The Web That Has No Weaver and Planets in Therapy—into his suitcase.

In order to remain active, he plays linebacker and running back on a local flag football team, the Swangers. He patrols the outfield for the Dirt Bats in an adult softball league. (His position, naturally: left-center.) At a recent game the team’s shortstop wore jeans, and a portly pitcher lobbed softballs in a tie-dyed T-shirt.

Robert Beck

Williams sees his latest foray, into the marijuana industry, as not only the continuation of his path but also something that brings all his disparate endeavors full circle. Sometimes that feels redemptive. Mostly, it just feels right.

In an industry built outside convention, Williams experiences less anxiety in social situations. He wonders if all the issues from his playing career stemmed from being around too few like-minded people. “I always felt like an outcast, like the black sheep,” he says. “This experience has normalized me. I don’t feel so crazy. I want to go from being thought of as crazy to eccentric.”

Still, Williams may be underestimating the reaction to come. The NFL’s collective attitude toward marijuana seemed evident at the draft in April, when Mississippi offensive tackle Laremy Tunsil tumbled from the top of some boards to the Dolphins at No. 13, after a video was released online, moments before the first round, showing Tunsil smoking marijuana through a bong attached to a gas mask. “It’s a reminder that some people are still in the dark,” Williams says of the way teams appeared to recoil from Tunsil. “People are still uneducated. We have a lot of work to do.”

Williams refuses to let others define him the way they once did, the way they will define Tunsil moving forward. “In my search for the truth, I’ve learned to be comfortable with myself in a way that I don’t have to apologize for, instead of trying to hide parts of myself to prove I’m a good person,” he says. “The legacy I want to leave is one that’s true to who I was. Not an image I portrayed of what I should have been.”

n his final morning in Barcelona, Williams takes a cab to the beach at sunrise. He hasn’t slept. His flight leaves in six hours, and he plans to listen to a lecture about the planet Mercury on the nine-hour flight to his layover in New York City.

The beach is mostly empty, save for the last stragglers exiting nightclubs, some joggers and a yogurt delivery truck. Williams walks slowly down the coast, alone, as the sun peeks over the horizon. He kicks off his checkered Vans and digs his toes into the sand. Waves crash into the shore. He assumes the lotus position—legs crossed, back straightened.

There’s so much to do: an astrology class in Italy, a conference in Dallas, a speech in Philadelphia. That, along with marijuana to smoke and to study, an industry to immerse in, money to be made. For now, though, the wanderer just sits there, considering what’s next, momentarily at rest.