The children were lined up against a fence at one end of the
school playground, a ribbon of billowy T-shirts, ponytails and
fourth-grade innocence, awaiting their teacher's command to
begin the footrace. Moments earlier they had sat spellbound in
their classroom at Kiker Elementary in Austin as Texas running
back Ricky Williams answered their many questions. (Who was the
biggest influence in your life? My mom. What was your favorite
subject in fourth grade? Social studies. Do you have a son? Huh?
No.) Finally they would ask how fast could he run. "I'll race
you guys," Williams had said, beaming, and at the back of the
room, two teachers nearly fainted, because it's not often that a
guest speaker proposes recess.
On the playground Williams, a 225-pound Paddington Bear in
dreadlocks and cross-trainers, stood at the center of the line
of 31 kids. When nearly all of them jumped the gun and darted
away, he broke into a full sprint, swallowing up the peanuts
until he was alone in front, the noontime sun lighting his face
as he filled the air with a little boy's laugh.
Williams is many things to many people; all of the perceptions
are obvious but none of them complete. To NFL general managers,
coaches, scouts and draftniks who translate bench presses (400
pounds) and 40 times (4.39 seconds) into potential wins and
losses, Williams is precious. He has speed and power: a six-foot
tailback who can run through a linebacker or past a cornerback,
plus he's smart, tireless and, delightfully, felony-free. "Given
Ricky's talents, I don't believe Curtis Enis would have been the
top-rated back in this year's draft if Williams had come out,"
says Bobby Grier, vice president of player personnel for the New
To idealistic fans Williams is the latest in a short line of
stars (Peyton Manning, Tim Duncan) who exemplify what's good
about college sports by forgoing the pro draft and instant
wealth, and staying in school.
To Orangebloods who worship Texas football, Williams is the
horse that the Longhorns and their new coach, Mack Brown, will
ride in their pursuit of renewed glory. A year from now Williams
could be the leading career rusher in college football history,
the Heisman Trophy winner and the No. 1 pick in the 1999 draft.
Yet at his core, he's just a child in search of a childhood,
eager to please. He will return to Texas for his senior season
largely because he was mortified at the prospect of calling a
press conference to announce otherwise. "I would have had to get
up there and say, 'Thanks for all the good times, but I'm
leaving,'" says the 20-year-old Williams. "I couldn't do that."
He has dated some women who have asked him out because he didn't
have the heart to turn them down. The same goes for other
requests of his time. During a February visit to an Austin
elementary school, one of the students invited Williams to his
birthday party that afternoon, and Williams attended though it
meant he might be late arriving in Dallas to accept the Doak
Walker Award that night as the top collegiate running back.
"We're waiting in the formal shop to get our tuxes for the
dinner, and Ricky keeps looking at his watch," says Texas
football sports information director John Bianco, who
accompanied Williams to Dallas. "I said, 'What's the matter,
have you got somewhere to go?' He said, 'Well, I promised this
little boy I'd go to his birthday party.'"
As a high school senior in June 1995, Williams got a $50,000
bonus to sign with the Philadelphia Phillies (for whom he plays
minor league ball in the summers), and he sprinkled the money so
liberally among family, friends and strangers that it was gone
before he had invested a penny. Within two years of Ricky's
arrival in Austin, his mother, Sandy; twin sister, Cassie; and
younger sister, Nisey, were living there as well--mom working as
a wholesale buyer and both sisters attending Texas. Most
remarkable of all, Ricky has forged a cautious, long-distance
relationship with his father, Errick, who left the family when
Ricky was five and was soon after convicted of a criminal
misdemeanor for abusing Ricky and Cassie.
One afternoon last month Williams lay sprawled across the floor
of former Longhorns running backs coach Bucky Godbolt's family
room, furiously punching a game pad in a cutthroat round of
PlayStation college football. When his 1997 Texas team had
beaten 14-year-old A.J. Godbolt's '97 Michigan squad, Williams
tossed his pad into the air, shrieked and danced out into the
sunlight. "He's one of the kids," said Bucky, who helped recruit
Williams, coached him in '95 and '96 and is one of his closest
friends. "That's what Ricky is now--a kid. He missed it the
first time around in his life."
What Sandy wanted most from life was the perfect family. "You
know, Mommy and Daddy and a white picket fence in front," she
says. Sandy was 19 when she married Errick and barely 20 when,
on May 21, 1977, she gave birth to twins Cassandra and Errick
Jr. Six years--and one more child--later, the elder Errick was
gone. The circumstances of his departure are in dispute. Errick
says he left because Sandy had been unfaithful to him. Sandy
says she threw Errick out of the house when she learned that he
had been abusing Cassie and Ricky. "When he was five years old
Ricky came to me one night," says Sandy. "He said, 'Mommy, you
know how you always say there's nothing we can't tell you?
There's something Daddy did to me that I can't tell you, because
he'll hit me if I do.' I always wanted them to have a mother and
a father, but that was it."
Under terms of a divorce settlement in September 1983, Sandy was
awarded primary custody of the children with Errick's visitation
rights "limited and supervised by the wife due to the fact that
the children are undergoing psychosocial assessment and
treatment for suspected child abuse." Eight months later, Errick
was convicted for the misdemeanor of annoying or molesting
children. He says he was given a six-month suspended sentence,
three years probation and was required to register as a sex
Errick, now 40 and working as an environmental director for a
nursing home and as a part-time minister in Houston, denies
molesting Cassie and Ricky. "Yes, there's a court record that
says I sexually molested my children, but that record isn't
true," says Errick, who has four children, ages three months to
12 years, by his second wife. "When a woman gets up in front of
a judge and says her husband abused the children, the judge is
going to believe her. But I can stand before God and say that I
didn't verbally, physically or sexually assault my children.
This has devastated me."
Whether from the scars of abuse or the stress of the crumbling
marriage, Ricky became an angry, maladjusted child who often
beat up smaller boys and girls. "I remember hitting this girl
when I was in first grade," he says. "I don't know why. I just
hit her. I was always mad." He underwent counseling to control
his rage, treatment that lasted until he was in junior high.
Despite his obstreperousness Williams had been slotted from an
early age in gifted and talented classes, mostly because of high
scores on standardized tests. In junior high, however, his
grades slipped, and at the start of eighth grade he was put in
regular classes for the first time. "All busy work," he says,
"and busy work wasn't my thing." He stopped doing his schoolwork
and dug himself into a hole academically until his mother begged
school officials to give him a final chance. He was allowed to
transfer to another junior high, placed in gifted classes again
and, at the end of ninth grade, won the school's award as the
most improved student. "The school challenged him, academically
and athletically, and he grew,'" says Sandy.
The rage melted. At Patrick Henry High, Williams met a skinny
football player named Chad Patmon, a sweet kid overflowing with
good cheer who taught him to save his anger for the football
field. They would ride for hours in Williams's beat-up Jeep
Cherokee, listening to Bob Marley tapes. (Whence came the
inspiration for Williams's hair, which he began twisting as a
sophomore.) "We were inseparable," says Patmon, who became
Williams's off-campus roommate in the fall of '97 and joined
Texas as a walk-on defensive back that same semester. On a night
not long ago, they sat in their living room and sang the Wailers
song that had leaked from the windows of the old Jeep: Rastaman
Vi-bra-tion.... Yay-aa.... Rastaman Vi-bra-tion....
Sports came easily to Williams. In high school he rushed for
4,129 yards and 55 touchdowns, and hit .340 with three homers
and 26 stolen bases his senior season in baseball. He also ran
on the 4x100 relay team and lost just one match in his lone
season as a varsity wrestler. Heavily recruited for football by
Stanford, Cal and Texas, among others, Williams signed with the
Longhorns and then joined the Phillies, who selected him in the
eighth round of the amateur draft, before graduation. After
spending a little over two months playing outfield for
Martinsville (Va.) in the Rookie League, he was in Austin for
the start of two-a-day practices. (Williams has a football-first
agreement with the Phillies, who are paying for his college
education. Thus he's technically a walk-on football player.)
One more thing: In high school Ricky began speaking by phone to
Errick, and a cautious friendship developed. At one point, after
an argument with Sandy, Ricky considered moving in with Errick,
at which point Sandy said to him, "Don't you remember why your
father left?" Ricky said he didn't, so Sandy told him
everything. He stood in front of his mother and softly wept. But
he didn't sever the new ties with his father. One evening last
month, Ricky stood outside an Austin restaurant. His dreadlocks
hung like dark icicles, framing his face, and the shiny gold
stud in the center of his tongue made occasional appearances as
he spoke. "I don't remember anything," Ricky says now. "That's
the truth. I don't know what happened, because I don't remember.
He's my dad. We get along O.K."
A spring scrimmage last month was scarcely 10 plays old when
Texas quarterback Richard Walton pitched the ball to Williams,
who hurtled toward the right corner. Senior defensive back Tony
Holmes, 5'9", 180 pounds, darted into the seam to meet Williams
as he turned upfield. They collided with a distinctive pop, and
Holmes was lifted off the ground and sailed five yards backward
before landing on his back.
The only startling thing about the play was that it took place
in Austin, and not in Chicago, St. Louis or Oakland, where many
had expected Williams would be by now, rich beyond his dreams.
"The team that gets him is going to be incredibly lucky,'" says
Bryant Westbrook, who played with Williams for two years at
Texas and now is a starting cornerback with the Detroit Lions.
"The whole NFL is looking for guys who can get you three to five
yards every play. Ricky can do that, but he can make big plays,
too. He's like [Tennessee Oilers back] Eddie George, but he's
faster than Eddie. He's going to be incredible up here."
Last autumn Williams emerged from the train wreck of Texas's 4-7
free fall with a season better than that of almost any running
back in college history. Despite rushing for just 191 yards in
the Longhorns' first two games, Williams finished with a school
record and NCAA-leading 1,893 yards and scored 25 touchdowns.
There were six games in which he rushed for more than 200 yards,
and he had four runs of more than 70 yards, all of which went
for touchdowns. "Guys never, ever catch him from behind," says
Williams had had an immediate impact at Texas, running for a
Longhorns freshman record of 990 rushing yards. He did that
while playing fullback in John Mackovic's complex pro-style
offense. "He has unusually high intelligence," says Mackovic.
"People don't realize how bright he is."
As a sophomore Williams gained only eight yards on seven carries
in the biggest win of the Mackovic era, a 37-27 upset of
Nebraska in the inaugural Big 12 championship game, yet it was
one of the best games of his career. Playing fullback, he
blocked All-America ends Jared Tomich and Grant Wistrom
viciously all day, providing the time for James Brown to pass
for 353 yards.
Off the field Williams developed a maturity that was as strong
as his playfulness. He used baseball money to pay his mother's
bills when she moved from San Diego to Katy, Texas, and then to
Austin. He paid for part of Cassie's tuition at Southeastern
Louisiana before she transferred to Texas. Deprived by his
baseball obligations of one spring semester and every summer
school--the athletes' shortcut to graduation--he has chugged
toward a degree in education, but will need three more semesters
to graduate after this fall.
In truth there was little reason for him to return for his
senior season when, on the morning of Dec. 5, he went to
Bellmont Hall to meet with Mack Brown, the former North Carolina
coach who would be introduced as Texas's new coach later that
day. Williams grilled Brown relentlessly. Who will be the
running backs coach? Are we going to play some defense? How
quickly can you turn this program around? Brown had few concrete
answers. "I was dreadfully honest with him," says Brown. "After
the meeting, I thought he was probably leaving."
Williams sought only a reason to stay. "I just didn't want to go
4-7 again," he says. "After meeting with Coach Brown, I thought
things might be O.K. This team needs discipline; we had guys out
drinking on Thursday nights last year. I told him that. I told
him the team needs work. I think we'll be better."
Early returns are encouraging. "This spring is the first time
since I've been here that we've been coached," says Williams.
"Coach Mackovic's staff, they were like NFL guys. They gave us
the game plan and said, 'Play.' Coach Brown is a teacher."
There has been one delicate moment. At a January banquet,
Williams met North Carolina All-America defensive back Dre' Bly,
who played for Brown. Bly raved about Brown but then pointed to
Williams's dreadlocks and said, "He's going to make you cut
"If he had done that," says Williams, "I was definitely out of
here. These [dreads] are part of me." Brown's thinking on such
matters is this: Players are expected to groom themselves as if
going to a job interview every day. Dreadlocks are out. But the
new coach made an exception for the old player. "He's been here
three years, I'm still the visitor," Brown says. Former Texas
great Earl Campbell, in honor of whom Williams is called Little
Earl, has been bugging Williams to cut the dreadlocks for three
years. "He told me one day, 'Those people in the stands see you
in that haircut, they'll never hire you for a job,'" Williams
recalls. "I said, 'I don't plan on working for them.'"
Ahead lies another summer in some minor league backwater yet to
be determined. Williams hasn't batted better than .239 in three
shortened pro seasons, and last summer he hit just .206 with 44
strikeouts in 136 at bats for the Class A Piedmont (N.C.) Boll
Weevils. "He's a project, but if he played just baseball he'd be
really good," says former Phillies' general manager Lee Thomas.
The summer will be followed by an autumn that could be
extraordinary. He needs 1,928 yards to break the 22-year-old
NCAA record of 6,082 career rushing yards, set by Tony Dorsett
of Pittsburgh. (Campbell's Texas record of 4,443 will be history
by mid-September, after which, says Williams, Campbell becomes
Little Ricky.) He needs 20 rushing touchdowns to break Indiana
tailback Anthony Thompson's career record of 64, established in
'89. Texas promises to get at least a little better.
At sunset on a spring afternoon, Williams stood on the floor of
Memorial Stadium, still wearing his orange jersey and full pads
from the day's practice. He saw his mother on the sideline and
Nisey in a corner of the coliseum. Williams tiptoed to the side
of the field, where trainers had dumped crushed ice in a pile,
and scooped up a handful. Forming the chunks into a ball, he
rushed toward Nisey and heaved the ersatz snowball at her, a boy
at play, living his youth for another day and another season.
REACHING FOR THE STARS
Ricky Williams (above) enters the 1998 season with a chance to
eclipse three longstanding career records: He nees 1,928 yards
on the ground to break Tony Dorsett's NCAA mark, 20 rushing
touchdowns to beat Anthony Thompson's NCAA record and 289 yards
to shatter Earl Campbell's Texas rushing standard. Here's how
Williams's running compares statistically with that of Dorsett,
Thompson and Campbell.
PLAYER ATTEMPTS YARDS AVG. TDS
Tony Dorsett 1074 6082 5.7 55
Anthony Thompson 1089 4965 4.6 64
Earl Campbell 765 4443 5.8 40
Ricky Williams 650 4155 6.4 45
yards every play. Ricky can do that."
bright he is."