Greatness doesn't always arrive with a flourish. Sometimes it
grows quietly, revealing itself gradually to even those with the
best view. Just last week Texas junior fullback Ricky Brown sat
in a team meeting room at Memorial Stadium in Austin and looked
to his right at senior tailback Ricky Williams. "I thought,
There's a guy sitting next to me every day who's going down in
history," recalls Brown. "In a few years I'm going to be telling
my kids that I played with this guy, and man, those were some
This is an article from the Nov. 16, 1998 issue
For now, those are some days. College football history is dense
with fabled running backs, from George Gipp to Tom Harmon to
Doak Walker to O.J. Simpson to Archie Griffin to Tony Dorsett to
Earl Campbell to Charles White to Herschel Walker to Bo Jackson
to Barry Sanders. To that list it's time to add the name of
Ricky Williams, who is in the midst of a season that ranks with
that of any great running back in the college game.
What elevates Williams to this status is not just that he leads
the nation in rushing, with 1,724 yards, and needs only 204
yards in his final two games (or three if Texas reaches the Big
12 championship game) to break Dorsett's NCAA Division I-A
career rushing record of 6,082. It is not just that he has
scored more points (438) and more touchdowns (73) in his career
than any college player in history. Or that, barring his
abduction by aliens, he has wrapped up the Heisman Trophy. Or
that he has been the most dominant player in the country since
Labor Day weekend. ("The best, by far," says Oklahoma defensive
coordinator Rex Ryan. "You hold your breath when he has the
football; you're scared to death.") Or that he's as appealing to
NFL franchises as a sweet stadium lease. ("The only flaw we've
seen is that he can't hit the curveball," says Terry Bradway,
head of player personnel and scouting for the Kansas City
Chiefs, referring to Williams's struggles as a minor league
baseball player in the Philadelphia Phillies organization.)
Rather, the circumstances of Williams's performance raise him
into the elite class. Most running backs produce great seasons by
playing for great teams (Simpson for USC in '68, Dorsett for
Pittsburgh in '76, White for USC in '79, Eddie George for Ohio
State in '95) or by blossoming unexpectedly, without reputation
or pressure (Sanders for Oklahoma State in '88, Troy Davis for
Iowa State in '95). Williams has done neither of those. He is
playing for a Texas team that was in shambles last season and
hired a new coach, Mack Brown, only last December. Having rushed
for 1,893 yards as a junior and finished fifth in the Heisman
voting, Williams was Texas's only proven offensive option as this
season opened. Yet the Longhorns are a stunning 7-2, with losses
only to No. 2 Kansas State and No. 3 UCLA.
The Longhorns have developed a passing game because teams are
fixated on stopping Williams. Texas is consistently selling out
its 80,216-seat stadium and has fallen back into the loving arms
of desperate fans who have endured tradition withdrawal since
the Darrell Royal era ended in 1977. "Right now is about the
best time I can remember for being a Longhorns fan," says actor
and Texas graduate Matthew McConaughey, a regular visitor to
Texas practices and the recent buyer of a $50,000 luxury suite
at Memorial Stadium. All this success and goodwill is, in the
words of Longhorns senior wideout Wane McGarity, "Thanks to
There's more. Williams should already be gone. He would have
been a top five pick in the NFL draft last spring, but he chose
to return to Texas. He risks losing vast wealth nearly every
time the Longhorns snap the ball. Last winter, fired Texas coach
John Mackovic told Williams, "A running back can only take so
many hits in his career." Williams doesn't disbelieve this, he
simply disregards it. "It might be true," he said late last
week. "But even if I am costing myself years at the end of my
career, I don't care. I'm having too much fun."
Last Saturday's fun included 90 yards on 23 carries and one
touchdown, and three receptions for 78 yards, including a
48-yard score against an Oklahoma State defense that crammed
nine players near the line on almost every play. With both
Cowboys safeties locked on Williams and committed to stopping
the run, Texas redshirt freshman quarterback Major Applewhite
threw for three touchdowns and a school-record 408 yards. Yet on
the game's final drive Williams rushed for 42 yards on five
carries, leading to sophomore kicker Kris Stockton's 29-yard
field goal and a 37-34 Texas victory.
After the game Williams sat on a stool in front of his dressing
cubicle, as always the last to leave the locker room. "We could
have made yards running the ball if we had stuck with it," he
said, exuding the workhorse's stubborn confidence. "But it was
fun anyway--pass blocking, catching the ball for a touchdown,
running it at the end. And we won." He smiled, and his long
dreadlocks crisscrossed his face. A visitor said he surely hadn't
lost his Heisman lead, and Williams asked earnestly, "You don't
Williams's decision last January to return to Texas for his
senior season was shocking. Many observers compared it to Peyton
Manning's decision to return to Tennessee for his senior year in
1997, but it was nothing like Manning's decision. Except for
bedeviling annual losses to Florida, Manning's career had been a
fairy tale, and his love for the college atmosphere was well
known. Tennessee had a good team and a stable coaching staff.
Texas had neither. As Williams contemplated his choice last
December, he had had a solid college career but had never been
the primary option in the Longhorns' offense. Even last year's
big rushing total came on draws and counter treys that
complemented Mackovic's pro-style offense. In the Longhorns'
biggest victory of Williams's career, a 37-27 upset of Nebraska
to win the '96 Big 12 title, he had seven yards rushing.
A year after that game, Mackovic was fired on the heels of a 4-7
season, and a major rebuilding loomed. Williams's departure
seemed a slam dunk. "I would have left for certain," says senior
guard Ben Adams. Even Manning advised Williams to leave. Mack
Brown refused to press Williams toward a decision that might
subject him to a miserable senior season and cost him money in
the long run. But he did promise to make Williams the
centerpiece of the offense. "I was so excited to be the man,"
Williams recalls. "And I believed we could be a good team." In
his mind he made a list of four objectives for the season: 1)
win at least 10 games, 2) become a team leader, 3) get better as
a player and 4) break Dorsett's record.
Williams started his customary summer of minor league baseball
(he has been under contract to the Phillies since 1995) but
played only four weeks for Batavia of the Class A New York-Penn
League before rushing back to Austin in mid-July to join
strength coach Jeff (Mad Dog) Madden's cruel conditioning
program and teammates who had already endured a month of it.
Williams ran 40-yard sprints in a 30-pound-weight vest. He did
endlessly repeated uphill runs. "I watched him the first day
because I didn't think he'd survive," says senior middle
linebacker Dusty Renfro. Williams barely made it back to his
Chevy Tahoe after training that first day, but he finished the
summer at a taut 223 pounds, free of baby fat, stronger and
faster than at any time in his career, running a 4.4 40 and
bench-pressing 406 pounds. And now he can also win a pose-down.
"I catch him looking sideways in the mirror, checking out his
abs," says his roommate, walk-on defensive back Chad Patmon.
Williams exploded into the season by rushing for 215 yards
against New Mexico State and 160 against UCLA before Kansas
State's voracious defense held him to 43. He rebounded with 318
against Rice, 350 against Iowa State, 139 against Oklahoma (a
78-yard touchdown run was called back on a holding penalty far
behind the play) and 259 against Baylor. He pounded Nebraska for
150 yards in Texas's 20-16 upset, ending the Cornhuskers'
47-game home field winning streak. "The guy is something
special," says Nebraska defensive coordinator Charlie McBride.
"The two best guys we've ever played against are Barry Sanders
and Ricky Williams."
The season has been an endless montage of Williams highlights.
Against Rice he drilled two consecutive tacklers to the ground
with stiff-arms. Against Baylor he limped off in the third
quarter after a defender stepped on his calf, then he returned
to rush for 128 yards in the fourth quarter. Against Nebraska he
made a touchdown-saving tackle after a fourth-quarter
interception that would have given the Cornhuskers a 20-10 lead.
"Three guys had kill shots on him on that play," says Adams.
"Most star guys would have just fallen down. Ricky avoided all
three guys and made the tackle." When Williams left the field in
Lincoln, Nebraska fans chanted his name in admiration.
Every opposing team has hit him repeatedly--legally and
otherwise. "The poor kid has got every defensive player on every
team trying to rip his head off on every play, whether he's got
the ball or not," says Brown. "I worry for him."
Brown, who came to Texas after building North Carolina into a
national power, has become so attached to Williams that he frets
after games over whether he has helped Williams get enough yards
to influence Heisman voters. In August he challenged Texas
players to make the Heisman a team award and installed his pet
ground-friendly offense. He has given Williams the ball 287
times, and Williams has shown his thanks by jump-starting
Brown's rebuilding program. (In Brown's first year at Carolina,
the Tar Heels had a 1-10 record.)
Williams has also enabled Applewhite to grow into the
quarterback position with an enormous cushion behind him. "We
have a symbiotic relationship," says Applewhite. Symbiotic,
maybe. Equal, certainly not. "Ricky's effect on our offense has
been huge," says offensive coordinator Greg Davis. "He gave us
credibility we would never have had otherwise." Williams also
routinely bails out Applewhite by shouting proper checks to the
quarterback from his tailback position before the ball is snapped.
Williams plays with a number-37 decal on the back of his helmet,
in memory of former SMU great Walker, whom Williams met last
year while receiving the award that is named after him.
Following Walker's death in September, Williams switched from
jersey number 34 to number 37 for one game, against Oklahoma.
After scoring a fourth-quarter touchdown he pounded the jersey,
pointed to the sky and shouted, "That's for you, Doak!" It was a
rare sentiment from a 21-year-old whose generation often regards
history as insignificant.
Williams's performance must now be included in any historical
discussion of the best seasons ever. (Sample: His '98 is better
than Sanders's 2,628-yard 1988 season, because Sanders came in
as an unknown with no target on his chest and had three-year
quarterback Mike Gundy and dangerous wideout Hart Lee Dykes on
his team and no moldy tradition weighing him down.)
More important, Williams is meeting the demands on his own list.
He is better, he is a leader, and Dorsett's record should soon be
toast. Remarkably, Texas could win 10 games, even 11. Williams is
healthy and, for the first time in his career, fulfilled. "One
thing," he says. "I'd like to play UCLA and Kansas State again."
Fulfilled, but never satisfied.
FULL STEAM AHEAD
Ricky Williams, who leads the nation in rushing with 191.6 yards
per game and is having as fine a season as any running back in
history, has moved from 37th to second this year on the career
rushing list, with two regular-season outings remaining (not
counting a possible appearance in the Big 12 title game).
YEARS ATT. YARDS AVG. RUSH TDS
Tony Dorsett, Pittsburgh 1973-76 1,074 6,082 5.66 55
Ricky Williams, Texas 1995-98 937 5,879 6.27 70
Charles White, USC 1976-79 1,023 5,598 5.47 46
Herschel Walker, Georgia 1980-82 994 5,259 5.29 49
Archie Griffin, Ohio State 1972-75 845 5,177 6.13 25
and Ricky Williams," says Nebraska's defensive coordinator.