Ode on a Running Back

Why John Keats would've loved Ricky Williams.
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When Ricky Williams was traded to Miami in 2002, I did not yet fully understand what a running back could be. I was a Dolphin fan by blood, raised by my family to idolize Dan Marino; raised by Marino to view football as a primarily aerial endeavor and stardom as an easy stroll along Hollywood beach at sunset.

There were only two seasons between the end of Marino and the beginning of Ricky Williams— seasons that saw the Dolphins quietly reinvent themselves as a defensive powerhouse while fans settled in to wait for the heir apparent. It wasn’t Damon Huard, nor was it Jay Fiedler (much to my dismay). Brian Griese couldn’t hack it and Daunte Culpepper, who unlike the others arrived with actual expectations in tow, was a bust.

Meanwhile, Ricky. He sure as hell wasn’t replacing Dan Marino, but that was the whole point. Where Marino was big grins, long bombs, and Jet Skis, Ricky was mirrored face mask, spiteful stiff-arms, and eventually,surreptitious bong rips. A decade before Milton Bradley wore earplugs in left field, Ricky isolated himself by wearing his helmet during postgame interviews. His nerves were no more a natural fit in Miami than they were in New Orleans. The very notion of a bruising halfback with social anxiety disorder as the heir to Marino was so silly as to be unthinkable.

This is a good thing, because Ricky’s game deserved to be appreciated on its own terms. And at the time, it was. In his first season in Miami, Ricky outperformed every running back who ever put on a Dolphins uniform before him. Then, he did the same thing in 2003. He was graceful and violent; better than everybody else, but fully aware of that fact. It never occurred to me to wonder whether Ricky loved playing football. The way he ran, it looked like football was more innate than love.

Then came 2004. We know the story. We’ve seen the movie (if you haven't, do). The first of the positive tests leaked. Ricky retired and went to India. He went to school in California to become a holistic healer. He began to speak openly out about marijuana, about social anxiety disorder, about how hard it can be to simply get by in the world—no matter who you are. The spiritual Ricky Williams emerged. The seeker, artfully summarized in a New York Times profile from 2009:

“He ordered hundreds of books on subjects like how to play guitar and astrology and homeopathic remedies. His influences included Bob Marley, philosophy and Greek mythology. He identified with Prometheus, chained to a rock, and Persephone, headed to the underworld.”

Ricky Williams was looking for truth, and that search was at odds with his professional football career.

***

In 1817, the poet John Keats wrote a letter to his brothers George and Thomas. It began with a casual account of his social calendar, but the last few paragraphs have made the letter famous, at least as far as letters by Romantic poets go. At the end of the letter, Keats described a concept that he called Negative Capability. It was the only time he ever used the phrase.

“When a man is capable of being in uncertainties, mysteries, doubts, without any irritable reaching after fact and reason,” Keats writes, he is negatively capable. He goes on in the next sentence to criticize Samuel Taylor Coleridge for his obsession with truth at the expense of beauty—for being “incapable of remaining content with half-knowledge.”

When Ricky Williams was running the ball for the Miami Dolphins in 2002 and 2003 he was not reaching irritably after fact and reason. At least not on the football field. Instead, he was disappearing into the sport. The Ricky Williams who read book after book about his soul and struggled with anxiety gave way to an entirely un-conscientious being who existed purely in the context of the game around him. He allowed himself to be fully inhabited by his perfect natural instincts and his enormous physical talents. This lines up with Keats’ vision, in which the true genius is able surrender everything, even himself, to beauty:

“...with a great poet the sense of Beauty overcomes every other consideration, or rather obliterates all consideration.”

***

Much like Dan Marino, the man Ricky Williams was never destined to replace in Miami, Williams is leaving the NFL without a Super Bowl ring. For running backs, ringless fingers are much less shameful than they are for quarterbacks. Still, Ricky believes that had he played in 2012, the Ravens would have won the Super Bowl. Because he is totally sure of this, he has no qualms about leaving the ring on the table, or in the glass case, or on the finger of whatever player Baltimore picks up to fill his vacated roster slot.

That may sound like a plainly delusional sentiment or a heavy-handed attempt at self-justification, but it also sounds more assured than anything Ricky was saying when the Dolphins acquired him a decade ago. It does not, in other words, sound like the kind of thing a person would say while hiding behind a visor. Or, for that matter, while still in the prime of his career.

Unlike Marino’s, Ricky’s retirement does not shake the foundations of a franchise. The Ravens will rumble forward, fueled by the screaming of their coach and the ferocity of their defense. The Dolphins boast a new ex-Saints, ex-Heisman running back in Reggie Bush. But with Jason Taylor quitting for good—and Pennington and Henne, Feeley and Frerotte, Green and Lemon and Poor Joey Harrington and countless other quarterbacks come and gone—their search for an identity continues. Ricky’s does not.

In the same radio interview that found him expressing so much confidence in his nonexistent 2012 season, Ricky cited a text message from Bill Parcells. Parcells apparently brought up a conversation he and Ricky had years ago on the subject of knowing when to walk away; he told Ricky not to chase football for too long, that he could contribute to the world by other means. We can apparently place the Tuna up there with Bob Marley and the ancient Greeks in the pantheon of Ricky’s influences, as well as on the lists of world’s most unlikely SMS users and givers of advice about retirement.

Ricky says he still loves football. It’s just that there are other things he loves more. (And by other things, he does not appear to mean marijuana this time, though only Ricky knows for sure.) This might not be a Keatsian example of beauty overcoming every other consideration, but does strike me as a decision made by a man capable of being in uncertainties, mysteries, and doubts. Sometimes, over the last few seasons of his career, Ricky revealed glimpses of the pulverizing back he used to be.

“The excellence of every art is its intensity, capable of making all disagreeables evaporate from their being in close relationship with Beauty and Truth.”

At his best, Ricky did this. He made quarterbacks and offensive lines—not to mention defenses—superfluous. But that's the problem with Keats' brand of intensity, with the beauty that obliterates all else: like the career of an NFL running back, it's unsustainable.


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Comments

I hate it that Ricky was painted as a flake, because he always came off as a guy who was, as you say, a seeker. Why football players have to be simple cavemen to be accepted is something I don't understand.

One of my archetype images of college football is of Ricky Williams when he was at Texas. I can't even remember who they were playing, but Ricky did everything he was capable of during this one play from scrimmage. He took the handoff deep in his own territory, made a shifty move to bounce toward the outside, used his physicality to flatten the first guy who tried to tackle him, and then accelerated in that majestically inevitable way that big backs do, gradually leaving everyone else behind him on the way to a long TD run. I'm pretty sure it's been embellished in my memory, but the basic fact of it was true: he was punishing and beautiful on that run.

Great stuff Eric - I love Ricky for living a spiritual quarter-life crisis while being in the fish bowl of celebritydom.