Former All-Pro running back and Heisman Trophy winner Ricky Williams, who is currently writing a series of columns for Marijuana.com (powered by Weedmaps.com), talks his reasoning for promoting marijuana after finishing his NFL career (2:23), his history with marijuana prior to his 2004 suspension and early retirement (7:17), his EuroTrip with Lenny Kravitz – including a stop in Amsterdam (14:40), how then-Dolphins head coach Nick Saban pulled him out of retirement (24:20), why Roger Goodell is not a villain to marijuana (39:45), what he's learned from Eugene Monroe (44:12) and why he says, "F*** the fans," and thinks cannabis can limit suicides by NFL players (47:01).
Ricky Williams has a reputation. He's the NFL weed guy.
Williams shook the NFL landscape when he retired before the 2004 season rather than serving a four-game suspension after failing a second drug test for marijuana. The All-Pro running back returned to the NFL in 2005, and after another failed another drug test (not for marijuana), he was suspended for 2006. Williams' third stint in the league was 2007 through 2011.
Now 39, Williams is still a marijuana proponent, but his outlook has evolved since his playing days. Williams, an analyst for ESPN and the Longhorn Network, is writing a series of columns for Marijuana.com, powered by Weedmaps.com. The first focused on how marijauana led to his retirement from football and the second addressed cannabis as a medicine for NFL players. The third, published Thursday, explored Williams' connection to fellow NFL player-turned-marijuana advocate Eugene Monroe.
Williams, the 1998 Heisman winner, dropped into ThePostGame Podcast to discuss his role in the way marijuana has been gaining mainstream acceptance. But before listening, be aware that this conversation with Williams is not a glorification of marijuana. It is a comprehensive look the controversy surrounding cannabis as it relates to the NFL, for better or for worse. But Williams does share some amazing marijuana-related stories from his playing career.
Some highlights of the podcast:
On why Williams thinks you should listen to him:
ThePostGame: I'll kind of give you the floor to start because there's such a conception of you as the NFL weed guy. Why should someone continue listening to the rest of this podcast and not think they're going to hear the same things they heard about Ricky Williams ten, 12 years ago?
RICKY WILLIAMS: Well, the first thing is even if those things were 100 percent accurate, hopefully I've changed in the past 12 years, and secondly, if people are already listening to this point, they probably have some interest in me and some interest in cannabis. It's an open conversation. I think one of the things I've noticed from my experience is people are dying to listen to and to talk about cannabis in a way where it's not so polarized, where they're having to fight that it's a good thing and it's the best thing in the world or they're fighting saying that it's horrible and it's going to destroy people's lives. I think to have an honest conversation and someone to be truthful about what their experience is. I think it's invaluable because it empowers other people to do the same.
On the lead-up to his 2004 suspension and subsequent retirement for testing positive for marijuana:
TPG: Before 2004, how big of a role had marijuana played in your life, whether in college or the NFL?
WILLIAMS: I grew up in San Diego and you know, reggae, being chill, laid back, smoking marijuana was part of the culture. But I was an athlete. I had friends that were part of the stoner group, but I didn't really partake. I got to college and it was basically a similar story there, a couple of guys on the team that smoked, when we were all hanging out, I would consume, but I wasn't really into it. I didn't really get it. It was just something that we did socially. Then my senior year, running for the Heisman Trophy, I was just having a difficult breakup, I was just really stressed out and having a difficult time. My roommate suggested that I smoke with him and I said sure. It was the first time that I noticed benefits from it in the fact that I could sleep and I wasn't as stressed, and I could look at things differently and clear my mind and have a more positive outlook. That was the first time it really had an impact on me and then gradually, over the next three years, I started using cannabis more and more in the NFL. Because of the NFL's drug program, in my time in New Orleans, I really didn't smoke very much my first two years. In my third year in New Orleans, I started to smoke almost every day after practice, kind of like a reset-and-recovery thing. And then I got traded to Miami in 2002, and when I got traded to Miami, I met some people and they had really good weed in Miami. And so I started smoking again almost daily after workouts. In the NFL, you get drug tested once a year, and in New Orleans, we got drug tested during training camp, so in August every year. When I got traded to Miami, they do their drug testing in May and I didn't know this until the day before the test. I went to the store and tried to get something to like mask it. It was my first time using it and I didn't follow all the directions, so I ended up failing that test. In the NFL, when you fail that annual drug test, they put you into a drug program, where now, instead of getting tested once a year, I got tested nine times a month. At that point, cannabis was no longer a part of my life because I was being tested so much and there was so much at stake.
TPG: And this was in 2002?
WILLIAMS: This was in 2002. The season started – I mean that's the year I led the NFL in rushing – and my body started to get beat up again and dealing with the stress of being a professional football player. Although I was being tested twice a week, I still, I'm a bit of a risk-taker, I wanted to see if I could still find a way to use cannabis, just a little bit and still pass the test. And so I started kind of knowing that I would get tested twice a week and I would never get tested two days in a row. The day I got tested, I started experimenting, and I realized I could take three hits the day after a test and I'd pass the test two days later. That became my pattern. That worked for about a year and a half, and the drug program is two years. I was about two months out of finishing the drug program and we played a Monday night game against the Eagles and I re-separated shoulder and I got banged up really bad and that game put us out of the playoffs, so that night, I went home and I smoked and the next morning, I got a call to take a drug test and I failed that second test. When you fail a second test, they have to tell the team because they fine you 4/17 of your salary, but they also let you appeal. I appealed to the NFL because the level the NFL tested at, at the time, was .15 managrams a milliliter, that's the smallest you can test, legally. They've since raised it to .5. They test two bottles, an A bottle and a B bottle. When we got the test results back, when I sent the appeal in, my A bottle was like .154, which meant I barely was over, and the B bottle, was .04, so if the B bottle was tested, I would have passed, theoretically. That was my argument in the appeal. After the appeal, the NFL called me and said we don't want to suspend you, so let's work out a deal and they offered if I stayed in the program for the first half of the NFL football season and stayed clean, I'd be out of the program. And I said, no. This was the end of 2003, into the beginning 2004. The appeal was the beginning of 2004. I said no because I wasn't sure what I was doing with my NFL career. There was just a lot of things up in the air. Playing in Miami, we had a new offensive coordinator, who I didn't get along with. And I was talking with the Dolphins for the past two years about renegotiating my rookie contract and they said that they would, but they didn't. And my body was really beaten up from the year before. I had a lot of questions and doubts if the NFL was really for me. In that ambivalence, I just kind of turned around and around, wrestling with is this really for me.
And the conclusion I came to at the end of the day was no. I remember I went home that day and I called my girlfriend and I told them, "Hey, I'm going to retire from the NFL." They all told me how crazy I was. After they told me how crazy I was, I started to rethink my plan and I thought maybe I can play one more year and ride off into the sunset after the year. That decision held me over for a couple of weeks and then after I took that trip to Europe with Lenny [Kravitz] and his crew, it just kind of fed the part of me that realized there's other things that I'm more interested in doing than playing football.
On his 2004 trip to Europe, where he joined Lenny Kravitz's entourage as the singer toured the continent. Williams announced his retirement upon returning to the U.S.:
TPG: The Lenny Kravitz story, you talk about it in the first article. You mention people in Europe probably just thought you were a bodyguard, not a football player. What was that experience like in terms of what was the crew like, was it Lenny's entourage? How did you fit in? What did you see during that trip to Europe?
WILLIAMS: So one of my best friends was Lenny's personal assistant. She knew that I had some time off and she knew that I loved to travel, so she said, "Why don't you come hang out with us?" So I mainly hung out with her and some of the band members, but mainly her and the cook. The cook was a smoker too. He taught me how to roll joints. And really, Lenny would perform and I would just tag along. I had a backstage pass, so I could walk around around anywhere and I just explored. I just loved tagging along and hitching a ride on the tour bus to England or Paris or Germany. It was great.
And I think what it did is, I was on the eve of going into football season, which is pretty much you're stuck in one place for the whole year and it's a bit of a grind. I was experiencing this life, where I could travel and I was free and I could do whatever I wanted to do, and for me, that felt so much better than going back into the NFL. And I think I was at a point in life where I was starting to ask some big questions. What's the meaning of life and why I am here? The only questions that football could offer me at the time were how do I make more money and how do I become more famous? And I was pretty much done with fame and having excessive amounts of money at that point and I was ready for something that was more real in my life and it really led to a spiritual awakening for me.
TPG: Did Lenny ever look around and say Ricky, should you be here, smoking weed?
WILLIAMS: I don't even think Lenny knew that I was smoking. Lenny was busy doing his own thing and I was busy doing my own thing. The only time we really hung out is right before I left, we were in Cologne, Germany, and the whole time Lenny had been bugging me to work out with me because he wanted to see what it was like to work out with a football player, so we went to the gym and he's like stronger than I am. It was kind of embarrassing. We were doing dumbbell push-ups and he was doing like 40 pounds and like 50 reps. I got like to 25 and my arms gave out. He made fun of me about that I need to be working out and be ready for the season, but I don't think he knew that I was smoking there.
TPG: And he didn't know you weren't coming back for the next season?
WILLIAMS: Yeah, he didn't care though. Right after I retired, I flew to Tokyo and I met Lenny. When I got off the plane, they were all clapping their hands and congratulating me. I think people that knew me can appreciate that. I have the soul of like a spiritual warrior, not really the soul of a football player and so a lot of people that knew me and were my friends were happy when I left football because they knew that I'd be happier.
TPG: Was there an Amsterdam stop of that trip?
WILLIAMS: There was an Amsterdam stop. We went from London to Paris, and Lenny was playing a show in Paris that night and we got there that morning, and we were out of weed. I volunteered, I said I know it's a four-hour trip on the train from Amsterdam to Paris, and I know I can get back before the bus leaves after the concert.
TPG: Because you're an All-Pro running back.
WILLIAMS: Yeah, but I had to literally run to the train station, get on the train, run to the coffee shop, get the stuff, run back to the train and get back back on the train, and I barely barely made it. And I didn't think, when you buy weed in Amsterdam, it tends to be pretty strong, and so I didn't consider the smell, and so when I put it in my backpack and got back on the train, I was kind of like uhh ... I hope no one smells that. But I did make it back on time.
On if he watched football in 2004:
WILLIAMS: I saw five minutes of one game that whole season. After I retired, I became a different person. Before I retired, I had read maybe five books in my life. After I retired, within a month, I had read maybe ten books.
On why he returned to the NFL in 2005:
WILLIAMS: There's a concept in Hinduism and it's also in Buddhism called darma and it basically means finding your path or finding your meaning of your individual life, finding your purpose. What I realized was for me to find my purpose and continuing living my life, I had to go back to the NFL and kind of make things life. I looked at the way that I left at the time, it was going to be hard for me to do anything meaningful because I was gonna have to recover.
TPG: The Dolphins pick Ronnie Brown with the second pick overall, who you could say appeared to be a franchise running back. You have a new coach, Nick Saban, who by all accounts was hard on his players, hard in college, really hard in the NFL compared with other coaches, but you do choose to come back. How accepted were you when you came back?
WILLIAMS: Nick Saban was a big part of me coming back. He reached out to me and said, "Hey, we'd love to have you back." I was surprised because yeah, I'd heard all the rumors and heard about his reputation. When he asked me to come back, I was open to it. I get back to Florida in June and he set it up for me to stay at the Residence Inn in Boca [Raton] and he sent our strength coach up to Boca every day to work me out for about a month to go get me back in shape. When I showed up at camp, I was in the best shape of my life and Ronnie held out, so I got to run first-team reps in training camp. I think once I got on the field and my teammates saw that I was me, they accepted me pretty quickly.
TPG: Now, you can break the internet right now if there's any truth to anything, Ricky, but there was no you and Nick Saban talking about everything over a joint when you got back?
WILLIAMS: Ah ... that would have been nice, but no. There wasn't.
TPG: Did Nick Saban express any opinion about marijuana or did he just want you back on the field?
WILLIAMS: He just wanted me back on the field. It was strange that it wasn't really talked about much. I think people just assumed that if I was going back I had quote-unquote got my shit together.
TPG: Which you did.
WILLIAMS: Which, I did smoke marijuana again, but not that first year. It was really just playing football and getting back into it ... When I came back in 2005, I didn't smoke that year and I didn't start smoking again until I got back to Canada.
(Williams was suspensioned for failing another drug test -- not for marijuana -- and sat out the whole 2006 season. Williams played that season for the Toronto Argonauts of the Canadian Football League under the condition he would return to the Dolphins in 2007).
WILLIAMS: The second half of that season, I started hanging out with some of the guys on the team and we'd go over to one of the houses and play Madden and everyone would smoke. Getting back in that environment, and at that time, halfway through the season in Toronto, I realized the NFL wasn't gonna send anyone up to Toronto to test me, so it'd be safe to smoke.
On what he calls a "major cannabis revolution" in the United States:
WILLIAMS: [We're] moving away from centuries of moralism and religion and you have to do things the right way and you have to avoid the devil. I think we're moving out of that and we're finally honoring the Declaration of Independence and celebrating individual freedom and freedom for each person to be their own person and to find their own path in life, regardless of what it looks like.
TPG: Are we on the verge of an NFL major cannabis revolution?
WILLIAMS: I think the NFL, like most conservative businesses, tend to follow the crowd. I think it'll wait until we meet a critical mass and the public has spoken. But it also comes down to money. It also comes down to money, like what Roger Goodell said. The NFL is open to revising the drug program in the new CBA, which means he wants to get some for the owners in exchange for [it].
On why he doesn't blame Roger Goodell:
WILLIAMS: I'm not trying to say it's Roger Goodell's fault. To me, the NFL drug policy is quite liberal, the way they only test once a year and they make it known when they're gonna test. So it's pretty easy to pass the test. The problem is people that don't pass the test, I think that's where the program needs to be addressed. And that program was put into place in 1982. I think they realized this needs to be updated because times have changed.
TPG: So what are some small victories that could be made?
WILLIAMS: Three years ago, in the new CBA, they changed the testing level to .15 managrams a milliliter to .5. That's big. Based on that, I never would have been in the drug program. So, that's a small victory and the fact that there's public record of Roger Goodell being open to looking at cannabis differently is a small victory. I just think it's one of those things that's going to take time. We've been indoctrinated with marijuana is bad for so long, it's gonna take time to loosen the hole that it has on people's minds. I think we're making good progress. I think big changes like this just require time. And hopefully as these changes are made, people that are imprisioned for non-violent cannabis offenses are released and people like me who have been persecuted unfairly, at least that there's some kind of acknowledgement.
TPG: Do you think the NFL is making players stop using cannabis or in a way, it just makes players work on how to dodge the drug test?
WILLIAMS: In some ways, it's the same way. I think the NFL put the drug program in place to protect their reputation. My interpretation is that if players can prove they can pass this one test, the NFL is doing their part and the players aren't gonna get in trouble.
On his relationship with Eugene Monroe:
TPG: Your next article has to do with Eugene Monroe. You were telling me a little bit before we started about how interesting of a guy he is, him being a former football player as well. What has he meant for this NFL-marijuana relationship?
WILLIAMS: He was the first current player to take a stance and granted he was considering retirement and at the end of his career, it still takes a lot of courage to do it. And talking to him, I realized that his story is similar to mine in a lot of ways. He grew up more or less anti-drugs and then after dealing with injuries and looking for alternatives to get back on the field, he started doing some research on medical cannabis and after seeing how harmful anti-inflammatories and pain pills from NFL doctors were, he decided to try something different. Not only did he realize the medical benefits, but he said in doing the research – he said it was hard to separate the research from business opportunities – and after doing a lot of research and reading and meeting with different companies, he started to invest in the cannabis injuries like over a year ago. I was blown away. And he invested a lot of money, but based on his research. It's interesting that someone who wouldn't touch it, within the course of two years after doing extensive research, was not only using cannabis medically, but also investing. And now, it's what he spends the majority of his time doing. It shows how harmful the stigma is and it also shows how cannabis can contribute to the improvement in people's quality of life. The one thing talking to Eugene that I could relate to is the NFL is great and I think it offers so many people a great opportunity to show off their talent to their world and to make a lot of money to take care of their family in the process, but it's difficult for people to survive the NFL and still create meaningful lives beyond. People do it, but it's rare and I think one of the most difficult processes in an NFL player's life is to transition out of football and to see how Eugene has done it so masterfully, has parlayed the connections he made, the experience of playing in the NFL into an opportunity now where the quality of life is actually better than it was when he was playing football, to me, it's just an amazing story.
TPG: If players were able to use marijuana as a painkiller during the season, do you think that would improve the product on the field because at the end of the day, I think that's the only thing, and you see it with concussions, that's the most important thing to the fans?
WILLIAMS: Pardon my French, but f*** the fans. I think if players were allowed to use cannabis, I think you'd think better resolutions of the long game. I think you'd see less players committing suicide. You'd see less players struggling with concussion-caused symptoms. I think you'd just see less players struggling after football. Before I started using cannabis, I just was like football, football, football, and trying to fit into the identity of what it meant to be a football player. Then I started using cannabis and my mind opened, and I realized there's more to me and there's more to life than just football. I started to pursue other things that I was interested in, so when it was time for me to leave football, it was a smooth and easy transition. We can talk about pain, but I think the spiritual and the mind-opening affects of cannabis are where the true healing occurs.
TPG: You heard it a lot that people think players are just machines that can keep going night-in, day-in, Sunday-in, Sunday-out. From what you're saying, it's important for the fans to realize – or you can say F the fans – that there's more going on with players.
WILLIAMS: To me, the whole point of professional sports is that people are supposed to watch professional sports and feel inspired. But because they project this machine stuff on us they don't relate to us. We all went to elementary school together. We're just like everyone else, we've just found something we're really good at and we've dealt with the difficulties it's taken to be the best. I think if other people are willing to look at football players and other professional athletes and be inspired to find what they're good at and work hard to achieve at that level, that's what it's really about.
On getting weed in Austin:
WILLIAMS: I spend most of my time in LA, but I have been in Austin for the past five years and it's liberal in the sense that it's pretty easy to get in Austin and the cops are pretty chill, but if you go one county to the north, you're in jail for a joint, you're in jail for a doobie.