By Andrea Kremer and Tom Farrey
Before there was Ricky Williams, there was Shawn King.
"It wasn't so much that I just had to have marijuana," King said. "It was just that I didn't want to be tied down, man."
Tied down by the NFL's rules against smoking pot, that is.
"I'm not gonna say it helped me, but it definitely didn't hurt me," said King, who sometimes lit up on the morning of games. "By the time you warm up, and you're in all those pads, and in all that heat in the pre-game [warm-ups], and you've jumped in the Jacuzzi two or three times, your high is gone. You're just thinking about football or what you're going to do after the game, or whatever. I had some of my best games when I smoked beforehand."
King is a free man now. Free of the expectations of the NFL, from which he retired in 2000 after six seasons with the Carolina Panthers and Indianapolis Colts as a promising defensive end. Free of the "pee guy," as he calls him, who 10 times a month showed up to collect his urine -- at the stadium, at his home, even on a cruise ship. Free of the lie he felt compelled to perpetuate, that the pursuit of happiness, for him, ran through the NFL.
He is just a regular, if still rather large guy now, enjoying a low-key life in his home state of Louisiana, where he dabbles in real estate and spends as much time as possible with his two children. He played part of last season with the Arena Football League's Tampa Bay Storm and hopes to play again in 2005.
Out there, somewhere, is Ricky Williams, his psychic twin, who in the prime of his career turned his back on millions of dollars and prematurely, or at least temporarily, retired from the game. The Dolphins have trouble understanding the move. Not King, who like Williams was subject to year-round random testing due to a history of drug violations for using marijuana.
"I didn't like football anymore," he said. "I was just doing it because other people wanted me to do it. It was a great living. But I couldn't enjoy my money. I couldn't do what I wanted to do. I've never been in trouble with the law, but I felt like I was on probation or parole. I was tired of living like that."
King was originally flagged during his rookie training camp in 1995, as part of the league's standard testing program that allows marijuana screens only in the five-month window before the season. The positive result placed him in the league's intervention program, which subjects him to more frequent, random testing. He said he was busted for the use of a masking agent.
His experience appears to buttress the contention of league officials who insist that, while not perfect, their drug program generally is effective at catching marijuana users.
"There are many attempts made by many users of marijuana to beat the tests," said Dr. Bryan Finkle, who as the NFL's forensic toxicologist manages the testing procedures. "Let me tell you, they are far more optimistic [about their chances of avoiding detection] than they have any reason to be."
But King estimates about one-third of the players on both of his teams smoked marijuana -- and most of them never got caught. "A couple guys that were in the [intervention] program were smoking," he said. "I saw them smoking because I was smoking with them, and they passed the test."
There are ways for pot smokers to avoid a positive test, Finkle concedes. That's because, as with testing done by government agencies and other private companies, some traces of marijuana on a test are considered permissible. The NFL allows players to have up to 15 nanograms per milliliter of marijuana metabolites in their bodies, so only players who exceed that amount are considered in violation of rules.
Williams when retired claimed he used detoxifying agents to dilute his urine and beat the test. Finkle says that scenario would be unlikely -- if he ingested the liquids right before taking the test. The NFL tests for diluted samples, which automatically are considered positives.
However, Finkle told ESPN, even a player who used pot "on a regular basis" could avoid detection if, as a precautionary measure, he washed his system out well ahead of time.
"If, after each and every time that they smoked marijuana, they drank copious amounts of water or other water-based fluids and were not tested for two or three days, then certainly the concentration of those [marijuana] metabolites are going to be very low or may not even be detectable," Finkle said.
King was in the NFL's drug program his entire career, and smoked marijuana through 2Â½ of those years. He was caught only six times because during his early years he said he substituted clean urine for his "dirty" urine. He got away with it because, contrary to NFL protocol, the man assigned to administer his tests failed to watch him urinate.
"During the [rookie] season I didn't smoke, so I just filled up a bunch of Gatorade bottles [with clean urine] and put them in my carport," he said. "I said to myself that after the last game I'm going to start smoking during the offseason. You know, because I had three years to go in which I couldn't smoke or drink, and I couldn't fathom that. So I saved up about 18 months' worth of urine." Since he could be tested anytime and anywhere, he said he brought along a bottle of the clean urine on vacations. During the football season, on test days, he placed the urine in pill bottles and condoms -- anything small enough to carry in the waistband of his pants. And the urine he emptied into the cup was not just clean, but warm, as he knew the NFL also performs a spot test to make sure the fluid is body temperature. To achieve that effect, he turned to his home whirlpool.
"I'd put it in the Jacuzzi all night," he said. "I'd get up in the morning, get it out of the Jacuzzi, tape it to the vents in my truck and turn the heat on. I would drive to [the test site]. I'd have it stashed right there on my waistline, and when I got there I was ready to use the bathroom.
"I put a lot of work into it. I incorporated it into my everyday life like I wasn't going to get caught. Probably wouldn't have gotten caught if I had called this other girl."
The female he did call was a girlfriend at the time. He turned to her out of desperation, and just when King figured he knew how to whip the NFL testers.
"I was messing around and got stoned and dropped a whole Gatorade bottle in my carport," he said. "I ran short [of clean urine] so I called a girlfriend of mine and told her I needed a favor. So she Fed Exed me some [of her own] urine so I could make it through that week."
At that memory, King bends over laughing.
"I failed that test because I came up pregnant," he said. "I found out she was about six weeks' pregnant, so there it went. I was off to rehab. That was during the playoffs when we were about to play Dallas. I couldn't even play in that game. I helped that team get to where we were the second year, then I was in rehab when we played Dallas and Green Bay.
"I couldn't believe it. I knew I shouldn't have called that girl."
King prefers not to think about Super Bowl rings or Pro Bowl appearances while contemplating what else he would have changed about his career. Instead he believes he and Williams share a similar mindset, one that makes them brothers looking from the outside of a game they once loved.
"We want to smoke marijuana and do what we want to do. I guess that outweighed the love for football that so many people have."