After a remarkable college football career that culminated in winning the Heisman Trophy in 1998, Ricky Williams entered the NFL. While he found success on the field in the pros, he also battled anxiety and depression. After leaving professional football, Williams embarked on a quest for knowledge, studying alternative healing and advocating for cannabis. His unique background as an athlete and healer led Williams to start his own cannabis line with the goal of opening minds and connecting patients to the world around them.
In 1999, the New Orleans Saints gave up all of their picks in order to draft you fifth overall in a historic trade. You were the only draft pick for the team that year. What kind of pressure comes from something like that?
I’m sure there’s a lot of pressure that came with it, but, at least at the time, I wasn’t really aware of it. I wanted to be the first pick. Back in 1999, it was the Cleveland Browns’ first year back in the NFL as an expansion team. They had the first pick. And so I saw being the No. 1 pick and going to Cleveland as my path. But I wasn’t the first pick—I fell all the way to the fifth pick. It was a little bit devastating for me. It didn’t really dawn on me—the massive trade and what it meant—until much later. The pressure I always put on myself to perform tends to be greater than any kind of pressure people on the outside could put on me. I really didn’t feel excess pressure from the pressure that I typically put on myself.
You were coming off a legendary career at the University of Texas. But in the pros, you began experiencing social anxiety and became known for your postgame interviews in which you wore your helmet and visor. When did you first start feeling anxiety in those situations?
I first started feeling anxiety almost immediately when I started dealing with the NFL. I guess, looking back, that probably should have been a clue that [professional football] might not be the path for me. I remember going to the NFL combine and just feeling grossly misunderstood. You mentioned the University of Texas and everything I did there. I think I was still a weirdo, but in college, you’re a kid and people look at you and treat you [that way]. At Texas, it felt like a big family where, for the most part, we accepted each other for who we were. I got into the NFL and I realized that people had a certain idea of who I was supposed to be and how I was supposed to behave that didn’t seem very interesting to me. I kind of went through an identity crisis of trying to figure out, am I who I think I am, or am I who everyone is telling me I’m supposed to be? That created a lot of anxiety for me. As I was wrestling with this tension, I remember it was during training camp, and we were in Wisconsin at the time. There was a light rain after practice and I was injured, so I hadn’t been playing or practicing, and the media wanted to talk to me. I was walking to a covered area, and before I even got there, someone in the media kind of yelled at me to take off my helmet. I’ve got a bit of a rebellious streak, so when they said it, I kind of thought, I haven’t even gotten under the thing, and you guys are yelling at me, treating me like a puppet. So I said, “What’s the big deal if I leave the helmet on?” For that whole season it stood, partially as a rebellious act against the idea that the media or that the fans want me to be something and aren’t willing to actually see who I am underneath the helmet.
That’s really interesting because it was so widely reported that the helmet/visor was related to social-anxiety issues. But you’re saying it was really more of a rebellious act?
Yeah, at the same time, because part of the anxiety was an inner rebellion that took a while to come to the surface and for me to actually act on it. But the signs were there from the very beginning that the NFL might not be the place for me.
You were using Paxil to treat anxiety — and you even did a campaign for the drug. How did you first end up using marijuana to treat symptoms of anxiety?
I remember we’d just finished a season—I think it was the 2000 season—and I had since recovered from wearing the football helmet. It was the following year, and I got off to a really good start that year, and I ended up breaking my ankle in the 10th week of the season. I kind of went into the tank because I had finally proven to myself that I could play in the NFL, and then I had this injury. And again, these ideas of, is this really what I want my life to be like, always trying to prove myself? And so I started, again, questioning—is this really who I am? And another symptom was I didn’t really feel like being around other football players. I felt like we didn’t have very much in common, and I just felt like an outcast. I was at home watching TV one day, and there was a commercial for Paxil and it started listing symptoms of social-anxiety disorder. It probably listed seven or eight symptoms, and I identified very strongly with three or four of them. So I started seeing a therapist, and she put me on Paxil. Who knows if the Paxil helped? For me, what was powerful was knowing that there was something that I could do about it.
So around the same time, I was living with a teammate of mine, and he was a smoker. We would get together and roll up and we’d smoke, and we’d talk. At this time, I’d never really even heard of medicinal marijuana. I grew up, my auntie smoked. It was around. That was just something you do. I didn’t look at it as being a bad thing, but I also didn’t realize that there were potential benefits from it. As I was smoking more and more, I started to ask myself different questions and look at the world in a different way. Parts of me that I’d never really knew existed, or I had long since buried, started to come back to the surface. It was almost like it allowed me to give myself permission to consider doing something other than playing football.
I don’t really get into the details of whether cannabis can treat mental-health disorders. What I do know for sure is that using cannabis helped me look at the world in a different way, which opened possibilities and doors that I didn’t even know existed. My classification of that is more of a spiritual type of medicine. Something that gives you a broader perspective and allows you to see things differently. And in my path, in studying different healing modalities, other than the Western healing modality, I learned the main disease we have is a lack of connection to the universe or to spirit.
You’ve extensively studied Ayurveda and yoga. What led to your interest in alternative healing?
It all started around the same time. As a football player, I was noticing when I go on the football field, everything is good. I’m talented. I know how to handle myself. I know what to do. But at the same time, my personal life was really a mess, and I felt the opposite. The question I kept asking myself was: I wonder what I’d have to change in my life for my personal life, my life off the field, to be as vibrant, as successful, as my life on the field? It was almost as soon as I started asking these questions, things started to change. I started to look at things differently. And so when I decided to retire from football in 2004, I wanted to travel. I wanted to experience different things. As I traveled, certain things would land in my lap, and a book on Ayurveda was one of those things. At this time, I was dealing with some residual injuries from playing football, and so part of my journey was looking for ways to help myself feel better physically and emotionally.
So I started reading this book on Ayurveda, and it just blew my mind. Here was this completely different way to look at the body and the mind that made more sense to me than what I had learned growing up. So when I got back to the States and realized, I’m not a football player anymore, I have to find something to do, I decided to start studying Ayurveda. I found a program in Northern California, moved up there and started studying.
As I studied Ayurveda, one day I was in class, and someone asked a question about cannabis. The teacher explained, “What the Buddha said is that anything can be medicine, and anything can be poison.” And he started to share his story of his personal use of cannabis, and he said, “I don’t use it every day, but if there’s a problem or something that I just can’t seem to figure out, I’ll use some cannabis, and it helps me see things differently.” As I studied further, I realized that they’ve been using cannabis in Ayurveda for over 2,000 years. So at least the internal stigma in my mind started to break down, and I started to realize all of these disparate pieces of my narrative are all starting to come together.
While I was studying Ayurveda and studying not only cannabis, but the other 150 herbs that they use in their pharmacopeia, it struck me that I’m in a state where I could get a [cannabis card]. So I got my rec and I got a couple of pounds of flower, and at the time I was working in the herb lab at the Ayurvedic school, and so I would bring home different herbs, and I started playing around in my kitchen, creating herbal formulations for myself and for my friends, combining these traditional Ayurvedic formulas with cannabis. It really opened my mind, considering my history as an athlete and taking Advil or Paxil or taking other different pharmaceuticals that, yes, provided some relief, but also a lot of side effects, and altered my ability to function. I just kept exploring, and through that exploration I found yoga, I found meditation and I found all these different things. What I wrestled with inside was that we’re taught cannabis is bad, but my experience with it is it goes extremely well with all these other things that I’m doing. I just further started to free my mind from these ideas of what we’ve been taught, of what cannabis is and what cannabis isn’t.
You obviously had a lot of trouble with the NFL’s cannabis policy — you mentioned at one point that pot cost you roughly $10 million when you factor in salary, fines and endorsements. How do you view its current handling of cannabis? Do you feel like it’s improved?
I will say it has improved. But I think for the most part, everyone’s had to improve. An example is when I got in trouble with the NFL, they were testing for THC metabolized at 0.15 nanograms per milliliter, which I think is pretty close to the lowest that you can test legally. They’ve now bumped it up to 0.5 nanograms per milliliter, and the significance of that is both of my failed tests were under 0.5 but above 0.15. So if I were playing in the NFL now, I wouldn’t have even failed the drug test and been in the drug program. So there definitely have been improvements. The other side is once you get into the drug program, essentially they treat you like you’re a criminal. In the drug program, I had to call the NFL and tell them whenever I was leaving town, I had to give them the date that I departed, the time that I arrived, my address and location so that they could test me any time they wanted. And I had to see an addiction specialist, once a week. That was for two years.
I think the NFL has improved. But at the end of the day, the program is you get tested once a year in the off-season between April and August, and then if you pass that one test, there’s no more tests the rest of the year. So for all intents and purposes, if players take a break or find a way to pass that test, they’re free to smoke during the season. So you could make the argument that the NFL is lax. The other side of the argument is the NFL is a powerful corporation that carries a lot of clout, and if they did modify their approach more significantly, it could create a lot of change in the world.
You started your own cannabis business, Real Wellness, based on your unique background as an athlete and a healer.
Yeah. My idea of entrepreneurship is seeing where there’s a need somewhere and using your individual abilities, talents, perspective to fill that need. I started speaking at cannabis conferences a few years back, just telling my story. Quite naturally, after being onstage on a panel or as a keynote, I’d walk the floor and meet different vendors and different people, and I kept being approached [about starting a business]. I started to think about my background and realized there’s a void for truly medicinal-marijuana products right now. With my background in herbalism and Ayurveda and Chinese medicine, I have access to formulas and ideas to actually start creating products for people where they can practice medicinal marijuana. I realized there’s something here. My personal experience, after studying alternative medicine, was that I found ways to take care of myself and realized I could do a much better job keeping myself healthy than the doctors could. A large part of that was using different herbal remedies, my yoga practice, my meditation practice, and realizing that we all, with a little bit of education and consciousness, can find ways to take care of ourselves.
Where can people find Real Wellness products?
Right now we’re only in Southern California dispensaries. In the RW line, we have several products that have THC and CBD, among other medicinals. We also have CBD-only products, which are available online and in dispensaries in Southern California. But right now we’re currently in conversations with manufacturing partners in other states so that we can get this product in patients’ hands.
I’m 41 now, and I look at my past and ups and downs. To me, I’m in a place where I can turn all that stuff into value, not just for myself but for other people. So starting a brand is really mainly a way to get my message out, that this is a plant that’s really contributed to my life and opened my mind to a lot of things. I just see the world being a better place if people’s minds are more open. Real Wellness isn’t just about eating organic food or exercising. It’s about your perspective. And your ability to feel connected to your life and the world around you.
This article originally appeared in the March 2019 issue. For subscription services, click here.