- The Washington Times - Sunday, August 25, 2002

MIAMI Ricky Williams runs hard and drives too fast. He relaxes by playing video games in which he's the star. He shuns attention, but loves celebrity and goes on network TV to talk about his extreme shyness.
Does that make him odd?
"He's just a good, red-blooded American kid," says his former coach, Mike Ditka.
"He's a little strange," says his mother, Sandy.
Either way, Williams has found a happy home in South Florida, where his varied interests shopping, photography, trampling linebackers are a good match for the region's diverse, transient cultural mix. Almost everyone here came from somewhere else to start over, and that's what Williams did.
In New Orleans, anything goes, but he felt like a weirdo there. Now, with his first regular-season game for the Miami Dolphins two weeks away, Williams says he has never been happier.
"I love to play football again," he says. "The environment is so positive here, it makes everything so much better. I come to work and I love it. I go home and I love it."
The Dolphins acquired him last March in their biggest trade since 1970, when they gave the Baltimore Colts a first-round draft choice in exchange for Don Shula. Within a week, Williams had made a deposit on a three-bedroom house near the Fort Lauderdale beach. He spent the rest of the offseason working out with his new teammates and never returned to New Orleans.
"We had to ship him his clothes eight boxes," his mom says.
No wedding gown was included. Williams wore one for an infamous photo shoot with Ditka upon arriving in New Orleans, and the resulting backlash began to sour what would be Williams' three-year stay with the Saints.
Williams thought the photo would be funny. A copy hangs in Ditka's restaurant, but the coach regrets the pose.
"I think some people might have gotten the wrong idea," Ditka says.
Williams' honeymoon with the Dolphins has gone more smoothly, despite minor missteps. He was stopped twice on traffic violations and complained to a newspaper columnist of police mistreatment, prompting the Dolphins to arrange a meeting with police to clear the air.
The team is inclined to make allowances for the 1998 Heisman Trophy winner, especially given the revolving door at running back that has helped keep Miami out of the Super Bowl for 18 years. Williams' predecessors since 1991 include four convicted felons but not a single 1,200-yard runner.
Williams ran for 1,245 yards last year in New Orleans, and he's expected to thrive under Miami's new offensive coordinator, Norv Turner, who has produced a 1,200-yard runner in eight of the past 11 seasons.
"The things Ricky does after the ball is snapped are unbelievable," Turner says.
Dolphins coaches and players rave about Williams' work habits, and he has embraced his fresh start in other ways large and small:
He consulted a nutritionist, adapted a diet heavy on pork and fish, and will play this season at about 230 pounds, 15 lighter than last year.
He designed a Web site run-ricky-run.com where he gushes about his new teammates "going out of their way to make sure I'm happy. It's a very cool thing."
He posed for a photo shoot with a monster truck. There was no dress in sight.
Williams also conducted a round of interviews, including one on NBC's "Today" show, to raise awareness of social anxiety disorder, the condition that causes his shyness. He says the diagnosis in February 2001 explained some of his behavior in New Orleans, such as curling on the floor at his locker and conducting interviews wearing a helmet and visor.
He still speaks so softly that Tampa Bay coach Jon Gruden greeted him at practice earlier this month, then walked away with Williams in mid-sentence because Gruden didn't hear him.
But Williams says medication has made him more comfortable and assertive in social situations.
"I can handle anything that comes my way," he says. "That confidence really helps me."
Williams' mother claims he was misunderstood in New Orleans. She says he's loving, generous and family-oriented, but enjoys solitude just like her, and just like his two sisters.
"He can be moody," Mrs. Williams says from her home in Austin, Texas. "When he doesn't want to be bothered and wants to be by himself, we let him be. That's the way he has always been. We're all like that. We could all be in the same house and be in different rooms and be happy."
With a laugh she adds, "I guess the whole family is strange."
Ditka didn't think so. He traded the Saints' entire 1999 draft to acquire Williams.
"He's a little bit of an introvert, but that doesn't make him bad," Ditka says. "The only thing I recommended to him is that he cut his hair. He looks more like a rock star than a football player. That makes him a little different. But I love him. I think the world of him."
Williams still wears thick dreadlocks fashionable for a Bob Marley fan, which he is. He recently bought his sixth copies of two Marley CDs because he keeps losing them.
He also loves computers and cars. He owns four cars down from 10 in New Orleans, Ditka says and acknowledges driving too fast. He was fined in May for traveling 126 mph in Louisiana and says he once reached 188 in Texas.
"Driving is not one of his better traits," his mom says. "When he was 16 and we went to get his license, I said, 'Ricky, everything in me as a mother says do not sign the paperwork.'"
In the Dolphins' locker room, Williams sits at his stall immersed in a laptop. When not writing a 1,500-word entry for his Web site, he likes to watch himself run wild in football video games.
"He's a computer nerd," his mom says. "When he broke his ankle two years ago, after surgery that morning he came home still woozy. He went up to his video room and played for five hours. I told him, 'No.34 runs great with a broken ankle.'"
Raps on Williams in New Orleans went beyond his personality. Detractors note he fumbled frequently, missed 10 games because of injuries and never had a touchdown run of more than 26 yards.
But Williams was a workhorse who moved the pile, which is the kind of ball-control back Miami has lacked since Larry Csonka. If the defense and kicking game remain as solid as in recent years, Williams could carry the Dolphins all the way to his hometown of San Diego for the Super Bowl.
"I can't see anything but good things happening for us," he says.
Williams remains an elusive interview subject, but seems at ease when he does sit down for a conversation. He enters the room carrying a blender in one hand and a paper cup in the other, and as he talks he sips his fruit smoothie and picks the seeds off his tongue.
"I've grown up a lot," he says. "I've learned more about myself. And it's fun to be around guys who love to play the same way I do. When you come to work, it's not a headache. There's nothing to hide from."
Not yet, at least. A fumble, an injury or a speeding ticket could send Williams into seclusion. Or perhaps the man who posed with that monster truck is poised for a monster season, ready at last to bask in the NFL spotlight.

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