Bryan Scott scrunched his face and brainstormed. He thinks he played Ricky Williams before. Maybe. The memory is fading. Feels like forever ago.
“I’m not sure. I’m not sure,” Buffalo’s safety-turned-linebacker repeated. “I think so. Yeah. By the time I got into the league, he was already in Miami.”
Or something like that.
Reincarnated as the team’s go-to back, the eccentric Williams bloodied the Bills for 115 yards on 27 attempts on Sunday. The 31-14 defeat was a haymaker to Miami’s playoffs hopes. At 5-6, the Fins are on the outside looking in. But amid the fourth quarter debacle, Williams rushed for his third straight 100-yard game.
It’s a feat Williams hasn’t accomplished since 2003 - mainly because his life spun out of control since then.
In the wake of multiple failed drug tests, Williams retired from football in 2004. Marijuana jokes in his shadow. He got his Magellan on, oddly scanning the globe for new mediation techniques. Williams returned to the NFL in 2006, was booted for a fourth failed drug test and joined the Toronto Argonauts of the CFL. Williams clawed his way back into the NFL in 2007. And almost immediately, his season ended with a chest injury.
Yet here he is. Thirty-two years old. The NFL’s hottest running back.
“The ageless Ricky Williams,” Scott chuckled. “He’s a talent. He’s very talented. He works hard and runs hard so it’s always a challenge to try to withstand that.”
At an age when running backs typically decompose - think Shaun Alexander, Edgerrin James - Williams is ascending. Hard to tell that “Wildcat” connoisseur Ronnie Brown is on injured reserve. Williams’ 5.1 yards per carry ranks fourth-best in the league amongst backs with at least 100 carries. His 792 yards rank 10th. His nine touchdowns, fourth.
“I kind of was enjoying the way it was before with Ronnie,” Williams said. “But if this is what the season has called on me to do, I’m going to do my best.”
Williams never busted loose Sunday. Instead, his yards came in chunks. Even in the win, Buffalo players assured. Williams is back. Better than ever.
“He has good vision and will find the little seam he can get,” Buffalo defensive tackle Kyle Williams said. “And he’ll bleed you for three, four, five yards every time he touches the ball.”
Of course, the play he’ll be most remembered for Sunday was a gift-wrapped interception in the end zone to Chris Draft. In the first quarter, Williams took the direct snap and attempted a pass to tight end Joey Haynos. Draft read it perfectly and picked it off.
Still, it’s hard to pin this loss on Williams. Quarterback Chad Henne (175 yards, three picks) did little to stretch the Bills’ defense. Nothing new to Williams. That’s been the routine all season.
Defenses know the Dolphins are going to run and still can’t stop it. The past three Brown-less games of 20, 22 and 27 carries has been a blast to the past for Williams. Before the soul-searching, before the drugs and before the foray in Canada, Williams was a workhorse. An old school, between-the-tackles pounder that the Dolphins fed 383 and 392 carries to in 2002 and 03.
You know, back when Alex Van Pelt was a quarterback instead of an offensive coordinator.
The key to the comeback was wholesale, man-in-the-mirror changes. Williams vows he doesn’t drink alcohol anymore. He isn’t tempted by the nightlife anymore.
“When I was younger, I thought my body would last forever so I didn’t take care of it,” Williams said. “Now I watch what I eat and try to spend extra time working out and making sure my body is good.”
In a way, Williams is fulfilling his hype and repairing his image simultaneously. Back in 1998, Mike Ditka and the New Orleans Saints mortgaged an entire draft for him. The two posed on the cover of ESPN Magazine together, Ditka in a tuxedo and Williams in a wedding dress. Arguably no player - ever - entered the NFL with as high expectations as the Heisman-winner Williams.
He struggled initially, had a few breakout seasons in Miami and eroded into an international pot-themed punch line. Now, he’s back. Williams doesn’t know how many years left he has. Nor does he want to find out.
Sitting in his locker after the game, Williams sure didn’t look like a grizzled veteran. Dressed to impress in his slick flat cap, he was clean-shaven. The mountain-man beard Williams rocked briefly a couple years ago is gone. He has re-added muscle and replenished his attitude.
Williams never expected to be here four or five years ago.
“No definitely not,” Williams said. “It’s been a wild ride and it’s been interesting. It just shows the power of perseverance.”
This article originally appeared in the Olean Times Herald.
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