Lieberman: NFL back Ricky Williams should be remembered for eschewing the status quo

“Winning isn’t everything; it’s the only thing.”

That famous quote, most often attributed to legendary NFL coach Vince Lombardi, was actually first uttered by UCLA football coach Henry Russell (“Red”) Sanders in 1950. No matter the source, the message is clear: Winning should always be the first priority in athletics. Although the original statement was made in reference to play on the field, it has been used as a motivational credo for workers in a number of walks of life.

I’ll be the first to admit I don’t agree with the sentiment. Winning is not everything. @@Someone’s not a [email protected]@Both athletes and sports fans participate in athletics for a multitude of reasons that are as diverse as the athletes themselves. Some embrace and cherish camaraderie, while others relish individual accolades. Some get goose bumps from the smell of a freshly cut football field, while others have their pulse raised by the sound of a sneaker hitting a freshly lacquered basketball court.

Life is what you make it, and the same holds for sport. To each his own, right?

Lately, not so much. Whether it’s a result of peer pressure, jock culture or media influence, athletes in the collegiate and professional ranks have tended to converge. Besides a few exceptions, like the Lakers’ Metta World Peace, transcendent personalities are few and far between.

Their daily quotes are as predictable as the sunrise. They all claim to value winning above to all else, to ignore their own statistics and to maintain a team-first mentality. They all play hard and they all have the backs of their teammates. Frankly, we all know that’s far from the truth.

And that’s why I love Ricky Williams. During his NFL career, he pulled no punches. He admitted to being diagnosed with Social Anxiety Disorder, Avoidance Disorder and Borderline Personality Disorder. Prior to his diagnoses, Ricky was well known for conducting postgame interviews while wearing his football helmet, complete with tinted visor (he said the barrier helped him feel protected from outside scrutiny). He also conceded to his use of marijuana use on several occasions (mostly as a result of failed drugs tests). But more importantly, in 2004 — at the peak of his NFL career (and with a season-long suspension likely to result from a third failed drug test) — he declared that he wanted to leave football. He later described his yearlong hiatus to The Toronto Sun as “most positive thing” he’d ever done. @@[email protected]@ @@–ex-argo-ri[email protected]@

While suspended during the entire 2004 season, Williams studied Ayurveda (an ancient Indian system of holistic medicine) at the California College of Ayurveda in Grass Valley, Calif. (Yes, the name of the town is ironic). After shortly returning to the game in 2005, he was suspended for yet another whole season due to yet another failed drug test. It has been suggested that the substance may have been an herb related to his interest in holistic medicine.

In the end, after clearing multiple hurdles related to failed drug tests, Williams returned to football and rushed for more than 1,000 yards for the Miami Dolphins in 2009. In the process, he set an NFL record for the longest span between 1,000-yard seasons at six years. @@[email protected]@

On Tuesday, after serving as a commendable backup for the AFC North Champion Baltimore Ravens this past season, Williams announced his retirement. He left the game as a Heisman Trophy winner and an NFL All-Pro. He ended his career as only the 26th man in NFL history with more than 10,000 rushing yards. @@[email protected]@

As always, media pundits had a number of reactions to the news.

Some claimed Williams had put together a notable career that, if underwhelming, was an overall success. Others contended that Williams was a bust — a drugged-out loser who sold himself short of his true potential due to poor decision-making. Most fell somewhere in between.

When I see Williams, I don’t see a historic draft pick or a junkie who self-medicated. I see a man who, despite his many flaws, presented his true self to the world. I see a man who — despite being terrified by social interaction and outside scrutiny — owned up to his mistakes and eventually pulled through to redeem himself.

So go ahead and call Ricky Williams a failure or a bad role model. You’re entitled to your opinion. It’s no secret why he didn’t win a NFL Comeback Player of the Year Award.

The way I see it, not all people are so cut and dry, and neither are all athletes. Whether or not you can forgive him for his mistakes, Williams was a man who had a complex and evolving public image to match a complex and evolving personality. Frankly, he never saw football as the center of his universe. While his prodigious talents led to a productive NFL career, Ricky always saw football as a significant part of this life, but just one part. As he said in his retirement announcement, “The NFL has been an amazing page in this chapter of my life. I pray that all successive adventures offer me the same potential for growth, success and, most importantly, fun.”

Ricky does not fit your classic image of a golden boy athlete and would never be described as a “true winner.” But much like Miami Dolphins receiver Brandon Marshall, Williams had the courage to acknowledge his mental disorders and repair his public image. @@[email protected]@

When it counted most, he was willing to take off his mask and bring his imperfections to light. In my eyes, it is Williams’ willingness to deviate from the norm — not his accomplishments on the football field — that should leave a legacy for future professional and collegiate athletes.

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