A Change of Seasons: Ex-NFL Player Ricky Williams Is Helping to Spread the Herb

Photo illustration by Michael Ziobrowski

Sitting on an oversized sofa inside his Venice Beach townhouse, Ricky Williams explains, “I see myself as a traveling healer, a philosopher, someone who brings wisdom, healing, light and perspective to people.”

As I view the Asian artwork surrounding Williams’ pad, I can feel the stress of my drive up the 405 abating. Out the back window, ducks drift lazily in a sunlit pond. Branches sway in the gentle breeze, their swelling buds hinting at the promise of spring to come. Williams’ approach to healing and wellness includes yoga, astrology and cannabis, the same herb that led to an early exit from the NFL in 2004 over the league’s drug policy. Critics bemoaned the young athlete walking away from a multimillion-dollar career to get high, but, Williams says, that’s not the whole story. “There was a misunderstanding at the time about what cannabis was and especially what cannabis was for me,” he says.

“That statement that I left to smoke weed—it’s kind of true,” he acknowledges. “But it’s a bigger truth. At that time in my life, I was living for a more conventional type of success—more of what was expected of me. I was a good athlete, so I was supposed to be a professional football player. What I’ve learned about myself is my path is more of a path of someone who smokes weed, meditates, does yoga, is a healer and is into astrology. That’s just more of a life that resonates with what I’m supposed to be doing on Earth—more than what I was gifted at and being a football player.”

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Illustration by Michael Ziobrowski

Williams had used cannabis sporadically in college, and after being drafted by the New Orleans Saints in 1999, he started smoking a joint with a teammate after practices to unwind. His use wasn’t consciously medical, but it did help him cope with the physical toll inherent in professional football, as well as his anxiety over being in a league where he wasn’t sure he belonged.

“My second year in New Orleans, I was dealing with injuries, and it was really stressful,” he recalls. “And I started smoking every day after practice with one of my teammates. And I noticed I was in a better mood going to work, and I worked hard, and it helped me manage the stress.”

Most NFL players who smoke pot avoid detection by curtailing use before the annual teamwide test, which for the Saints was during training camp. But when Williams was traded to the Miami Dolphins in 2002, he “didn’t get the memo” from fellow smokers that Miami held its test in the off-season. His drug test came back positive for cannabis, and Williams was put into the NFL’s two-year drug program, which subjected him to screenings nine times per month.

Since cannabis was his only escape from the pressures of football and life, Williams was soon gaming the system, taking the opportunity to smoke a small amount right after each test. Having to use cannabis so sparsely taught him to approach it more mindfully. “During this time, I’m forced because of the drug tests to be moderate and to be conscious about it,” he says. “That’s something I didn’t really plan, but that’s one of the keys to using it consciously.”

Such introspection caused Williams to question his personal and professional priorities and realize that football wasn’t the same for him as it was when he played for the University of Texas and was selected for the Heisman Trophy in 1998. “I loved football in college,” he says. “It was everything to me, and I was rewarded for it. And people got me, and there was a smooth flow to it.”

In the NFL, Williams says, he felt he was expected to be someone he wasn’t and struggled with bouts of depression and social anxiety. He had achieved what society expects from a gifted athlete, he says, and on the conventional path, he was way ahead of the game. “But it didn’t feel fulfilling to me,” Williams explains. “I was stuck in materialism. I had the good job, the money, the girls and all that stuff, so I should be happy. But there’s another part of me that’s not being nurtured.”

Williams began to consider new perspectives. “I started to think about my life more, and to think about things that I liked about my life and things that I didn’t like about my life,” he says. “And something about that space . . . new ideas started to bubble up. . . . I started to read more, and my mind really started to open. And I think that openness and looking at things differently really opened the door for me to realize that this isn’t where I’m supposed to be.”

At that time, Williams was also struggling with the NFL’s policy on and the stigma associated with cannabis. He recalls how the concierge at his condo building was always trying to get Williams to come out to the Miami party scene. He had always declined the invitations, but one day he was in a particularly good mood and decided to ask when the next party was. It was after Memorial Day, the concierge explained, and the big Miami party season was now over until November.

“And it just stuck with me that the season was over,” Williams says. “It was like a piece of information I was looking for. So, I was thinking about how football was so great, and now it didn’t seem to be so great. Maybe the season has changed, and it’s time to do something different. So that kind of gave me permission to allow myself to think about doing something different.”

Before long, Williams had made a decision. “In my heart, I knew there was something that cannabis was helping me with—it was providing something for me,” he says. “And based on my choices, what it was providing for me was more valuable than what football was providing.” Cannabis gave him “space, insight and a connection to who I am at a deeper level,” he says. “It gave me a break from the chatter of what I was supposed to be doing.”

After testing positive for cannabis in a urinalysis screening, he announced his retirement from professional football in 2004. “That time of my life really was a wake-up for me. I realized, ‘I don’t think this is what I’m supposed to be doing.’”

Many people didn’t understand, he says, because, for once, he wasn’t playing the part he was expected to play.

“That’s the thing: When you have something that is valued and good, most people try to cling onto it, not being aware that there’s going to be a time when it has to go,” Williams says. “And it’s silly for me to think that everyone’s time to go is when they’re 38 and they can’t play anymore. That doesn’t feel like that could even be true.”

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Photo by Michael Ziobrowski

Retired from the game, Williams then left the country on a journey of self-discovery with the concierge’s words still resonating in his mind. “I found myself traveling, but still wrestling with this idea of seasons changing,” he says. “And I was in Australia, and somebody gave me a book on Ayurveda. And I opened the book, and it was talking about how seasons change and we need to change with them, too.”

He repeatedly noticed he was reaping the benefits of positive people who were generous with the internationally prohibited herb. “I was in Fiji, I was in Australia, I was in countries where people didn’t even really know what professional football was—and definitely didn’t know who I was—and somehow, I kept seeing and interacting with cannabis,” he recalls. “And I wasn’t even pursuing it. So, I started to think, ‘Is it a horrible thing? And if it is, why does it keep turning up in ways that facilitate communion and people connecting?’ I was really wrestling with these questions.”

Williams moved to Northern California to study Ayurveda, immersing himself in the Indian holistic healing tradition and ancient yoga point of view. “This way of looking at the world feels like something that’s more comfortable to me than the way that I’ve been taught to look at the world,” he recalls thinking.

Even though his Ayurveda training was something he’d never done before, there was some familiarity to the process. “It was not dissimilar to football,” Williams explains. “I went to India for a teachers’ training course. And it was almost the exact same schedule as training camp. It was grueling, and I loved it! But it was more inner work, not the outer work of being a football player. It was inner work on being a better person. . . . I needed to get my life back on track and do physical, emotional and spiritual healing.”

When the subject turned to herbs, Williams was soon blending cannabis with traditional and ancient botanical remedies. “I was getting herbs from the herb clinic, and I was getting cannabis from a friend who was a grower. And I was making creams and salves and just starting to formulate because I was loving this idea that,” he drops his voice low for dramatic effect, “cannabis can be medicine.”

But cannabis or other traditional medications should not be considered a cure-all, Williams says. Instead, they should be part of a holistic approach to wellness that encompasses the body, mind and spirit. He has learned from Ayurveda and Chinese medicine that “the root cause of disease is not knowing who you truly are.

“The herbs can provide some palliative care, can help you feel better, and can help your body move back to balance,” he explains. “But if the deeper part of you is not in balance, eventually it’s going to manifest physically.”

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Illustration by Michael Ziobrowski

After a year of intense study and growth, Williams again began to feel a personal change of the seasons. When the Dolphins reached out to him about coming back, he accepted the offer. He wanted to “do it better” so he could eventually retire again in a more dignified manner.

Williams returned to football with a new approach. “How can I use being a football player to be a better person?” he asked himself. “There’s tons of ways to do it. The idea of overcoming your fear—that’s an easy one in football. But also, the daily work to become better, just to be a better player, a better teammate.”

His enjoyment of the game returned, although on a deeper, more personal level. After another six years in the NFL, he retired from the Baltimore Ravens in 2011.

Williams continues his exploration of alternative holistic healing methods by studying Chinese medicine, including acupuncture and herbal formulations, at Emperor’s College in Santa Monica. “I’m just fascinated by the way [the ancient Chinese] looked at the world and used their insights about the world to apply it to the body,” he says.

With the legalization of cannabis in California, Williams saw a new opportunity: to market some of the formulations of weed and other herbs he has created. Real Wellness by Ricky Williams offers THC products such as tinctures, topicals and vape cartridges at dispensaries throughout Southern California, and the company plans to expand to other states with legal pot. A line of CBD remedies is also available online, with purchases shipped to all 50 states.

Many critics of California’s take on legalization fear that a cannabis industry that once was mindful of the needs of legitimate medical-marijuana patients is being assailed by the same kind of materialism so prevalent in the NFL. “But it’s different,” Williams says, “because there are enough people that get it, too. And it seems like a lot of them are fighting to make this industry different.”

He agrees, however, that the legal cannabis industry should be about more than recreational pot. “I think it would be a travesty if cannabis were legalized and it just became a glorified form of alcohol,” he says.

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Photo by Michael Ziobrowski

Williams’ search for wellness of mind, body and soul led him to study astrology, where he also saw the seasonality of life reflected. “We look at the stars, but the core symbol we use is the sun,” he says. “And the Earth’s trip around the sun manifests as the change in seasons.”

His first real introduction to astrology came while he was studying yoga. After hearing he was a football player, the swami called him aside after class and asked him where his Mars was. When he confessed he had no idea what she was talking about, she invited him to her house, where she entered his birth information into her computer. She then gave Williams his first astrological reading. “And in that two hours, I felt seen for the first time in my life,” he recalls. “So, what I tell people the chart can offer you is a reflection of yourself that’s not so conditioned by culture, your parents, your family, your race or whatever.”

Astrology puts everything in the universe into one of 12 archetypal fields, Williams explains. As the planets move, their influence on those fields changes, impacting everything else. Reading the chart helps analyze those changes. Williams reads his own chart nearly every day and has been conducting three to five readings per week for clients for more than a year. “The whole scheme of the type of astrology I practice is based on this idea that we’re here for a reason,” he says. “And the chart can help you understand what you’re here for.”

Photo illustration and design by Michael Ziobrowski

With everything Williams has going on—his continued study of Chinese medicine, running a fledgling cannabis business with his wife and company CEO Linnea Miron, a gig as a University of Texas football analyst for the Longhorn Network, launching a new alternative football league, and a stint on the second season of Celebrity Big Brother—he says he sees astrology as his main focus in life.

“My No. 1 priority is getting an astrological point of view out to the world, so people can start to take it seriously,” he says. “It’s helped me so much, and I’ve had such an intense journey that I really appreciate the value of it. I think if people can lower their barriers to it and invest a little time and at least be open to it and to learning a little bit, it can really improve the quality of people’s lives.”

Williams believes that seasonality is also expressed in our life cycles. He sees himself in the springtime of his existence on Earth, soaking up the light of knowledge to fuel his growth and understanding. He’s looking forward to a summer of transition from student to teacher, followed by an autumn in which the bounty of the enlightenment he has harvested can be shared. Along the journey, he plans to use the tools he’s acquired, including the mindful use of cannabis and the self-reflection it inspires.

For Williams, healing is all about what he calls “true introspection.” And that, he says, “is where lasting change happens.”

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