Ricky Williams defies 'pothead' label to reinvent his cannabis-selling himself

You understand the urge to latch onto the low-hanging fruit pies when talking marijuana with Ricky Williams, the Heisman Trophy winner and former NFL star from San Diego.

Beavis, meet Butt-Head. Video games until thumbs blister. Doritos for days, right?

That’s not Williams, though. Not even close. The man who battered tacklers, first at Patrick Henry High School, then at Texas, then for 10,009 yards in the NFL, is a far more complex guy.

Much like the bull-dozing running back he became, Williams defiantly refuses to topple to sloppy tackles or flimsy stereotypes. The 40-year-old fought to understand his life’s truest road and place himself smack-dab in the middle of challenging conversations, public perception be damned.

Williams knows the labels. Pothead. Stoner. Slacker. Partier. He’s heard them all.

“I was in a place in my life that from the outside, it looked like I had it all,” Williams said Monday. “The truth is, from the inside, it felt like something was missing.

“Instead of being a pothead or whatever the negative stereotypes, this really opened my mind and sent me on a journey that felt so much more real and genuine than my football journey.”

That’s why there’s lungs-deep pride about a product line Williams is launching Tuesday at Outliers Collective, a dispensary in El Cajon. It’s called “R.W.” — Real Wellness, a play on his initials and something Williams describes as a cannabis wellness brand.

Let’s be real, too. There’s money waiting. Likely, a whole bunch of it.

To score big would be a fascinating chapter for Williams, who lost millions in endorsements and possibly contracts because of his relationship with marijuana at a less accepting time.

“It could be huge. It depends. We don’t know this is going to go,” Williams said. “It’s a novel idea. There’s the potential I could make all that money back and more. More importantly to me, I’m doing something that I feel is meaningful and is going to do something to change the world.”

This isn’t about whether Williams is authentic about a higher purpose, so to speak, with a business enterprise.

It’s about him shattering perceptions about what cannabis use is — and what it isn’t. Williams isn’t spacey or unfocused, daft or delusional. He’s thoughtful, engaging and interesting for miles.

He studies Chinese medicine. He artfully cites cutting-edge health philosophies. He navigates the dizzying intersection between chemistry, herbalism and human physiology.

How others felt about him once crushed those powerful shoulders more than almost anyone could know.

“I lost some dignity, for sure,” Williams said. “I don’t necessarily see that as a negative thing. The process has been necessary for me, because a lot of that dignity was based on a God-given ability and not so much what I’m passionate about.

“It was more of a young man’s dignity, I guess.”

Consider, too, that Williams isn’t lazily throwing his name on a product to cash easy paychecks. The business was his idea and, with the help of a few others, his science, as well.

Williams, who lives in Venice Beach, said he’s made weekly trips to the company’s El Cajon lab to tinker with formulas while at the side of the group’s resident “Ph.D. chemist.” To Williams’ thinking, there’s much to explore in the damaging wake of the opioid crisis as many search for pain, sleep and anxiety alternatives.

“It’s representative of a larger problem,” he said. “A lot of people are trying to find a safe way to feel better, whether that’s physical, emotional, spiritual. For me, the real validation comes when people take cannabis seriously as something that helps improve the quality of people’s lives.

“I think that requires more interesting conversations.”

The decision to open up the cannabis corner of his life continues to lead Williams down interesting roads.

A friend who puts on events convinced Williams to host a cannabis-friendly Super Bowl party at a rented home in the Hollywood Hills. If someone paid $200-$300, they could watch the game with a former star.

“It was awesome,” he said. “I don’t watch much football, so I stopped to think about it. If I’m going to do a Super Bowl party, it needs to be more than just watching a football game.

“To me, people can go to a sports book or a party and there’s tons of alcohol around and that creates a certain vibe. So I was curious, what would it be like to have a party where they watch football, but instead of alcohol being the main way to relax, we use cannabis instead?

“Over 100 people showed up and I was able to have genuine interactions with pretty much all of them. There was rich conversations. People were connecting. It was a special day.”

Williams maintains a few choice connections to football, though. He works for the Longhorn Network, providing analysis on his alma mater. There’s another pursuit, too.

“When I’m in Austin, I try to play flag football once a week,” Williams said. “But I play defense, mainly. I like middle linebacker or safety.”

Normally, a physical playing style like his would seem an awkward fit for the tamer version of the game. Williams laughed.

“Yeah, I get flagged every game for unnecessary roughness,” he said.

For Williams, that rekindles a thought about the bill-paying football of his youth.

“When people think about Ricky Williams, they think about a pothead,” he said. “That’s not fair to how I played the game. I was a physical player who was respected by my opponents and teammates. That gets lost with the off-the-field stuff.”

Much gets lost when talking about Ricky Williams. That provides a new challenge, far from the days of helmets and shoulder pads. These days, he’s all about tackling more nuanced conversations.

bryce.miller@sduniontribune.com; Twitter: @Bryce_A_Miller

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