High Society: NFL star Ricky Williams overcame adversity and anxiety

Today, Ricky Williams looks like a man ahead of his time who was championing the health benefits of CBD et al. long before it became fashionable

Ricky-Williams

Photo of Ricky Williams by I Mertex I / CC0. Photo at right by smileitsmccheeze/iStock/Getty Images Plus

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Welcome to High Society, a regular feature in which CannCentral turns the spotlight on the movers and shakers of history or pop culture—with a special emphasis on their relationship with our favourite herb. This week, we take you from the gridiron to the cannabiz with footballer Ricky Williams…

Most athletes lucky and talented enough to hit the big leagues have an income philosophy similar to the one expressed by John Paul Jones of Led Zeppelin back in their heyday: “Make it fast, while you can.” 

NFL star running-back Ricky Williams ended up living a slightly different philosophy. Instead of doing everything by the book, desperately hoping to wring out every possible dollar from his playing days, Williams instead prioritized his own health above his earnings. He opted to retire in 2004 after five seasons. This was, at least in part, due to repeated cannabis-related drug-policy violations: “I retired to take better care of myself. One of those things that helped was cannabis.” Williams made a left turn into studying the ancient Indian holistic-medicine system Ayurveda in California.

He briefly returned to the NFL in 2005 only to be suspended again for the entire 2006 season. 

Williams then headed north to play in the CFL in Toronto for a year and to teach yoga. He then returned to the NFL for a further five seasons. 

Founding Real Wellness

Williams voluntarily left the NFL after the 2011 season. As a result, he estimates he lost between 5 and 10 million dollars in endorsements alone. In so doing, however, he was able to found Real Wellness. The company specializes in blending cannabis derivatives with other herbal medicines. (The slogan is, “Your World. Herbalized.”) 

Today, Williams (a.k.a. the “Heisman Healer”) looks like a man ahead of his time, who was championing the health and wellness benefits of CBD et al. long before it became Kardashian-ly fashionable to do so. In doing so, he helped to eventually loosen NFL restrictions on cannabis use and spark (ahem) the conversation about banned substances across professional sports leagues who have either removed cannabis completely from their list of banned substances (MLB) or significantly increased their thresholds. 

Crippling anxiety

Williams dealt with more than the regular physical punishment of a star running back. He also suffered from crippling social anxiety disorder. He went through a phase of wearing his helmet and tinted visor for post-game interviews. This wasn’t something he did for Daft Punk showmanship reasons, either. “There were times my shyness would cause me actual physical pain,” he has said. 

The average NFL career lasts only 3.3 years (less than the NHL, NBA, and MLB). Williams, however, ended up playing on and off over 11 seasons in the NFL (1999-2011). One can assume his commitment to his own mental and physical well-being helped to lengthen his playing days. 

“I started [playing football] early, in high school taking pain pills so I would be good to play sports,” he said. “And by 18 years I had my first ulcer from taking too many pain pills. When I got into the NFL I had further difficulties taking pharmaceuticals. And so I started looking to find alternative ways to take care of myself that would serve me in the long run. And you know, in that same vein I found yoga, tai chi, and herbal medicine. I found a lot of different ways to take care of myself in ways that were kinder and gentler on my body.”

Herbal medicine

Herbal medicine’s influence on Williams’s Real Wellness products are evident while browsing their various teas, salves, and tonics on offer. All products feature a “curated” blend of hemp with herbal extracts like peony, arnica, calendula, and lavender “to unlock natural healing for a full spectrum of ailments, including chronic pain, anxiety and insomnia.” 

Linnea Miron is Williams’s wife and business partner. At the launch of Real Wellness in 2018, she had the following to say about the enterprise’s objectives: “While most cannabis-related brands are still catering to today’s recreational user, we’re developing a brand for tomorrow’s wellness user who is primarily female and interested in alternative therapies. Our products are designed to help target certain conditions, which is a new way of approaching the cannabis market and one that complements the larger wellness movement.”

“My helmet is off”

Williams was never one to spout typical sports clichés on camera. His calm, soft-spoken, sometimes awkward demeanour often had him branded as a weirdo during his playing days. With his penchant for easily lampooned quotes such as: “I got high and forgot I wasn’t supposed to get high” and “Sometimes success will get in the way of maturity—at least temporarily”, Williams was misunderstood by many and myopically branded a slacker: “Everywhere I go, people hear Ricky Williams and the next thing they think is ‘marijuana’ or ‘wasted talent’.”

Today, society is more open than ever to responsible and thoughtful use of cannabis. As for Williams, he has truly come into his own. “My helmet is off, I’m not afraid anymore,” he says. Williams has already achieved much as an athlete and individual. He has overcome mental-health issues and spearheaded change in attitudes and policies regarding cannabis use across professional sports. He continues to advocate for health and balance in people’s lives with his current Green Rush venture.

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