Ricky Williams and Texas publicist John Bianco last month sat at a table waiting to order dinner in a Mexican food restaurant in Orlando. The next night, the junior was to receive the Doak Walker Award given to the finest running back in the nation.
As was the cafe’s custom, a waitress asked if they wish to order in Spanish or English.
To the amazement of Bianco, Williams quickly orders in espanol. Williams says he has a Spanish final when he returns to school and needs to bone up.
This was like noche y dia from the previous Doak Walker winner, Texas Tech’s Byron Hanspard, who never could quite find the time to fit in those pesky classes between practices and games and had a 0.00 last-semester GPA.
Make no mistake about it. Williams is a student-athlete and, given his stunning announcement Thursday to return for his senior season, will remain one next fall. Certainly, he’s Texas’ most visible education major.
Williams’ decision to stay so bucks the trend that it’s sad that such news now sends out shock waves. As new Texas football coach Mack Brown said, “I’m afraid Ricky is not the norm. This is the exception.”
But then we already knew this 20-year-old San Diegoan was exceptional. On and off the field. NFL scouts say Williams would have been taken between the fourth and seventh picks of the first round.
While his courageous choice may seem illogical and certainly costs him millions up front — 1997 draft picks four through seven averaged a $14.6 million package — it is a refreshing change in a world that puts bucks before benevolence.
Williams is as close to a sure thing in the NFL as a Peyton Manning or a Charles Woodson, who has the Heisman Trophy he wants but does not need to be fulfilled. He might not know that 315 football underclassmen have left college early and 118 of them didn’t even get drafted and had nowhere to turn. Possibly he doesn’t know only 39 of those were taken in the top 10 and made the big money.
Williams will be one of those who makes big bucks, but later than sooner. In all likelihood, Arizona would have traded down from No. 2 and tried to draft him at sixth or seventh. Or Chicago would have scooped him up at No. 5. If not the Bears, St. Louis, picking sixth, could use a guy with Lawrence Phillips’ talent but none of his baggage.
So why is Ricky staying? What does make Ricky run?
Is it the lure of playing on a vastly improved 6-5 team? The possibility of becoming only the second player to Paul Hornung to win the Heisman on a losing team? The chance to be the first to decorate his mantel with Doak Walker bookends?
Nope. Williams is returning because he loves the college life. He wants his degree. He cares about his teammates. He hit it off with Mack Brown. He wants to finish what he started. And he’s immensely loyal. How else can you explain a junior who’s done it all and has nothing to prove at this level and still chooses to return after a 4-7 season?
“The camaraderie, teammates being together, winning a lot of games — you can’t buy those things,” Williams said. “I knew if I came back people would be happy.”
He has very little to gain and a lot more to lose by returning. He could get injured. He could come nowhere near the 1,928 yards needed to break Tony Dorsett’s all-time rushing record. The Longhorns could stumble again.
But Williams has his helmet on straight. He gave the NFL one of his patented stiffarms and kept on running downfield.
This news is good for Ricky Williams, great for Texas and a novelty for college football. Other than an occasional Manning or Brock Huard, no one stays in school any more. It makes coaches reluctant to redshirt anyone, knowing a blue-chipper may stay only three seasons. That’s why Bobby Bowden played 15 freshmen this fall. His school, Florida State, has lost 13 underclassmen to the NFL, all 13 of whom were drafted.
Ricky Williams right now is a lot more ready for life in the NFL than Texas was ready for life without Ricky Williams.
Texas has had just four underclassmen declare early. Three of those — Blake Brockermeyer, Tony Brackens and Lovell Pinkney — played for John Mackovic. The former coach deserves a thank-you for making the college scene enticing enough to make Williams want to stay.
Texas could receive no better endorsement than a public declaration that a 20-year-old African-American student wants to stay another year. That should send a strong message to recruits and jumpstart Brown’s program.
Monetarily, Williams’ news is a windfall, although he has already funneled $19,000 in generic scholarship awards for Texas through the Doak Walker Award and other assorted honors.
Associate Athletic Director Chris Plonsky said, “This can sell seats and suites. Ricky is just a special kid who energizes other people.”
Gil Burrell, assistant manager at Longhorns, Ltd., said Williams’ No. 11 jersey outsold the next biggest seller, quarterback James Brown’s No. 5, by 2-to-1. “It has to do with his personality,” Burrell said. “People are just drawn to Ricky.”
Best of all, there’s still a lot of little kid left in Ricky Williams. How else do you explain a future millionaire who, on a plane flight back home after the Doak Walker ceremony, looked so longingly at the trophy that representative Kit Sawers was carrying that Williams was asked if he wanted to hold it.
He did. The 30-pound bronze statue stayed in William’s lap the entire three-hour flight home.