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pakowitz 05-08-2003 01:09 AM

"My Turn: Ready to face the world" by Ricky Williams

May 7, 2003 Print it

Ricky Williams
For Sporting News

Imagine being a kid and discovering your dream -- to be an athlete -- and chasing that dream off to college, where you win the Heisman Trophy, then to the pros, where a coach wants you so badly he trades his whole draft to get you. Imagine being handed nearly $9 million at 21 years old just for signing your name on the dotted line. Now imagine your life as a 23-year-old with three months of offseason to do with whatever you can imagine; it's calling out to you, telling you to live your charmed life to the fullest.

But you're so afraid you can't even leave the house.

Actually, sometimes you make it all the way to the car, but then you imagine the terror you'll encounter. At the airport, on the street, even inside the grocery store, it's all the same -- there will be people, and they will see you; worse, they will expect you to look at them, talk to them, return their smiles. And so you go back inside, where it's safe, and you stay there all day, all night, even when there's no food in the house and you're hungry.

Welcome to my world, where I was powerless as an untreated, unaware sufferer of social anxiety disorder and the depression that grew with it. I'm changing that world with the help of therapy, medication and the rediscovery of my dream.

I was still in New Orleans when I sank to my lowest point. During the season, I'd been able to focus on football enough that I could handle being around the team -- even though I feared being brought into my teammates' conversations in the locker room. But the months after my second season with the Saints were the worst. The only friends I had I treated as "do" people: They did things for me like bring me food, take out my dry cleaning. In the eyes of others, I was sure I'd become more aloof, more of a prima donna.

One day I finally realized this wasn't the real me, and fortunately I found the courage to reach out to my best friend back home in San Diego, whose mother did some research and convinced me to go see a therapist. The second-best thing my therapist did for me was take me to the mall, where I feared everyone would look at me and think my clothes were weird, my hair looked horrible, I was a bad football player. In two hours, about 50 people came up to me, and not one of them had something negative to say.

Then she said she had something else that could help me: a prescription. As fragile a state as I was in, I was still a football player; I doubted a pill could do anything for me that working out harder and being tougher couldn't. But I took it and, almost right away, started to feel better.

A year later I was traded to the Dolphins, and it hit me hard. My third year with the Saints had been Jim Haslett's first year as coach; I knew he wasn't exactly loyal to Mike Ditka's players, and I was the banner Ditka guy. Still, what I felt most was rejected, disliked -- and lingering guilt from Ditka's firing, for which I felt responsible.

I thought about quitting, but I made the decision to bring my newfound confidence, self-esteem and self-awareness to Miami. When I got there, I heard the same old comments about the eccentric, aloof running back who did interviews with his helmet on. So I decided to show them the real me. I walked into that locker room and started talking to guys. I initiated conversations with my coaches. I also realized that, even though I'd worked hard in New Orleans, I'd been so focused on my fears that I wasn't the player I could be. In Miami, that was going to change. Football is my job, not my life, but it's a job I'm going to give my all for as long as I'm in it.

So who am I now? A new player and a new man. I want to help people. My helmet is off; I'm not afraid anymore. You don't have to be, either. Let's talk about it.

Ricky Williams, the NFL's rushing leader in 2002, kicked off National Mental Health Awareness Month with a speaking engagement last Thursday in New York, the first leg of a seven-city series entitled "Overcoming Depression and Anxiety with Terry Bradshaw and Ricky Williams."

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