By Autumn A. Arnett
Imagine working on one thing your whole life, from the age of five. Imagine that being the only thing anyone has ever said you were good at, the only time you felt you had the full attention of those around you. Imagine that being the only thing with which you have ever fully identified.
For most athletes, particularly those in the “revenue sports”–basketball and football–who make it to play at a collegiate level, this is reality.
Former NFL and University of Texas running back Ricky Williams said he was 27 years old before anyone ever told him he was smart. Williams was heralded for his ability to run the football and win games. But no one ever acknowledged he had anything else to offer society.
“As men, we all want to make our stamp in the world,” he said. “What’s the easiest way for us to make an impression? For me, that was sports.” Williams added he did “pretty well in school,” but no one ever paid attention to his academic successes. “But when I went out on the football field, … I had people’s attention.”
Former Ohio State University running back–and, he said, Ricky Williams’ number one fan–Maurice Clarett agreed.
“There’s so much time put into being great at football … developing into the most elite player at your skill,” that the attention to developing one’s self outside of football is not there for many top athletes, Clarett said. “If someone can figure out how to build an iPhone and someone can build [an institution like Texas or Ohio State], you’d better be able to figure out how to help this individual.”
Like Williams, who saw sports as a way to attract people’s attention, Clarett said he became “addicted to the adulation” that surrounded him as a top football player, THE guy who led the Buckeyes to a national championship over the Miami Hurricanes in 2002.
Williams and Clarett had completely different collegiate experiences, however. While Williams said his experience at the University of Texas was great and he could not have asked for better, Clarett was treated as an outsider at his own institution. And while Clarett acknowledges his part in the less-than-ideal situation, he believes he became a scapegoat for bigger problems within the program.
“They’ll take the thug mentality or the guy from the neighborhood as long as he’s running up and down the football field, but when it come to speaking up” and challenging leadership or articulating his opinion, they’re not here for allowing the players to do anything other than shut up and play, Clarett said.
At some point, just shutting up and playing the game is insufficient. For Williams, despite a great collegiate experience, the NFL was not what Williams had hoped it would be. He felt isolated and lacked a support system he’d relied on at UT and believed came along with playing the game.
People often cite Williams’ refusal to remove his football helmet during an interview as a prime example of his having social anxiety disorder. But Williams said there was another reason.
First, he said, he’d come in right off of the field and, before he’d had a chance to take the helmet off, the reporter barked at him to remove it. Resentful of being told what to do, he didn’t immediately take it off. Then something hit him.
“As a football player, when they interviewed me, they had a sense of who I was as a football player, and they didn’t really care who I was outside of the helmet, so what was the big deal about taking it off?” he said.
Eventually, both Clarett and Williams walked away from the game. Clarett, because he soon found himself with no other choice after he was banned from the Ohio State program and was unsuccessful in his attempt to sue the NFL to allow him to enter the draft early. After a being drafted by the Denver Broncos in 2005, Clarett was released before the season began and found himself returning to what he’d known before: the neighborhood.
“The same way I got adulation for winning the championship, I got the same adulation in the nightclub because I was the guy on TV,” he said.
Williams, again in an experience that was the complete opposite of Clarett’s, walked away from the game in the middle of a successful NFL career.
“It was scary, because my whole life was wrapped up in being a football player,” Williams said. And despite his success in the league, when he stopped playing football, he learned he had no other marketable skills with which to make a living.“When the only thing you’re ever around is football, it really limits what you’re able to do.”
More to Life
Daron Roberts, who spent time on the coaching staffs of the Detroit Lions, Cleveland Browns, Kansas City Chiefs and West Virginia University, said once the individual reaches the professional level, many of his values are set and it is difficult for coaches to have a huge impact on the player as a person. But he does acknowledge the need for players to identify themselves as full individuals, not just football players.
“The unexamined life is not worth living. So our first role [as those individuals around the players] is to force our young people to think about their role and vision for life outside of the confines of sports,” Roberts said. “Our players have turned into double down blackjack players, instead of hedge fund managers,” Roberts said, adding that players’ inability to assess risk and make decisions based on the reality that their playing careers will not last forever is a major shortfall.
“There’s a subconscious value proposition that we place on sports,” Roberts said. For players who make it to play at the Division I or professional level, “they’ve never believed the odds. … So when you tell them there’s a small chance they’re going to make it [in] the NFL, they say ‘ok, I’m that small chance.”
Roberts, who is a lecturer at the University of Texas and the founding director of the Center for Sports Leadership and Innovation at the university, is a firm believer that “we have to transform sports from a pinnacle to a pit-stop” and encourage athletes to consider that there is more to life.
Williams and Clarett have both reached points in their lives where they are acknowledging there is more to them as individuals than football.
Clarett is being leaned upon heavily by mentors at Ohio State to return and finish his education, which he says he plans to do.
“Education is essentially what has transformed my life,” he said. Though that has not yet meant a return to the classroom, Clarett said he has done a tremendous amount of reading and self-educating since his departure from football.
Williams recently returned to the University of Texas at Austin to complete his education. He was accepted into the McNair scholars program at the university, a pipeline program to help undergraduate students earn their Ph.D. Williams said he plans to pursue his doctorate in psychology. He likes the idea of being “Dr. Williams.”
“If I want to move forward in my life, I have to go and acquire some skills,” he said. “I know football has opened a lot of doors in my life, and a Ph.D. will open even more doors.”
This story originally appeared in the January issue of Out of Bounds Magazine.