‘This is the Renaissance:’ Retired NFLer Ricky Williams shares story at cannabis conference

By Daniel Oyefusi, Miami Herald

Ricky Williams landed in Miami Thursday night and in the middle of a blunt, he couldn’t help but think back to 20 years ago.

“A large majority of my story with cannabis” started about two blocks from where he spoke at the sixth annual Cannabis LAB Conference & Expo at the Hyatt Regency in downtown Miami Friday morning.

The former Dolphins running back was traded from the New Orleans Saints to Miami in March 2002, right when “I just really became a smoker” and he was looking for a “hookup” in a new city.

And so this search for marijuana led Williams from his home in Fort Lauderdale to the parking lot of a dentist, where “some guy came out with a big bag.”

Williams’ use of marijuana during his NFL career has been well documented and for most of his playing days carried a negative stigma, as he left the game shortly before 2004 training camp and was later suspended for an entire season for violating the league’s substance-abuse policy.

Years later, he returned to Miami to speak about the positive effects of the plant for him, not only as a player — helping his physical recovery and anxiety — but post-retirement.

“My personal experience with cannabis is that it was something that was enhancing the quality of my life,” he said during his 11-minute keynote address.

Williams, who legally changed his name to Errick Miron, spoke about the crossroads he faced when he landed in the league’s drug program for repeated failed tests and how he “rolled the dice” with his decision to retire from the NFL.

Williams, now 45, spent that time away from the game travelling around the world, including India, where he learned about yoga, meditation and astrology.

“What I found was, I didn’t throw my life away,” he said. “It was actually the opposite. …. We grow up. As time goes on, we learn more about ourselves. We usually come to certain moments where we get this flash about who we really are. … This was a place I was in. I thought this is what I wanted to be but obviously I gave it all up so there must be something more.”

Williams returned to the Dolphins in 2005, serving a four-game suspension for his failed drug test and then was banned for the entirety of the 2006 season for another violation. He returned to play five more seasons, his final with the Baltimore Ravens, and announced his retirement after the 2011 season. Williams finished his career with 12,615 total yards and 74 touchdowns.

In the years that followed, Williams continued to smoke, more than happy to stay “low-key” and free from the spectre of the league’s drug-testing program.

But then Kyle Turley, a former offensive lineman and Williams’ teammate in New Orleans, invited him to speak at a 2015 cannabis conference in Phoenix.

After wrestling with a decision, Williams agreed, seeing it as an opportunity to “come out of the shadows” and “be more my authentic self instead of compartmentalizing and hiding parts of myself.”

Williams, who now lives in Los Angeles, said telling his story publicly was “cathartic” and the reception was positive.

“Probably 20 people came up to me and basically told me I was their hero,” he later told the Miami Herald. “I had never knew this because it’s been on the hush. But speaking publicly about it, I started to get feedback about people that were going through the same struggles I was going through. And because of my story, they were encouraged to keep on pushing through. And so I realized, wow, I affect more people when I share my story than when I hide it. And I felt the pressure then to keep telling the story.”

Last year, Williams took his greatest leap in the cannabis industry, launching the lifestyle brand Highsman, a play-on-words to the Heisman award he won as the nation’s top college football player. The brand sells “personally curated cannabis products” including cannabis, related accessories and streetwear merchandise. It first launched in California, Nevada and Oregon — all states that allow recreational use — and is moving into Pennsylvania and Massachusetts in the fall.

“You can’t take the football player out of me,” he said. “The way that I go about business is the same way that I was trained to go about the football field. And so much about that is the team.”

“Ricky is actually the perfect spokesperson for cannabis,” said Robert Friedman, the founder of the expo which brings entrepreneurs, investors and legal experts together. “One, because a lot of people in the industry have suffered to get to where it is now. And no one may be more than Ricky in terms of being kicked out of the NFL … And now stadiums are being named after him.”

In recent years, more athletes, current and former, have continued to speak about the benefits of marijuana use, with Brooklyn Nets star Kevin Durant recently likening it to a glass of wine.

The NFL has also softened its stance on marijuana. In the collective bargaining agreement passed in 2020, the league eliminated suspensions for positive marijuana tests, reduced the testing window to the first two weeks of training camp and increased the threshold for a positive test.

“So much of our conditioning around this plant has been negative … but there’s still lingering pieces,” Williams said. “Even the whole idea of medicinal marijuana. I honor the idea that marijuana is great, it helps us feel better. But to me, there doesn’t have to be something wrong with you for you to feel better.”

In March 2019, Florida passed a bill allowing smokable medical marijuana to be sold in treatment centres to patients with a medical marijuana card. Recreational use remains illegal but local law enforcement has softened their prosecution of minor possession cases.

Williams predicted that when made fully legal, Florida will be “one of the top three states” for the industry.

“Unfortunately, 1937 until about 20 years ago, there is big Prohibition, Dark Ages,” he said. “And now we’re coming out. And this is the Renaissance.”