Breaking out on the football field hasn't been a problem for Ricky Williams, who leads the nation in rushing, with 171.0 yards per game. Breaking into the consciousness of football fans has been another matter, even though the junior has run for 1,710 yards and has gained 200-plus yards six times this season, including 211 in Texas's 45-31 defeat of Kansas last Saturday. No matter how far Williams travels from home or how many Longhorns records he sets, he can't seem to find the recognition he craves.
One reason Williams, a San Diego native, chose Texas over closer-to-home UCLA was to escape the grip of his tight-knit family. He had spent most of his childhood and his teen years as the man of the house, after his father left the family when he was six. A move to Texas, Ricky believed, would offer him some long-awaited independence.
In the three years since Williams arrived in Austin, however, his mother, Sandy, and his sisters Cassie, 20, and Nisey, 18, have joined him. (Both sisters are students at Texas.) Ricky, an outfielder in the Philadelphia Phillies' minor league system, helped pay for the moves with the money he received after the Phillies selected him in the eighth round of the 1995 amateur draft. "My mother likes to tell people that it was my idea for them to move here, but they followed me," says Ricky. "I love my family, but when I join an NFL team, my mother and sisters won't follow me."
In bohemian Austin, Williams's dreadlocks, nose ring and pierced tongue aren't distinguishing features. Unfortunately, neither are his rushing feats. His Saturday heroics are inevitably compared with those of Earl Campbell, Texas's alltime leading rusher and the 1977 Heisman Trophy winner. "This is Earl's world," says Williams. "It's not mine." Williams has been dubbed Little Earl, bearing out the claim.
Even his name is shared with another Lone Star State runner. Heading into the Longhorns' game with Texas Tech on Nov. 8, Williams needed a 200-yard rushing effort to tie the NCAA record of five straight, set by Marcus Allen at Southern Cal in 1981 and matched by Barry Sanders at Oklahoma State in '88. But the Red Raiders stacked the line against him, and he ran for just 80 yards. The game's leading rusher was indeed Ricky Williams—of Texas Tech.
Be assured, though, that NFL teams know who's who. The Longhorns' Williams, who is averaging 7.0 yards per carry in '97 and has scored a school-record 43 career touchdowns, will most likely be a first-round pick if he declares for the 1998 draft. Williams says he'll leave if beleaguered Texas coach John Mackovic is ousted at season's end.
Williams hasn't been helped by the fact that Texas is woeful. The defense is 102nd in the nation against the run, and the passing attack ranks just 54th. With the 4-6 Longhorns light-years from a bowl, Williams has been barely mentioned of late in talk of the Heisman Trophy—one laurel no one would be able to ignore. "The losing keeps people from paying attention to me," Williams says. "The Heisman is important to me. People would see me differently if I won it."