Under terms of a divorce settlement in September 1983, Sandy was awarded primary custody of the children with Errick's visitation rights "limited and supervised by the wife due to the fact that the children are undergoing psychosocial assessment and treatment for suspected child abuse." Eight months later, Errick was convicted for the misdemeanor of annoying or molesting children. He says he was given a six-month suspended sentence, three years probation and was required to register as a sex offender.
Errick, now 40 and working as an environmental director for a nursing home and as a part-time minister in Houston, denies molesting Cassie and Ricky. "Yes, there's a court record that says I sexually molested my children, but that record isn't true," says Errick, who has four children, ages three months to 12 years, by his second wife. "When a woman gets up in front of a judge and says her husband abused the children, the judge is going to believe her. But I can stand before God and say that I didn't verbally, physically or sexually assault my children. This has devastated me."
Whether from the scars of abuse or the stress of the crumbling marriage, Ricky became an angry, maladjusted child who often beat up smaller boys and girls. "I remember hitting this girl when I was in first grade," he says. "I don't know why. I just hit her. I was always mad." He underwent counseling to control his rage, treatment that lasted until he was in junior high. Despite his obstreperousness Williams had been slotted from an early age in gifted and talented classes, mostly because of high scores on standardized tests. In junior high, however, his grades slipped, and at the start of eighth grade he was put in regular classes for the first time. "All busy work," he says, "and busy work wasn't my thing." He stopped doing his schoolwork and dug himself into a hole academically until his mother begged school officials to give him a final chance. He was allowed to transfer to another junior high, placed in gifted classes again and, at the end of ninth grade, won the school's award as the most improved student. "The school challenged him, academically and athletically, and he grew,' " says Sandy.
The rage melted. At Patrick Henry High, Williams met a skinny football player named Chad Patmon, a sweet kid overflowing with good cheer who taught him to save his anger for the football field. They would ride for hours in Williams's beat-up Jeep Cherokee, listening to Bob Marley tapes. (Whence came the inspiration for Williams's hair, which he began twisting as a sophomore.) "We were inseparable," says Patmon, who became Williams's off-campus roommate in the fall of '97 and joined Texas as a walk-on defensive back that same semester. On a night not long ago, they sat in their living room and sang the Wailers song that had leaked from the windows of the old Jeep: Rastaman Vi-bra-tion.... Yay-aa.... Rastaman Vi-bra-tion....
Sports came easily to Williams. In high school he rushed for 4,129 yards and 55 touchdowns, and hit .340 with three homers and 26 stolen bases his senior season in baseball. He also ran on the 4x100 relay team and lost just one match in his lone season as a varsity wrestler. Heavily recruited for football by Stanford, Cal and Texas, among others, Williams signed with the Longhorns and then joined the Phillies, who selected him in the eighth round of the amateur draft, before graduation. After spending a little over two months playing outfield for Martinsville (Va.) in the Rookie League, he was in Austin for the start of two-a-day practices. (Williams has a football-first agreement with the Phillies, who are paying for his college education. Thus he's technically a walk-on football player.)
One more thing: In high school Ricky began speaking by phone to Errick, and a cautious friendship developed. At one point, after an argument with Sandy, Ricky considered moving in with Errick, at which point Sandy said to him, "Don't you remember why your father left?" Ricky said he didn't, so Sandy told him everything. He stood in front of his mother and softly wept. But he didn't sever the new ties with his father. One evening last month, Ricky stood outside an Austin restaurant. His dreadlocks hung like dark icicles, framing his face, and the shiny gold stud in the center of his tongue made occasional appearances as he spoke. "I don't remember anything," Ricky says now. "That's the truth. I don't know what happened, because I don't remember. He's my dad. We get along O.K."
A spring scrimmage last month was scarcely 10 plays old when Texas quarterback Richard Walton pitched the ball to Williams, who hurtled toward the right corner. Senior defensive back Tony Holmes, 5'9", 180 pounds, darted into the seam to meet Williams as he turned upfield. They collided with a distinctive pop, and Holmes was lifted off the ground and sailed five yards backward before landing on his back.
The only startling thing about the play was that it took place in Austin, and not in Chicago, St. Louis or Oakland, where many had expected Williams would be by now, rich beyond his dreams. "The team that gets him is going to be incredibly lucky,' " says Bryant Westbrook, who played with Williams for two years at Texas and now is a starting cornerback with the Detroit Lions. "The whole NFL is looking for guys who can get you three to five yards every play. Ricky can do that, but he can make big plays, too. He's like [Tennessee Oilers back] Eddie George, but he's faster than Eddie. He's going to be incredible up here."
Last autumn Williams emerged from the train wreck of Texas's 4-7 free fall with a season better than that of almost any running back in college history. Despite rushing for just 191 yards in the Longhorns' first two games, Williams finished with a school record and NCAA-leading 1,893 yards and scored 25 touchdowns. There were six games in which he rushed for more than 200 yards, and he had four runs of more than 70 yards, all of which went for touchdowns. "Guys never, ever catch him from behind," says Godbolt.
Williams had had an immediate impact at Texas, running for a Longhorns freshman record of 990 rushing yards. He did that while playing fullback in John Mackovic's complex pro-style offense. "He has unusually high intelligence," says Mackovic. "People don't realize how bright he is."