Williams started his customary summer of minor league baseball (he has been under contract to the Phillies since 1995) but played only four weeks for Batavia of the Class A New York-Penn League before rushing back to Austin in mid-July to join strength coach Jeff (Mad Dog) Madden's cruel conditioning program and teammates who had already endured a month of it. Williams ran 40-yard sprints in a 30-pound-weight vest. He did endlessly repeated uphill runs. "I watched him the first day because I didn't think he'd survive," says senior middle linebacker Dusty Renfro. Williams barely made it back to his Chevy Tahoe after training that first day, but he finished the summer at a taut 223 pounds, free of baby fat, stronger and faster than at any time in his career, running a 4-4 40 and bench-pressing 406 pounds. And now he can also win a pose-down.
"I catch him looking sideways in the mirror, checking out his abs," says his roommate, walk-on defensive back Chad Patmon.
Williams exploded into the season by rushing for 215 yards against New Mexico State and 160 against UCLA before Kansas State's voracious defense held him to 43. He rebounded with 318 against Rice, 350 against Iowa State, 139 against Oklahoma (a 78-yard touchdown run was called back on a holding penalty far behind the play) and 259 against Baylor. He pounded Nebraska for 150 yards in Texas's 20-16 upset, ending the Cornhuskers' 47-game home field winning streak. "The guy is something special," says Nebraska defensive coordinator Charlie McBride. "The two best guys we've ever played against are Barry Sanders and Ricky Williams."
The season has been an endless montage of Williams highlights. Against Rice he drilled two consecutive tacklers to the ground with stiff-arms. Against Baylor he limped off in the third quarter after a defender stepped on his calf, then he returned to rush for 128 yards in the fourth quarter. Against Nebraska he made a touchdown-saving tackle after a fourth-quarter interception that would have given the Cornhuskers a 20-10 lead. "Three guys had kill shots on him on that play," says Adams. "Most star guys would have just fallen down. Ricky avoided all three guys and made the tackle." When Williams left the field in Lincoln, Nebraska fans chanted his name in admiration.
Every opposing team has hit him repeatedly—legally and otherwise. "The poor kid has got every defensive player on every team trying to rip his head off on every play, whether he's got the ball or not," says Brown. "I worry for him."
Brown, who came to Texas after building North Carolina into a national power, has become so attached to Williams that he frets after games over whether he has helped Williams get enough yards to influence Heisman voters. In August he challenged Texas players to make the Heisman a team award and installed his pet ground-friendly offense. He has given Williams the ball 287 times, and Williams has shown his thanks by jump-starting Brown's rebuilding program. (In Brown's first year at Carolina, the Tar Heels had a 1-10 record.)
Williams has also enabled Applewhite to grow into the quarterback position with an enormous cushion behind him. "We have a symbiotic relationship," says Applewhite. Symbiotic, maybe. Equal, certainly not. "Ricky's effect on our offense has been huge," says offensive coordinator Greg Davis. "He gave us credibility we would never have had otherwise." Williams also routinely bails out Applewhite by shouting proper checks to the quarterback from his tailback position before the ball is snapped.
Williams plays with a number-37 decal on the back of his helmet, in memory of former SMU great Walker, whom Williams met last year while receiving the award that is named after him. Following Walker's death in September, Williams switched from jersey number 34 to number 37 for one game, against Oklahoma. After scoring a fourth-quarter touchdown he pounded the jersey, pointed to the sky and shouted, "That's for you, Doak!" It was a rare sentiment from a 21-year-old whose generation often regards history as insignificant.
Williams's performance must now be included in any historical discussion of the best seasons ever. (Sample: His '98 is better than Sanders's 2,628-yard 1988 season, because Sanders came in as an unknown with no target on his chest and had three-year quarterback Mike Gundy and dangerous wideout Hart Lee Dykes on his team and no moldy tradition weighing him down.)
More important, Williams is meeting the demands on his own list. He is better, he is a leader, and Dorsett's record should soon be toast. Remarkably, Texas could win 10 games, even 11. Williams is healthy and, for the first time in his career, fulfilled. "One thing," he says. "I'd like to play UCLA and Kansas State again."