Williams shakes his head. "The strength coach said something, he was cool. But no one else did. I didn't take it personally. It's part of the game, and you learn that."
However, it wasn't only injuries that kept him from putting up big numbers. Williams, who gained more than 100 yards in only two games last season, says a lack of running room also added to his problems. "There wasn't any space," he says. "Sometimes I couldn't find the holes. I just couldn't find anything. I've always had really good vision. But I couldn't find anything."
"Ricky's a great, great football player who basically had his way with defenses in college," says New Orleans quarterback Billy Joe Tolliver. "But you realize early that NFL linebackers are a lot bigger, faster and stronger than any you've faced before. In the pros the holes don't stay open very long. In a college game you get, say, 30 carries. On maybe 10 of those 30 you run through holes that are five yards wide. In the NFL when you get the ball, the hole might be five yards wide but by the time you take your first step it's closed down to the size of a person. Running backs have to make cuts off blocks at the line of scrimmage. Ricky will do that. Give him time, and he'll do a lot of things."
At the end of the 3-13 season Saints owner Tom Benson fired the coaching staff and several front-office personnel. Most notable among the dismissals were general manager Bill Kuharich and coach Mike Ditka, who'd traded eight draft picks (all the team's 1999 selections and the first and third in 2000) to get Williams. In a display of solidarity with his marquee acquisition Ditka appeared at a draft-day press conference wearing a wig of dreadlocks. Williams had yet to take a handoff as a pro, but Ditka already was comparing him to some of the NFL's best running backs ever.
"Expectations were too high," says Texas coach Mack Brown. "I mean, Walter Payton dies, and it's like everybody wants Ricky to be the next Walter Payton. He even wears number 34, Payton's number, and he's going to lead the Saints to the Super Bowl. But that league is just too good and too balanced. People forget that this is a team sport, and no one should place that kind of burden on one guy—not even one as special as Ricky Williams."
Ditka celebrated the acquisition of Williams by strutting and stabbing the air with a monster cigar, but his excitement seemed lukewarm compared to the city's. "We got Ricky!" exclaimed long-suffering Saints fans, and media outlets, tired of covering a loser, joined in the refrain. "Run, Ricky, Run!" became a team marketing cry.
"When he was drafted, the treatment we received that first day was like he was a prince," recalls Ricky's mother, Sandy. "They shut down the city to give us a police escort from the airport to the hotel where we stayed."
Williams agreed to a seven-year package worth $68.4 million. The numbers may have seemed huge, but more than $5 million of his $8.84 million signing bonus was deferred, and most of his annual pay was tied to hard-to-reach performance incentives. While other players derided the deal as imprudent, Williams said he preferred to have his salary determined by his performance on the field. If he produced, pay him. If he didn't, then don't. It was yet another reason to love him. In a time when a pro athlete's commitment too often was determined by how much a team was willing to pay him, Williams expected no more and no less than an honest wage for an honest day's work. He stood for something.
Or so it seemed in those heady days before the season started and the injuries piled up. He reached only one of 25 incentives, which added a lousy $50,000 to his rookie-minimum $175,000 salary. Today Williams, wiser by a lot, and nowhere near as wealthy as he thought he'd be, shows every sign of suffering from a serious case of honeymoon fatigue: The Saints might be counting on him to carry the franchise, but Williams dreams of being elsewhere. "They should move [the team] to San Antonio," he says. "Change the name. I'd live in Austin. I'd rather live in Austin than San Antonio. New Orleans is a great place to hang out, but it's not a great place to live and to work, if that makes any sense. When I was hanging out there, I had the best time of my life. But when I had to go to work there, I hated it."
Williams, who says only winning will improve his attitude, also would prefer to "take all the guys from UT and put them on the Saints. It's not just the quality of the players, it's the quality of the people they were and the way they played for each other. There was a deep sense of pride [at Texas]. Like my linemen—they were so proud. When they missed a block and I got hit in the backfield, they would be right there and say, 'I'm sorry, Ricky.' You could see in their eyes that it really hurt them. In New Orleans when I got hit in the backfield, they'd pick me up but I never once heard anyone say, 'I'll get them next time,' or anything at all. I don't know what the problem was. I think they were too worried about themselves."