Some of his New Orleans teammates seemed to go out of their way to hurt his feelings, Williams claims. One day, Williams says, a player returned from a speaking engagement and told him that someone in the audience had referred to him as a "crybaby." During a film session another laughed and said, "Man, you got blasted," when San Francisco 49ers linebacker Ken Norton drilled Williams during an interception return. Yet another Saint, during practice the same week he was returning from his elbow injury, slapped at Williams's right arm, on which he was wearing a supportive brace. Then after a game, while traveling on a team bus, someone mentioned that Williams's contract was "f——-up." Williams says he was so embarrassed that all he could think to say was "Thanks."
What hurt most, he says, was not that he'd negotiated a bad deal, but that he felt as if his teammates had lost respect for him and didn't think he was smart for signing such a contract. "Hopefully the Saints will come to me and address [the contract]," he says. "But I don't think they will. Last season it bothered me to the point where I thought I would feel better playing if I had a better deal. Because we had a tough season, it made the contract even worse. I think if I was healthy, I'd have hit those numbers. I thought I had a chance until I hurt my toe [in mid-November]." Williams shakes his head. "I got zero help," he says, referring to his teammates.
"I ran into Ricky one day, and he said football in the NFL just wasn't the same," says former Longhorns fullback Ricky Brown. "He said the commitment from his teammates in New Orleans wasn't there, and he told me he wished I could play for the Saints because he knew I wouldn't sell out. He missed the camaraderie at the college level. He thought he could be all they wanted him to be, the franchise player who saved the team. But it wasn't long before he realized that he couldn't do it alone."
"It's only natural for Ricky to feel the way he does," says Tolliver. "The team gave up its whole draft and a Number 1 [pick] this year to get him, and now he's thinking, If this doesn't work out, it's all my fault. Ricky needs to forget all that. The kid's a New Orleans Saint, and he's going to be a New Orleans Saint for a long time. He'll probably go into the Hall of Fame as a New Orleans Saint."
As the 1999 season wore on, Williams's frustration with injuries and the team's losing ways manifested itself in behavior that hinted at a severe case of either boneheadedness or immaturity. He grew testy with reporters, and he showed up late for meetings and a practice—things he had never done in college, says his former coach Brown. In Baltimore for a game against the Ravens on Dec. 19, Williams missed the bus to the stadium. "I overslept," he says. "I got up and looked at the clock. It said 11, and I knew the bus had left at 10:45."
Williams, who wasn't going to play because of the toe injury, hitched a ride with some cops who had returned to the hotel to retrieve a playbook left behind by one of the quarterbacks. Sirens screamed and lights flashed, and rather than panic over the reprimand that surely awaited him, Williams says he surrendered to the moment. "It was fun," he says. "It really was. It's like when you're a kid and you do something wrong. You know you're going to get punished. I knew I was wrong, so I wasn't afraid."
Not long before the season ended, Ditka had a meeting with his star player and, according to Williams, said, " 'Ricky, at first I took you for being naive. But you're just very immature.' He said it about 13 times, at least 13 times."
Ditka, who did not return phone messages from SI, also told Williams that he needed to work harder to stay in shape. "I think Coach kind of got fed up with me at the end," says Williams. "Because he said, 'Ricky, your teammates love you. But they don't understand you.' Then he said, 'You need to fix that.' "
Williams, by now, had little patience with what anyone had to tell him. He liked and admired Ditka, he says, but in New Orleans "losing engulfs you. It's bigger than one person. And it's bigger than two people." Williams was sick of hearing fans say, "Maybe next year" and "Keep your head up," whenever he went out. His confidence plummeted, he says, every time someone said, "Think you're going to have a better year next year?"
"Has there ever been a star player in New Orleans?" asks Williams, the names Archie Manning and Earl Campbell, among others, apparently eluding him. "No, there hasn't. So they don't know how to treat you—not that I expect any kind of treatment. But there are certain things that I've become accustomed to. Like support, just a little bit of support."