Midway through the first quarter of the New Orleans Saints' 14-10 loss to the Detroit Lions on Sunday, Ricky Williams delivered a message, the kind that witnesses don't forget—and that, unfortunately for him, didn't count. The Saints led 7-0 as Williams took a handoff from Jeff Blake and ran through a sizable hole on the left side of the line. As Williams raced into the secondary, Lions safety Kurt Schulz caught up with him near the sideline. Williams stutter-stepped and then stiff-armed Schulz, carrying him for five yards before going down. "I wasn't going out of bounds," Williams said later, "so I decided to show him how it was going to be." A holding call on New Orleans tackle Willie Roaf nullified the 31-yard gain, but anybody who saw the play should have been thinking one thing: This isn't the Ricky Williams of a season ago.
The image of Williams as a sullen oddball is giving way to something different: the vision of a young man who is maturing and wants to play at the top of his game. While the loss to Detroit was forgettable, Williams finished with 84 yards on 20 carries and gained another 52 yards that were waved off by holding calls. He also caught four passes for 29 yards, and although he fumbled twice, he went a long way toward proving that last year's problems are behind him.
"I was impressed," said Lions cornerback Bryant Westbrook. "I played with him at Texas, so I know what he can do. Look at how versatile he was—he ran hard, he caught passes, he made big plays. Everyone could see that he's going to be a good back once that team gets on the same page."
As solid as Williams was, the effort he has put into growing up has been even more noticeable. Last season Williams kept mostly to himself, and for a good part of the year he was depressed by nagging toe, elbow and ankle injuries and by the Saints' losing ways. This season his teammates have noticed a more affable Williams, one who is smiling easily, laughing more often and impressing everyone with his work habits. "He's enjoying himself more," says Jim Haslett, the team's first-year coach. "When I got here, he didn't say much of anything, but I see him opening up now."
"I keep getting asked by the media if I'm a different person this year," says Williams, who gained 884 yards and scored two touchdowns in 1999. "It's frustrating. Nothing's changed except I'm not hurt."
Yet the world around Williams has changed. He has more friends on the team, having bonded with rookie running backs Chad Morton and Terrelle Smith. Many within the New Orleans organization think Williams felt isolated last year because he was the team's only drafted rookie. Also, this season the Saints made sure that Williams would not be placed in the savior's role, as he was after former coach Mike Ditka traded eight picks to select him in the 1999 draft. The team has brought in veteran free agents such as Blake, wide receivers Joe Horn and Jake Reed and defensive tackle Norman Hand, stressing that the load will be shared. Williams believes there is a greater sense of unity and purpose on the team. "Just from the way we played, I could see we have more pride in what we're doing," he said on Sunday.
"What's helped Ricky is having a supporting cast so that everything doesn't fall on him, physically or mentally," says assistant head coach Rick Venturi. "A year ago this whole team was marketed on Ricky. Every jingle and every possible hook involved him. Now he can be in more of a comfort zone, so he can just play football, which is all I think he really wants to do."
One thing that hasn't changed about Williams is his disdain for the spotlight. He hadn't quite realized how much he missed his privacy until he visited Europe in the off-season. He made two trips (a weeklong visit with two friends in April and a three-week stay in June as part of an Air Force goodwill tour), and each time he relished his anonymity. Occasionally a tourist from the U.S. would recognize him and ask why he was in Europe, but aside from that, Williams's stops in France, the Netherlands and Italy left him thinking he should make more trips abroad.
"I want to go back there and stay until I have to come back here," says Williams, who learned a bit of Italian and bought a Ferrari overseas. "There's so much pressure that comes with being famous. I can't go anywhere and be myself."
Williams is the first to admit his reputation is in need of repair. Last season he came off as moody and immature, and he added to his woes by declaring in the March 20 issue of SI that Haslett was not respecting him and that the Saints' offensive linemen were worrying too much about themselves. Williams also referred to New Orleans as "not a great place to live and to work." Haslett and many players disregarded the comments, but others weren't so diplomatic. Says tackle Kyle Turley, "The issue has been squashed, but it was natural for me to feel bitter about it. You work hard for a whole season, and then someone says you didn't try. You're going to be pissed off."