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It was 2 a.m. when Sean Pamphilon's phone rang in New York. The Fox Sports television producer picked up and heard a soft, familiar voice. On the other end was Miami Dolphins running back Ricky Williams, who was standing outside a tent somewhere in Australia. Williams was, as Pamphilon puts it, "high off his ass" and talking about the possibility of buying land Down Under and maybe never returning to the United States.
This was the summer of 2004, only weeks after Williams abruptly walked away from professional football at the peak of his career. Williams gave up millions of dollars; left his teammates, friends, family, and massive mansion; and disappeared. He'd just failed his third drug test, and the national media was quickly making him into a joke, framing him as a Jeff Spicoli-esque stereotype who couldn't bear to stop smoking pot.
Pamphilon had produced five features on the running back for two different networks over the years, and Williams had always respected his work. The two men developed a friendship. Even as Williams was hiding from most of the world, reading the Bible by candlelight in his $7-a-night tent, he and Pamphilon spoke on the phone several nights a week.
Eventually, Williams persuaded Pamphilon to quit his job in New York and make a film instead. Williams, 27 years old at the time, hated the way he'd been characterized in the media, and he wanted Pamphilon to help tell the real story. Williams urged Pamphilon to interview all of his friends and family in his absence. He had only one directive: "Ricky wanted everyone to tell the total, absolute truth, warts and all," says Pamphilon. This way, Williams' children could know what kind of man their father really was, in case he never came back.
Not long after Pamphilon agreed to the plan, Williams, one of the most abstruse character in modern sports, sent the filmmaker an email. "People have said I'm an enigma," Williams wrote. "It's your job to figure it out."
So began the odyssey that would eventually become Run Ricky Run, a new documentary chronicling Williams' quest for inner peace — and social redemption — in the wake of his stunning retirement. The project was supposed to take five months. Pamphilon followed Williams for more than five years.
"Ricky Williams wouldn't let me show you his wounds," the director says in the film's narration, "until they had a chance to heal."
As Williams struggled alone, distancing himself from the people who love him, Pamphilon and his film partner, Royce Toni, spoke to everyone important in Williams' life: his mother and father (who haven't spoken to each other in decades), his twin sister, his therapist, family friends, journalists, former teammates and coaches, and Dolphins executives. And they spoke extensively with Kristin Barnes, the loyal girlfriend who has stuck with Williams through more pain and drama than she cares to discuss.
After Williams returned from his world travels, Pamphilon followed him: To a one-bedroom house near a holistic medicine school in California. To a neighborhood poker game full of regular dudes passing a bong. To a yoga class he taught in an ashram. To the Canadian Football League and several short-lived returns to the NFL. And finally back to South Florida, where after two successful seasons with the Dolphins, he once again seems to have fame, fortune, the love of the fans, and some peace of mind.
The film will debut Tuesday on ESPN as part of the sports network's 30 for 30 series, a slate of 30 documentaries about the 30 most significant sports stories during ESPN's 30-year history. Pamphilon and Toni join an elite stable of directors that includes Barry Levinson, Billy Corben, Steve James, John Singleton, Morgan Freeman, and Spike Jonze.
Pamphilon says he took on the project because the public image of Williams was so different from the man he knew. "Ricky was definitely one of the most thoughtful people I've ever encountered," the director says. "Especially when it came to treating people when other people weren't looking — the guy who carries your bags, the guy who sets up the lighting or washes the towels. So much of who he was wasn't being portrayed."
Even Williams' initial departure from the league didn't happen the way people think, Pamphilon says. He was already planning to retire; the positive test just sped up his timeline. "The way [then-Dolphins Head Coach Dave] Wannstedt was using him, it wasn't very difficult for him to see what his future looked like. He knows Earl Campbell. He knows the toll this game can take, and that wasn't what he wanted."
Though Williams was mocked profusely for quitting — then-Chicago Sun Times columnist Jay Marriotti called him "a disgrace to humanity," and ESPN personality Skip Bayless insisted at the time that "Ricky has always hated football!" — few people mentioned that in the two seasons before his retirement, Williams carried the ball 775 times, an NFL record for a two-year span.
During an interview early in the film, Miami Herald columnist and sports radio host Dan Le Batard (who also has a consulting producer credit) explains the mystery of Ricky Williams like this: "I still don't know as I sit here talking to you whether this is a product of him being bipolar or mentally ill or it's a product of him being the only sane person out there and the rest of us worshiping the wrong things."