The new ESPN documentary about Ricky Williams is an incredible, intimate look at the most interesting athlete in modern sports. The story behind story is almost as interesting.
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. Williams wanted a way for his children to 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."
Williams has been diagnosed at various times with social anxiety disorder, clinical depression, bipolar disorder, narcissistic personality, and borderline personality disorder. Early in the project, Pamphilon got a taste of his subject's fickle ways. Williams called the director and told him he wanted to give him his first public interview since quitting football. He wanted Pamphilon to fly to California immediately. "Two hours before I leave for the airport, he calls me and cancels it," the filmmaker says. Williams said he changed his mind.
"He was fucking with me," Pamphilon says. "Ricky tests people. He likes to see their reactions. He wanted to see how I would react to him personally, if I was going to freak out and never speak to him again. He wanted to know if I was in it for the long term."
The film delves into Williams' childhood, exploring the circumstances that produced such a puzzling man. During one incident when he was 6, Ricky told his mother that his father forced him to take naked photos. Ricky's mother told the police. Errick Williams was convicted of "sexually annoying a child" and legally required to stay away from Ricky and his sisters.
Pamphilon discussed the incident with Williams at length during the time he spent at the running back's rented house near Grass Valley, California, in the months after he left football. For hours at a time -- often deep into the night -- they discussed Williams' views on life. During several talks caught on film, Williams, wearing a thick, unkempt beard, wrapped himself in a blanket and stared off blankly as he thought about the pains in his life.
After he was reinstated by the NFL, Williams converted to Hinduism and studied under a guru at an ashram in California. Pamphilon says Williams often looked through the camera and challenged him personally. "He got in my head," Pamphilon says. "He made me work on myself as he was working on himself. He wasn't going to let me come tell his story and not deal with my own stuff." The filmmaker stayed at the ashram with Williams for three months, living a mostly vegan lifestyle, attending the yoga classes Williams taught.
In time, the running back seemed to open up. Pamphilon says he saw Williams grow as a person. He spent more time with his family. He seemed happier. "Most people think walking away was the worst thing he could have done for his career," Pamphilon says. "But he'd tell you it was the best decision he ever made."
Last season, when Ronnie Brown was injured, Williams once again carried the Dolphins on his shoulders, becoming the first player in league history to go six years between 1,000-yard rushing seasons. And now, after five failed drug tests, three league suspensions, two season-ending injuries, and a quietly rebuilt career, Williams' number 34 jersey is one of the most popular at Dolphins games.
"Ricky knows that whether he likes it or not, whether it's fair or not, his redemption in the eyes of most people is tied to how he does on the football field," Pamphilon says. "And he's OK with that."
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The Dolphins were OK with the documentary. A spokesperson says the team participated insofar as it allowed filming during regular media availability. Williams was not available for an interview for this article.
Pamphilon says Williams initially funded the film himself. When they signed a deal with ESPN in fall 2008, Pamphilon claims, Williams got back the exact amount he put in, not a penny more. "We don't want anyone thinking this is propaganda," the director says. "Ricky definitely has a message about how to live life."
During the offseason, Williams now takes classes at Nova Southeastern University in Davie, where he's trying to knock out all the prerequisites for medical school. He's said publicly that he'll probably play one more year; then he wants to become a doctor of osteopathic medicine.
"Once he got everything he ever wanted, he realized it wasn't what he wanted at all," says Pamphilon. "His mind is just more impressive than his physicality. He thinks there's something bigger out there for him than football. And now he knows that the springboard professional sports offers is all part of the plan."