In his 11-year NFL career, Ricky Williams was a Pro Bowl running back, a one-season rushing yards leader, and one of only 31 players in the history of the league to amass more than 10,000 jobs. And for all that he was one Heisman Trophy winner with the Texas Longhorns.
But to many, Williams is even better known for his progressive take on weed. Suspended five times for violating the league’s drug abuse policy, Williams actually missed two full seasons due to his marijuana use. (During one of those all-season suspensions, in 2004, Williams famously started) Studying Ayurvedathe Indian holistic science, at an institute in Grass Valley, California.) And even when he used to be on the playing field, Williams was an outspoken advocate of marijuana, which he said helped him cope with social anxiety and borderline personality disorder.
Now 45 and 11 years away from his NFL days, Williams has turned his enthusiasm for weed into a burgeoning business empire. Last year he launched highsman, a brand that offers a variety of cannabis products and accessories. And last week, Highsman announced a partnership with Ball Family Farms – also owned by a former professional soccer player, Chris Ball—to launch a new strain that targets pain relief and inflammation, “Ricky Baker.”
Williams spoke to londonbusinessblog.com on making the transition from athlete to entrepreneur, and why he remains a tireless advocate for cannabis even after his playing career is over. This interview has been edited for length and clarity.
Why did you and Chris decide to collaborate on the Ricky Baker strain?
It started at Hall of flowers a year ago. I might have met Chris in 2000; we’ve been in touch a long time ago. So I saw that he was a grower in the cannabis industry. I became curious; I started asking people about his product. And then I tried some myself, and I was blown away. So when I saw him in Hall of Flowers, I said, “Hey, we need to do something together.” And we started the project.
Does such a collaboration lead to a different product than what you were already doing?
It was the first time I was part of a pheno hunt. I hooked up with Chris and he shared seven different phenotypes with me and said, “Take this one and see which one you like best.” The next few nights I went through my process; it was interesting because from the old school days when I first started consuming cannabis it was just, you go to your dealer, and then you get what he has. As the industry has evolved, we have tons of varieties. So this was the first time I really had to apply some sort of system to understand the experience.
What was it like switching to the business side of marijuane? Was there a lot of learning curve?
One hundred percent, a learning curve. Because it is entrepreneurship; I am at the top of the food chain. In sports, yes, we got paid a lot, but we were kind of at the bottom of the food chain. There was a vision created for us and a game plan that was given to us, and we had to execute it.
Now in business anyway my job is to hire the people to set up the game plan. And it’s all based on my vision. I take everything I have learned from my head coaches and we apply it.
It seems to work because I think what things in sport have in common – especially football – is that you have one goal and you have a group of people with skills and talents. How they hone their skills and talents contributes to achieving the same goal.
I can imagine that football also gives you a feeling of hardness.
My job was to run through the linebackers and get into the end zone in a hostile environment. You know, the whole team spent all week trying to figure out how to stop me. The toughness and ability to keep going even when the going gets tough has prepared me through football to do all of those things extremely well.
The NFL has made few steps in destigmatizing the pot, but it still has a long way to go. Have you spoken to anyone in the league since your retirement about the matter?
I haven’t talked to anyone on the NFL side, but I’ve talked to people on the players side — not players, but representatives of the players. I think that’s why the NFL has given a million dollar grant at two different universities to investigate the efficacy of cannabis for the health and well-being of football players. That’s a huge sign, when the NFL comes out of their pockets to fund this kind of research. It means, I think, they are taking steps in the near future to allow and hopefully at some point actually provide cannabis to the players in the same way they supply the Ambien and the Percocet and the opioids.
You’ve talked about this before, but can you tell me a little more about why you remain so passionate about cannabis?
My plea for cannabis goes much deeper; I am a mental health advocate. At the deepest level, I am truly an advocate for the soul. I think the word “psychedelic”…Psyche meaning soul, lovely what does revealing mean – is something our soul reveals to us, okay? Modern language is really concerned with our mental health. One of the things I know about the soul is that it exists within, and one of the things I know about sanity is that it exists within. So the ability to be aware of what’s going on inside is how I found cannabis. I was a professional footballer; everyone thought I should be the happiest person in the world.
But I was miserable, something inside was not happy. And it wasn’t until I went into therapy that I started consuming cannabis that I started paying more attention and paying more attention to what was happening inside. And yes, I had to make some drastic changes in my outer life. But the end result is that I was happier, and I found more meaning and purpose in my life.
And, and I’m a proponent of that, people are starting to appreciate what’s inside more than the pressure that comes from outside. I find that things like astrology, yoga, meditation, cannabis, psilocybin, ayahuasca, all these modalities – sacraments, if you will – can facilitate that process.
Sorry to go back to sports, but I have to ask: do you still watch a lot of football?
After I retired, I spent the next 10 years covering football from the University of Texas, but not really beyond. Over the past year, the launch of this brand has brought me into environments where I watch a lot of football. And I have to say, I love it. It’s funny, it’s almost like I was trying to get away from football, but really going into business and having to channel my coaches helps me appreciate the game in a different way.
I think it’s a beautiful game. It has taught me so much about life and prepared me for what I am doing now. I’m going to play football for the second time. And I like that effect and go to the doctor’s students.
Which team are you most excited about these days?
I must say, the dolphins. I watched Thursday night’s game [during which quarterback Tua Tagovailoa suffered a brutal concussion]; that brought a lot of things to a lot of people. But watching the game, I felt like I was a dolphin. Yes, that’s my team this year.