When Ricky Williams officially retired from professional football a decade ago, I sat up and took notice. As an avid fan of the sport—and a lifelong Miami Dolphins diehard—this particular exit from the NFL hit hard as the former Heisman Trophy winner had a lot of life left in those massive legs and, at his best, few running backs were ever as fun to watch as Ricky Williams. Period.
“Run, Ricky! Run!” became the unofficial rallying cry for all Dolphins fans for the seven seasons Williams played in South Florida. To witness him running with a head of steam behind him, as tacklers bounced off him as if he was a pinball, well, it just didn’t get any better than that. He was that good. And, in a sport awash in a sea of chronic sameness and clichéd platitudes from most of their athletes, Williams was certainly going to be missed in the NFL. Conventional he was not.
Other reasons to miss this stud are the records and numbers he amassed over a lifetime of extraordinary football prowess. As the winner of the 1998 Heisman Trophy—the award given to the best college football player in the nation—Williams obliterated the history books. He still holds or shares 20 NCAA records and with his incredible 6,279 yards, Williams held the NCAA Division-1 all-time rushing record before graduating from the University of Texas. It’s no wonder he was known to some as the “Texas Tornado.”
The NFL, too, welcomed Williams and the success train kept chugging culminating with a handful of Miami Dolphins franchise records, including most rushing yards (1,853) and rushing touchdowns (18) in a single season (2002). Oh, yes. 2002 was a really fun year to be a Dolphins fan. In 2012, Williams surpassed the 10,000 yards mark and became only the 26th player in NFL history to achieve such a feat.
Of course, the Ricky Williams saga is anything but easy to categorize for it’s nearly as complex as the man himself. In most circles, Williams is equally known for his football accolades as he is for his love of cannabis. And that’s where the rubber hits the road for many decisions in this superstar’s life. Football and cannabis, as everyone knows, were and remain aggressively incompatible pursuits and—after multiple suspensions, fines and warnings from the league—Williams had a choice to make. And a choice he made.
“At the end of my life, there’ll be a lot of words and terms to describe me, and ‘football player’ will definitely be one of them because it was a big part of who I was,” says a fit and happy looking Williams from his Los Angeles home. “But at the end of my life, who cares? Football just set up the opportunities for me to do something with that platform. On some level, I was aware of this, that I knew I was put on this earth to do something more than just play football.”
The how “more than just football” manifested as a recent entrepreneurial turn with the 2021 launch of Highsman (killer name), Williams’ cannabis brand, that’s been in the works for more than a year. Cleverly offering up “Pregame” sativas for an energized boost; “Halftime” hybrids for focused awareness; and “Postgame” Indicas for a more relaxed mood, Highsman also sells strain-specific pre-packaged eighths and plans to introduce pre-rolls in 2022.
Williams says the brand simultaneously launched an apparel and functional accessories collection that sells varsity jackets, baseball Ts and other sports-inspired streetwear alongside rolling trays, pelican cases, water bottles and more all the while maintaining the Highsman ethos of excellence.
As the brand evolves, Williams says he hopes athletes from all sports will be able to share their positive cannabis experiences or journeys through Highsman’s platform, though it’s currently unclear how that may take shape. Sports and cannabis have been incompatible and taboo for so long and Williams’ clear aim is to use his high-profile megaphone as a way to help break boundaries between the two.
“I launched Highsman to create a platform to tell positive, uplifting stories about cannabis use, to counter the false narrative and destroy the stigma,” says the two-time college All-American. “This negative vibe surrounding cannabis is all bullshit; it’s all invented. Besides all the BS around being suspended in football, cannabis has been such a positive experience in my life that has put me in touch with a higher purpose. What separates Highsman from other brands—including celebrity brands in the space—is definitely the positivity behind the brand.”
In the past several weeks, whenever I told anyone I was going to speak with Williams, something always happened: They smiled. Now, as a magazine editor, I’ve been talking to famous people my entire adult life, but I very rarely get the reaction Williams evoked. People who follow the ever-changing pop cultural zeitgeist are genuinely curious about the football player they remember from that iconic ESPN The Magazine cover where he posed as the bride to New Orleans Saints Coach Mike Ditka’s groom in full wedding gown regalia. That cover was a moment for the ages and Williams signaled the universe with the subtlety of a sledgehammer that no, he wasn’t your average star athlete. There are layers to this man, and you better deal with it. I—and tens of millions of others—were here for all of it. As I saw it, the world (and certainly the NFL) needed Ricky Williams’ brand of irreverent defiance.
“That’s really what my life, my career has been about: making a splash,” Williams says when I bring up the magazine cover. “It hasn’t been about football; football was just a means to make a splash. Cannabis has helped me with the idea of not hiding who I am. Besides being a guy who smokes, I’m a philosophical guy who has big, crazy ideas. And I think that’s also a part of myself that I hid as a football player—the thing that’s the part I’m most proud of about myself. So, after going through all of what I went through, I decided that my goal in life was to be paid to be myself.”
And that’s exactly the seeming contradiction from the unquestionable toughness of this football playing beast who also announces his true love for wellness and holistic healing. Can those two apparently conflicting sides coexist within a star professional athlete?
“I was raised mainly by women and just to survive, I had to find that balance between the masculine and the feminine inside myself,” Williams says, softly. “It’s unfortunate if it seems like a contradiction because the reality is all of us have a masculine and a feminine side. I think we’re all meant to be balanced. When it’s time to fight, we should be able to draw on those resources; and when it’s time to love, nurture and heal, we should be able to draw on those resources as well.”
Inducted into the College Football Hall of Fame in 2015, there are few football experts or fans who wouldn’t acknowledge Williams’ extraordinary gifts as a running back. Williams views it, predictably, slightly differently.
“Of course, I had God-given ability, but if I didn’t work my ass off—I wasn’t very good naturally—I wouldn’t have reached that pinnacle of being a pro football player. So, it was more being grateful for my work ethic. The thing is, when I got to where I was going as a football player, it was just another box people put me in.”
We take it back to the first time Williams says he tried cannabis, and a smile as big as Hollywood itself comes across his face with the seemingly happy memory.
“In high school, I became a huge Bob Marley fan, so everyone assumed that I smoked, but I didn’t,” Williams says, sitting up a little straighter in his chair, talking slightly faster, smiling. “The first time I tried cannabis was in the 11th grade when the smartest kid in school, Ben Kotnik, invited me to his house to smoke. I thought since he was the smartest kid in school and everyone already thought I smoked, I just played along. And, of course, like most people, I coughed a couple of times, and I went back to class. I remember I had physics right after lunch and I was sitting in class thinking ‘I don’t understand why people do this—I don’t get it.’ [Laughs] It wasn’t until I was a senior in college, and I was having a rough couple of days, my roommate suggested that I smoke. I didn’t even think there was a connection, but suddenly I wasn’t obsessing, I wasn’t depressed—the mood lifted. That was the first time I experienced when cannabis had value. I had just lost a girlfriend and I had a bad game, so I was in that space thinking ‘my life is over,’ and I took a couple of hits and realized ‘OK, it’s fine. Life is good. Get over yourself.’ So, I did.” [Laughs]
As powerful as that epiphany may have been, it exposed Williams to his career-long conflict: football or cannabis—not both. Williams was suspended a total of five times by the NFL, including the entire 2006 season, after countless failed drug tests over the years and he knew better than anyone that the time had come for him to either devote fully to his career and quit cannabis, or choose the unexpected road less traveled of life over job.
“I had a sense that cannabis was my path and when you have a sense you have to pursue it,” Williams says. “But I was just as confused as everyone else was because on the one hand, this is what I was told; but, on the other, this is my experience. So, what’s the truth? At that time, you really couldn’t Google ‘cannabis’ for any real information, you just saw how horrible it was made out to be. I did the road work, and my curiosity led me to study cannabis, and I started to ask a lot of people a lot of questions. I kept thinking that I just gave up everything I ever worked for my entire life for a drug. There’s either something wrong with me or I’m onto something. It was one or the other and I had to figure out which one it was.”
The man’s on a roll.
“Look, for me, cannabis has had a lot of shame, something I thought my life would be over if people found out about, and that has come full circle,” Williams says.
“Consuming cannabis really opened my mind and set me on a powerful spiritual path. That’s really the deeper message behind Highsman. Yes, cannabis will help you cool out and relax, but it can do so much more.”
Launching his own cannabis brand and getting a slice of the industry’s massive growth may seem like a pretty obvious decision but launching Highsman wasn’t a lane free from its share of pitfalls for Williams along the way. As a celebrity, Williams faced some obstacles, but not all of them. So, I wondered, was launching Highsman difficult in general? And how has the fact that he’s a person of color and a celebrity factored into it?
“Relative to launching Highsman—and this is a great question—we haven’t had any trouble,” Williams says. “Cannabis has been so hot, and people know my story, so it’s been easy for us. In this instance, my fame did transcend color when I launched Highsman, but that means I—and all celebrities in the cannabis industry—have a responsibility to be spokespeople for all people of color trying to break in. It’s definitely our responsibility. Education is key. For those of us who have the experience, it’s our responsibility to help. Opportunity is great, but if you don’t have experience to take advantage of the opportunity, it actually becomes worse. For me it’s important to take the lead and help and educate people of color on what the point of business is and help them find their spot and help them thrive in this industry.”
But the cannabis industry remains a business venture, and one, he warns, not for the faint of heart.
“My big thing as I stepped into the cannabis industry as an entrepreneur was that I had an extremely steep learning curve,” Williams says. “And this is true of all businesses, including cannabis, that I underestimated the importance of team. It’s silly coming from a football environment, but I found putting together the right team is often like dating. You’re seeing everyone’s best assets and you don’t know who they really are until things hit the fan. So, as new entrepreneurs, we learn the hard way; for example, what a vesting schedule is and why that’s so important.”
His hope with his new venture, he says, is to bridge the historic divide between sports and cannabis. “We have a road map for products and merch and we’re about to launch in Nevada,” Williams says. “As far as direction, a big part of the brand is about creating experiences so we’re working on what we’re calling the first annual Highsman Golf Challenge. And the whole thing about Highsman bringing sports and cannabis together is really about bringing greatness and cannabis together.”
But what’s changed, really? Since the decade he left the NFL, not a single active player has announced a cannabis brand, while more than a dozen former players currently own brands (even Rob Gronkowski partnered with a CBD brand). Is the stigma surrounding cannabis still that prevalent among players today?
“Yes,” Williams says. “It’s the stigma, and it’s unfortunate because it’s not real. If pro athletes would step in the cannabis space, no one would do anything, they’d just gain the respect of a whole lot of people. What I found in cannabis—as in any industry—when celebrities come in, there has to be authenticity. When I go anywhere, people are impressed not only because of how many yards I ran, but because I put my money where my mouth was. I actually walked away from the game so that I could consume cannabis.”
Lest one forget that before anyone in professional sports—and certainly with his superstar status—Ricky Williams was a cannabis advocate, a secretive, conflicted one at first, perhaps, but, no matter, Williams stuck to his guns. The false choice of cannabis vs. football wouldn’t do. It’s cannabis and football, or it’s just cannabis, thank you very much. Still, I ask if he has any regrets.
“Look, even the privilege of having a regret means you’ve figured it out,” he says. “You needed to go through the experience to figure it out. Here’s the truth: People don’t change when they’re comfortable, we only change when we suffer.”
With his suffering days apparently over—given the buzz around Highsman—Williams searches for deeper meaning in all of his ventures. “With Highsman, our message is something I’m sure most Americans have experienced: That is, being told you shouldn’t do something, but you listened to your heart and did it anyway,” he says. “And now everyone is starting to get it.”
When we turn to the future of cannabis as an increasingly popular remedy for myriad ailments, Williams offers another slightly surprising perspective. “I for sure consider cannabis a psychedelic,” he says, equating weed with psilocybin and MDMA. “In terms of the stigma around psychedelics, people may not see it that way. But I’m an herbalist, so I’m a big fan of all plant medicine.”
Nearing the end of our conversation, I asked the celebrated athlete-cum-cannabis mogul in the making, what’s next? He offered yet another stunner: He’s the co-founder of LILA, an astrology app, and he’s all in.
“This is my love; this is the love of my life,” Williams says. “Though Highsman is a big part, astrology is the clearest reflection of my story.”
So, I asked, since he says he used football as a platform to launch his cannabis brand, is he using cannabis to launch his astrology brand? “Oh, yes! Absolutely!” he says, smiling like a Cheshire cat. “It’s that important to me.”
Unexpected endings are something of a Ricky Williams hallmark in his life. The kid who claims not to have had a lot of natural skill ends up as the most formidable college football player in the country, goes on to chart the single-most irreverent NFL career in modern history and is now using his star power for the betterment of his life and others. Did I miss anything?
“Here’s how I see it,” Williams says, gearing up for the big finish. “My early cannabis advocacy was inadvertent. My whole life I’ve been searching for ways I can make a difference and it happened that I consumed cannabis and thought, ‘Wow, this is great.’ Yet there was this epic conflict from what I was told I was allowed to do and what was good for me, and what my own experience was. Once I started my relationship with cannabis, I knew that cannabis was going to be a part of my life. And here I am.”
I didn’t think I’d ever get the chance to say once again, “Run, Ricky! Run!” But here I am.
This story was originally published in the print edition of Cannabis Now.