Arts & Entertainment » Sports

Oh Ricky


I stood in the Bills' locker room after a practice, sort of listening to what Ruben Brown was saying, but paying more attention to the things in his locker. The lockers have no doors, so I sometimes quickly examine them to get a glimpse into pro football players' souls.

Usually, there's little of interest. Many players tape pictures of their wives, children, parents, or girlfriends to the walls. Others have framed photographs on the shelves. A few have pinups. Almost all have some kind of deodorant, unless they're not environmentally conscious. Some, such as former Bills offensive lineman Jamie Nails --- a player notorious for weight problems in Buffalo --- have fat-burning pills.

But Brown is the only player I'd ever seen with a sign hung in his locker that heralded marijuana. That was three seasons ago, and I don't remember exactly what the sign said. But I'm still surprised that it was even there, particularly because the NFL and the Bills are as image-conscious as Britney Spears.

Draw your own conclusions about Brown, a nine-year veteran and eight-time Pro Bowl player whom the NFL never suspended for substance abuse. I felt he was an honest, introspective source who gave the company line only when he agreed with it. But his play declined the last few years, and the Bills released him in March, partly as a salary cap savings measure. He signed with Chicago in April.

Another player who allegedly heralds marijuana is former Dolphins running back Ricky Williams. Last week, Williams stunningly departed from pro football, and today he's been branded a selfish, pot-addicted quitter.

Apparently, the 27-year-old Williams tested positive for marijuana a third time since 2002, which would have earned him a four-game suspension without pay this season. He decided to retire before the news surfaced.

Williams said he used to drink a masking agent that hid marijuana traces before submitting to as many as 10 random drug tests a month, but he decided not to bother this time. Evidently, his NFL career wasn't going to last much longer anyway if he discontinued use of the masking agent. Quitting pot seemingly wasn't an option, particularly because he preferred it over anti-depressant Paxil to combat social anxiety disorder. So if he persisted down this road, the NFL might have banned him indefinitely by the end of the season.

Many fans can't understand why players would ever use drugs and risk everything they've achieved. They usually conclude that the athletes are so wealthy, there's nothing better for them to spend their money on.

But fans don't often see just what many NFL players look like the day after they just played a game. They gingerly limp around. They don't have full range in their backs, shoulders or arms. Their bodies are littered with bruises. They're in chronic pain. They're hardly the world-class athletes the NFL wants you to see. Rather, they're more like car-accident victims from the emergency room.

That's the toll pro football extorts from the body. The late Johnny Unitas' right hand was almost useless toward the end of his life. Earl Campbell can barely walk some days. When I occasionally saw Jim Kelly at the Bills' practice facility, he wasn't exactly moving like Fred Astaire.

Pro football is about enduring chronic pain. Marijuana is a drug that effectively treats chronic pain. Why should we be surprised that players use it? Moreover, why is it wrong for players to use, if it enables them to walk around and feel good like we usually do after a day of work?

Ricky Williams plays the most physically demanding position on the field. During two games against the Bills last year, he astonishingly carried the ball 42 and 29 times. He had the most carries of any running back in the league over the last two seasons. No one takes more punishment than him. The day after a game, Williams must feel like Otto West, who gets run over by a steamroller in AFish Called Wanda.

So I really can't blame Williams for using marijuana, not when Dolphins coach Dave Wannstedt seems intent to drive him into the ground like a car that's been paid for. That must hurt.

Of course, Williams tested positive in the off-season, after touring Europe with rock star Lenny Kravitz.

Then again, I bet all of Europe would test positive after a Lenny Kravitz tour.