Once a pariah of the NFL for leaving the league to smoke pot, Ricky Williams now looks way ahead of his time.
Editor in Chief of Green Entrepreneur
9 min read
Ricky Williams estimates that he lost between $5 million and $10 million in endorsements after he decided to leave the NFL to explore the world and cannabis. Now he’s replenishing his coffers and his soul with his successful venture into the cannabis business.
Williams, a Heisman Trophy winner who rushed for more than 10,000 yards during his 11-year career, has jumped into the Green Rush with the same passion and skill — only this time he’s healing, not punishing, those who cross his path.
His company, Real Wellness by Ricky Williams, which he cofounded with wife Linnea Miron, specializes in blends of cannabis and other natural medicines. Products include tonics and topicals with blends of CBD, THC, turmeric, and white peony, among other ingredients.
We met Williams at the Cannabis Dealmakers Summit in Dallas, where he explained why he really left the NFL and what his journey into the cannabis world has taught him about the business and himself.
Related: 23 Celebrities in the Cannabiz
When did you first try cannabis?
It was my senior year of college. I was in the running for the Heisman Trophy and had just gone through a horrible breakup with my girlfriend, who started dating our quarterback. I was miserable. It was supposed to be the happiest time of my life, and my roommate was like, “You need to chill.” He passed me a joint, and I remember that was the first decent night of sleep I had. I wasn’t obsessing over my ex and the quarterback.
Fast-forward to the NFL, and I’m in New Orleans. I break ribs, and I’m going through a whole bunch of difficult things. And again, a roommate was like, “You need to chill,” and he passed me a joint. That became part of my ritual to help me get up in the morning and get ready to go to battle — because that’s what playing professional football is.
I wasn’t allowed to smoke while playing in the NFL, but I still did, and I ended up getting in a little bit of trouble. I was pretty much a pariah, and I was torn apart in the media, but in my heart, I felt like, There’s something here.
Image Credit: Joel Auerbach | Getty Images
What was the reason you retired from the NFL the first time, in 2004?
Part of the reason was because of the NFL’s stance on cannabis. And part of it was because I was using cannabis and realizing that there are other things out there than just football. I was more willing to say, “OK, maybe I want to go pursue something different.”
When the story first broke, it was just “Football player in the height of his career walks away.” My best friend at the time was Dan Le Batard. He has a show on ESPN right now, but he was writing for the Miami Herald at the time. Three weeks after I retire, we’re talking on the phone, and I let him know that before I retired, I had failed a drug test that no one knew about. And I put him in a difficult spot between being a best friend and a member of the media. He started freaking out, saying, “I have to report this.” I was like, “What are you talking about? I just shared as a friend.” And I woke up the next morning and that’s when the myth of Ricky Williams and cannabis began.
And it was at that moment I decided, I’m not going to run away from this; you know, This is who I am. And I think I was smart enough to get out of dodge and hop on the first plane to Australia.
I started meeting people who didn’t know I was a football player. For the first time in my life, I began to get this reflection of who I was. It had nothing to do with football. And it woke me up to myself.
As I’m traveling around the world, everywhere I went, somehow, someone would walk up to me and offer me a joint without knowing who I was or anything about me. And it just spurred me on to keep doing study and research and understanding, What is this plant, and why do I have this awkward, weird relationship with it? And pursuing that path, I believed in what I was doing more.
Being away from football, I realized that underneath the helmet, I was actually a healer. I had a gift for helping people feel better. I realized I needed to find another skill set other than being a football player. I started studying alternative medicine, beginning with Ayurveda. What that opened up to me is the realization that in India and China, they’ve used herbs to treat people for more than 3,000 years. So I began to acquire some information about herbs.
At that time, I was dealing with a lot of injuries, and I started experimenting. I would come home with bags full of herbs, get my books out, get in the kitchen, and start to formulate. And I came up with some really cool stuff I used for myself when I came back to the NFL and played several more years.
Why did you decide to go back to football after discovering all this about yourself?
Most people assume that I went back because the Dolphins sued me for $8 million. I’m sure that was part of it, but on my journey, I came across this concept in yoga called dharma — this idea that we all have a purpose in life. And I started to identify with that, and I realized, in practical terms, that for me to do what I’m here to do in the world, I have to right what was wrong with the way I left the NFL. I knew that I had to come back and finish my career on a high note.
How did this interest in cannabis carry over to the business of cannabis?
After I retired, I moved back to Austin to finish up my degree at the University of Texas, and a good friend of mine [former teammate Kyle Turley] reached out to me and said, “Hey, there’s a cannabis conference in Arizona. Why don’t you come out and tell your story?”
I was a little nervous getting onstage and for the first time publicly sharing my whole story. And after I did, I felt this huge relief. It was very cathartic. People kept approaching me and saying, “When you came out using cannabis, and you didn’t care what the NFL thought, it really inspired me not to care what my parents thought or what others said, and I thank you for helping me follow my heart.” It felt really good. My experience up until that point had been all negative.
So I decided to speak, and I think I spoke at 10 conferences that first year. I kept being approached by vendors asking, “Can we put your name on this? You really need to do something in the cannabis space.”
I spent several months deliberating on What do I want to do; what do I want to attach my name to? And then it clicked. I remember being in the kitchen with my bags of herbs, formulating, and my experiences going into dispensaries. I saw a niche. I saw a need in the market, and I had a skill set I could use to fill that need and create truly medicinal products.
Williams won the Heisman Trophy in 1998. Now he’s been called “the Heisman Healer.”
Image Credit: Tim Warner
Describe that niche.
The idea that you can combine medicinals. You can have a more direct, more specific, and more powerful effect with the herbs. I think what makes Real Wellness different, especially in the medicinal marijuana and CBD space, is that we honor that cannabis is a wonderful medicinal, but we also realize that if you add other herbals with CBD and THC, you can create a superior product. And so I cross-referenced what herbal remedies people search for with what they were searching medicinal marijuana for. And that’s how we decided our first SKUs to launch with.
What’s been the biggest obstacle for you in the business?
The huge stigma on cannabis. What I have learned firsthand is the way to break the stigma is for people to be honest and tell their stories.
What advice would you give to people trying to get into this business, or already in this business and needing a little bit of inspiration?
If I’m talking to a younger person, I’d say to find people you respect and can learn from. And if I’m talking to someone who’s a little older, I’d say to surround yourself with people you respect and can learn from.
Is it bittersweet that all these pro athletes [such as Rob Gronkowski and Tiki Barber] are now jumping on the cannabis bandwagon?
It’s not bittersweet. It’s very sweet. My journey through this was a personal one. I had no idea this was going to happen; I was following my heart. And, you know, I look at myself as a person who went first, the pioneer who opened the doors that allowed everyone else to walk through.