As a running back for the New Orleans Saints, Ricky Williams would repeatedly hurl his body into a wall of 300-pound defensive linemen, yet he was too unnerved to take off his helmet during interviews. He would allow his mail to accumulate for days, fearful his neighbors were watching his every move. Even trips to the grocery store turned into harrowing ordeals.
"I would hide from people in the store," he said. "If I saw someone, or if I thought someone was looking at me, I'd run to the next aisle."
Williams, 25, who now plays for the Miami Dolphins, rapidly developed a reputation as one of the NFL's strangest players, a Heisman Trophy winner whose accomplishments on the field were eclipsed by his bizarre personal antics. It wasn't until a year ago that he was diagnosed with social-anxiety disorder, a syndrome that leaves sufferers with an intense fear of scrutiny by people in social situations. With therapy and medication, he has made what he and others believe are dramatic steps toward a normal lifestyle.
"I'm finally at peace with myself," he said Tuesday. "I'm getting through this. I'm definitely at a point where I can help a lot of people."
According to the National Institute of Mental Health, social-anxiety disorder, which affects about 5.3 million adult Americans, usually begins in childhood or early adolescence and can be treated successfully with targeted psychotherapy or medications.
Painfully shy since his childhood in San Diego, Williams said he did not feel the full effects of the disorder until his rookie season with the Saints. He sought therapy when he hit an emotional rock bottom a year ago, was diagnosed with the disorder and began taking Paxil, an antidepressant for which Williams is a spokesman.
Williams will discuss his disorder with reporters today in a national conference call. He is being paid to speak out about his problem by GlaxoSmithKline, the maker of Paxil.
Speaking out also helps him lay the groundwork for a fresh start with the Dolphins, who traded for him in the off-season and see him as the missing piece for a franchise that has had only three 1,000-yard running backs since 1973. The Dolphins, who begin training camp Monday, sent New Orleans this year's first-round pick and a third-rounder next year that would escalate to a first-rounder if Williams rushes for 1,500 yards this season.
Regardless of how he plays, Williams figures he can serve as an inspiration to anxiety sufferers everywhere. After all, there once was a time he was too fearful to leave his New Orleans home, let alone sign autographs and chat with fans.
"After the season, I'd wake up in the morning, then lay around the house all day," he said. "I'd get dressed and walk toward the door to go out, then I'd sit down thinking, 'Naw, I'll probably see somebody out there.' I don't really watch TV, so I had nothing to do."
He spent much of his time tinkering with gadgets he would use for a few days, then shelve. He used the Internet to buy three Palm Pilots. "Anyone who knows me, knows I'm not one to be organized," he said. He also bought a portable DVD player and two camcorders. "I had nowhere to use them; I never left the house."
If forced to attend a dinner event, he would hide in the restroom until the last possible moment. He hunkered down on flights, staring out the window the whole way. He always asked for tables in the dark corners of restaurants.
Most puzzling was his refusal to take off his helmet--complete with darkened visor--during interviews. He would sit on the floor in front of his locker and speak so softly that questioners would have to kneel to hear his responses. Once, quarterback Billy Joe Tolliver eavesdropped on a Williams interview and stage-whispered commentary.
"People in Texas call him Ricky Williams, but he's really Ricky Weirdo," Tolliver joked. "I'm telling you, he's going to go postal one day."
The dread-locked Williams struggled mightily throughout his rookie season, rushing for 884 yards in 12 games--1,240 yards fewer than he gained in 11 games as a senior at Texas. He scored 28 touchdowns in his final season as a Longhorn and two as a rookie for the Saints.
Of course, he was the only member of that New Orleans draft class. Former coach Mike Ditka traded all of the team's picks to Washington in order to move up and grab Williams with the No. 3 selection. The two struck a now-famous pose on the cover of ESPN The Magazine, with Ditka as groom and Williams as bride.
Is it odd that a football player so sensitive to watchful eyes would agree to wear a wedding dress on the front of a national magazine?
"I thought it was funny," Williams said. "I wasn't aware that I had social-anxiety disorder at the time, anyway."
Williams struggled with injuries throughout his three seasons with the Saints but became progressively more productive. He rushed for 1,000 yards in 2000 and 1,245 last season. Ditka was gone, though, and Williams never truly connected with Coach Jim Haslett, who saw him as flaky and noncommittal.