He grew up in San Diego, won the Heisman Trophy, was a first-round draft pick projected to be a star running back in the NFL, and now -- partly because marijuana was his constant companion -- his football career is kaput.
Rashaan Salaam, not Ricky Williams.
Salaam admitted to reporters in 1999 that he was hooked on marijuana a year earlier when he sat out the '98 season because of a leg injury.
"I never got caught, I never got put in the system or a drug program," Salaam said Thursday. "Just me coming out and telling the world that I was being honest and that I was immature and going through some issues, trying to explain to everybody that I changed my ways. By doing that, it got me kicked out of the league, basically."
Salaam, who set a Chicago rookie record with 1,074 yards rushing in 1995, struggled with injuries and was released by the Bears in 1997. He returned to football in 1999 and, during the next four years, had brief stints with the Raiders, Browns and Packers, the Memphis Maniax of the now-defunct XFL, and Toronto Argonauts of the Canadian Football League.
Salaam didn't have the luxury of leaving football on his terms. But Williams did. When he abruptly retired from the Miami Dolphins last weekend, he was at the apex of his career. Turns out, he also was smoking marijuana on a regular basis.
The Miami Herald reported Thursday that Williams had failed a third NFL drug test for marijuana use, and, if he changes his mind and returns this season, will be forced to serve a four-game suspension. Williams told the newspaper that the drug played a larger role in his retirement than he originally indicated, and that smoking marijuana without inhibition was one of "a hundred reasons" that walking away from the game was so enticing.
When Salaam spent a year out of football, marijuana was an essential part of his daily routine.
"I was going through a depression stage and the only way I could medicate myself was to use marijuana," he explained later. "That was the wrong thing to do. But I thought it could help me out. But I was depressed. It was a time in my life when things were just falling apart."
That sounds a lot like Williams, who has been diagnosed with social-anxiety disorder and was a spokesman for Paxil, an anti-depressant. He told the Herald marijuana helped him once he had to stop using Paxil because it didn't agree with his diet.
"Marijuana is 10 times better for me than Paxil," he said.
He told the Herald that, while appealing a $650,000 fine for his second drug offense, he continued to smoke marijuana while on tour in Europe with rocker Lenny Kravitz and failed a third test on his return.
"Think of the great time he was having," Salaam said. "Being a professional football player, you never really have a chance to be a youth. You don't have a chance to have a good time, because every step of the way you've got to prove what you did last year. There's never a time just to be you. Right now he's being him, and nobody should take that away from him."
Salaam, who lives in Atlanta and plans to dabble in real estate, says he no longer smokes marijuana. He calls it a "thorn" to his career. He regrets his wasted year, but he regrets something else even more: Telling people about it.
"I would have kept my mouth shut," he said. "I wouldn't have said nothing. I wouldn't have even done an interview."
About a dozen neatly stacked boxes line the back wall of the garage of Alex Garwood's home in Los Gatos, Calif. They hold hundreds of mementos -- letters, poems, drawings, military medals, American flags and other keepsakes -- all given to the family of Pat Tillman, Garwood's brother-in-law, in honor of the former NFL player who wordlessly walked away from a lucrative football contract to become an Army Ranger.
Tillman, who enlisted with his brother after the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks, was killed April 22 in a firefight in Afghanistan. His story riveted the nation, even though he took pains to be as anonymous as possible, never speaking publicly about his decision to leave his job as an NFL safety to serve his country.
Garwood lifted a box off the stack and opened the top. He gently set aside a pair of Purple Heart medals well-wishers sent -- the family received 12 of those -- and pulled out a pair of scuffed military boots.
"These," he said, "just blew me away."
As the unpaid executive director of the recently formed Pat Tillman Foundation, Garwood is carefully walking the line between respecting Tillman's wishes that he be treated like any other soldier, and letting the world know more about Tillman to help others in his name.
"It's a little bit ironic that in this whole thing he didn't want notoriety and yet he got it," Garwood said. "But the fact is we're not going out and talking about him as a football player only and trying to hawk bobble-heads. There's a right way to do this and a wrong way. We firmly believe that we're doing this the right way and for the right reasons."