It's hard to imagine what Ricky Williams must have been thinking as he browsed through a jade factory in Thailand nearly eight years ago, isolated from the sport he'd abandoned, rediscovering himself on the other side of the world.
But we do have proof -- in a strange and whimsical form -- that Williams never entirely forgot about football during his brief yet stunning retirement in 2004.
One random afternoon, a package arrived at former NFL great Jim Brown's doorstep. It was a jade chess set, shipped from Thailand, apparently meant as a sign of respect for the game's greatest running back. It came from Williams.
"It was unbelievable," Brown told me in 2008. "Ricky didn't just buy a chess set. That set had meaning. For him to think about me, when he was going through all of the things he was going through and being where he was, that felt really, really great."
Even in his most selfish times, Williams has always maintained a surprisingly strong bond with football. So as he announced his retirement from the game Tuesday, I couldn't help but wonder: Might his biggest contributions to the sport still be in his future?
If indeed Williams is serious about hanging up his cleats -- trust me, he's more than capable of changing his mind again -- he might be the rare player who is as interesting to follow after his playing days as he was during them.
Williams has big plans -- limitless plans -- for the years to come, some of which still include impacting the game he's leaving behind. During his last few seasons, he has been working toward finishing his degree at Nova Southeastern in South Florida. He also plans to eventually enter medical school. On Tuesday, he made it clear on his personal blog that he wants to make major differences in society.
"When I allow myself to meditate on the limitless possibilities, I come into the expansiveness of being able to provide a greater contribution than I ever thought possible," Williams said.
Nobody, not even Williams, can know fully what those contributions will include -- but his passion for the studies of the human body could provide some true advancements for the game of football and the health of the players in the game. Over the years, Williams often made it clear he was still playing football for two reasons:
2) He wanted to find out how far he could push his body. He wanted to challenge himself, through meticulous habits and a strict diet, to find out the limits of his physical impact.
In 2009, when he exceeded 1,000 yards at 32 years old, Williams broke a strange but interesting record: Nobody had ever had a longer span (six years) between 1,000-yard seasons. Obviously, this was partially due to his time away from football, which included multiple suspensions in addition to his year-long retirement. But it also seems realistic that Williams might be onto something -- that his commitment to studying the human body could provide answers that help others, as well.
"I started to see how much abuse my body could take without having to do what I saw everyone else doing to recover," Williams wrote Tuesday. "I became interested in how amazing our bodies are and how, if we take care of them, they will take care of us.
"As a result, I take a lot less pain medication than most football players and eat much less, too. Combining that with six years of intensive study of various spiritual, mind-body and energy-healing modalities gives me an extremely unique perspective on ways to generate, create and institute innovative strategies that will benefit not only athletes of all types but can also provide possible remedies to the healthcare crisis we are experiencing in our country today."
Did you catch all of that? If so, pretty interesting stuff, isn't it?
But how much of this should we truly believe he's capable of accomplishing? After all, plenty of people in Williams' past have been hyped by his "plans," only to have his perennial attention deficit and inability to commit to a long-term plan come back to disappoint them.
Here's the beauty of Williams' new situation, though, if he decides to stay away: He's a free bird now, no longer confined by the cage around him, no longer capable of abandoning his fan base or his teammates in a sport that relies on the commitment of individuals for a greater overall good. His playing career will be remembered for interesting antics and unfulfilled potential -- certainly not consistency or normalcy. And that's all fine, especially since Williams was ultimately able to endear himself to his fans as a free-thinking, eccentric personality. And now, his free-thinking mind can wander to all sorts of interesting places. Williams was not always the kindest person to media. At times, he wasn't always the most loyal person to his teammates. And in other instances, he'd surprised some who thought they were close to him by taking public shots at their own abilities (see: Tony Sparano).
But Williams has absolutely always been interesting. Always enigmatic. And always seemingly capable of accomplishing so much. Now, as he lets his mind take flight, it should provide quite the path, perhaps even offering the sport of football with some creative contributions.
His football career was undoubtedly an interesting one. No doubt, his life afterward has the potential to include more of the same.