In his 11-year NFL career, Ricky Williams was a Pro Bowl running back, a single-season rushing yards leader, and one of just 31 players in league history to amass 10,000-plus career rushing yards. And before all that, he was a Heisman Trophy winner with the Texas Longhorns.
But to many, Williams is even better known for his progressive views on weed. Suspended five times for violating the league’s substance-abuse policy, Williams actually missed two full seasons on account of his marijuana usage. (During one of those full-season suspensions, in 2004, Williams famously began studying Ayurveda, the Indian holistic science, at an institute in Grass Valley, California.) And even when he was on the playing field, Williams was an outspoken advocate for marijuana, which he said helped him cope with social anxiety and a borderline personality disorder.
Now 45 and 11 years removed from his NFL days, Williams has parlayed his enthusiasm for pot into a budding business empire. Last year he launched Highsman, a brand that offers a variety of cannabis products and accessories. And just last week, Highsman announced a partnership with Ball Family Farms—also owned by a former pro footballer, Chris Ball—to launch a new strain that targets pain relief and inflammation, “Ricky Baker.”
Williams spoke with Fast Company about making the transition from athlete to entrepreneur, and why he remains a tireless advocate for cannabis even after his playing career is over. This interview has been edited for length and clarity.
Why did you and Chris decide to partner on the Ricky Baker strain?
It started at Hall of Flowers a year ago. I had met Chris back in maybe 2000; we connected a long time ago. So I saw that he was a cultivator in the cannabis industry. I got curious; I started asking people about his product. And then I tried some myself, and I was blown away. So when I saw him at Hall of Flowers, I said, “Hey, we should do something together.” And we started the project.
Does a collaboration of this sort lead to a different product versus what you had already been doing?
It was my first time being part of a pheno-hunt. I connected with Chris, and he shared seven different phenotypes with me and said, “Take these and see which ones that you’d like the best.” For the next couple of nights I went through my process; it was interesting, because coming from the old-school days, when I first started consuming cannabis, it just was like, you go to your dealer, and then you get whatever he has. As the industry has evolved, we have tons of varieties. So this was the first time that I really had to apply some kind of system for understanding the experience.
What was it like transitioning into the business side of marijauane? Was there much of a learning curve?
One-hundred percent, a learning curve. Because it’s entrepreneurship; I’m at the top of the food chain. In sports, yeah, we got paid a lot, but we were kind of the bottom of the food chain. There was a vision created for us and a game plan that was given to us, and we had to execute.
Now in business it’s my job at least to hire the people to put the game plan together. And it’s all based on my vision. I’m taking everything I’ve learned from my head coaches, and we’re applying it.
It seems to be working, because I think what business in sports have in common—especially football—is, you have one objective, and you have a group of people who have skills and talents. How they hone their skills and talents contributes to accomplishing the same goal.
Football also, I imagine, imbues you with a sense of toughness.
It was my job to run through the linebackers and get into the endzone in a hostile environment. You know, the whole team spent their whole week trying to figure out how to stop me. The toughness and the ability to keep on going even when things are difficult, football prepared me to do all those things extremely well.
The NFL has made some strides in destigmatizing pot, but it still has a ways to go. Have you spoken with anyone in the league since your retirement about the issue?
I haven’t spoken to anyone on the NFL side, but I’ve spoken to people on the player side—not players, but representatives of the players. I think because of that this past year, the NFL has given a million-dollar grant to two different universities to research the efficacy of cannabis for football players’ health and wellness. That’s a huge sign, when the NFL is coming out of their pocket to fund this kind of research. It means that they’re taking steps, I think, in the near future to allow and hopefully at one point to actually provide cannabis for the players the same way they provide the Ambien and the Percocet and the opioids.
You’ve talked about this before, but can you tell me a little bit more about why you remain so passionate about cannabis?
My advocacy in cannabis is much deeper; I’m an advocate for mental health. On the deepest level, I’m really an advocate for the soul. I think the word “psychedelic”—psyche meaning soul, delic meaning revealing—is anything that reveals our souls to us, okay? The modern day language is really attending to our mental health. One of the things I know about the soul is it exists inside, and one of the things I know about mental health is that it exists inside. So, the ability to be aware of what’s going on inside, that’s how I found cannabis. I was a professional football player; everyone thought I should be the happiest person in the world.
But I was miserable, something inside wasn’t happy. And it wasn’t until I got into therapy, I started consuming cannabis that I started to pay more attention and attend more to what was going on inside. And yeah, I had to make some drastic changes in my outer life. But the end result is that I was happier, and I found more meaning and purpose in my life.
And, and that’s what I’m an advocate for, is getting people to value more what’s on the inside than the pressures that are coming from the outside. I find things like astrology, yoga, meditation, cannabis, psilocybin, Ayahuasca, all of these modalities—sacraments, if you will—can help facilitate that process.
Sorry to take it back to sports but I have to ask: Do you watch much football anymore?
After I retired, I spent the next 10 years covering University of Texas football, but not not really outside of that. This past year, launching this brand has put me in environments where I’m watching a lot of football. And I have to say, I’m loving it. It’s funny, it’s almost like I tried to get away from football, but really getting into business and having to channel my coaches, it’s helping me appreciate the game in a different way.
I think it’s a wonderful game. It’s taught me so much about life and prepared me for what I’m doing now. I’m having a second go-around with football. And I’m loving that effect and going to the doctor students.
Which team are you most excited about these days?
I have to say, the Dolphins. I watched the Thursday night game [during which quarterback Tua Tagovailoa suffered a brutal concussion]; that brought up a lot of stuff for a lot of people. But as I was watching the game, I felt like I was a Dolphin. Yeah, that’s my team this year.