Sports

Ricky Williams Is Using His Cannabis Brand To Advocate For Athletes’ Mental Health

The average trajectory of a professional football player can be both short and cruelly linear. The point is to play within predetermined lines of expectation, on and off the field, without much of a window to explore new roles or alternate routes. To stretch a toe outside those lines, still, can lead to questions about your commitment to the game, and few can relate to that fixed circumstance of tradition better than Ricky Williams.

Williams played 11 seasons in the NFL. Despite his pre-NFL accolades — he won the Heisman Trophy at Texas, went fifth overall in the 1999 NFL Draft, and showed promise as a baseball player prior to his collegiate days — and the evident talent that he possessed whenever he stepped onto the gridiron, Williams’ career was marked by perceived missteps.

First there was an experimental contract with Master P’s short-lived sports agency, No Limits Sports, that was based heavily in incentives that Williams would have a difficult time achieving without the required roster support to back him up — the New Orleans Saints famously gave up every pick they had in that draft to move up to No. 5 and acquire him. The No Limits agent who drafted Williams’ contract, Leland Hardy, failed his league-certification test around the same time. To add injury to insult, Williams suffered a high-ankle sprain in his first season, sidelining him and voiding any hope of him achieving the contract’s complicated incentives. That season would be the first that Williams turned inward, isolating to cope against waylaid expectations.

The second diversion that Williams would take, and what would eventually turn into a powerful vehicle for him, was cannabis. While his association with weed would make him one of the most vilified and misunderstood football players in his time, that deviation from the NFL’s rigid framework was a lifeline. A good thing, too, since cannabis, once a furtive hobby, has now become Williams’ business and a catalyst for change.

“Back in 2004 when I first came out as an advocate for cannabis, although quite inadvertently, there was no one publicly that had my back, no one.” Williams says on a Zoom with Uproxx from his home in San Diego. “What I’ve realized is if we want things to change, especially in a positive direction, we can’t do it on our own. We need to come together.”

Williams launched his cannabis company, Highsman, in October 2021. The concept was simple: Williams wanted to break from any previous stigmas or stereotypes associated with cannabis. The product was streamlined, just three flower strains (Pregame, Halftime, and Postgame) Williams carefully selected to compliment different requirements throughout a person’s day.

“The whole idea of Highsman really came up during COVID. I started doing a lot of autograph signings. People were asking me to sign cannabis inscriptions. So I’d sign my name, number 34, then I’d write “Smoke weed every day,” or “Puff, puff, run,” and my revenue from autographs went up by three times,” Williams recalls with a chuckle. “And I started doing the math, and I said there’s no way there’s this many Ricky Williams fans out there.”

Ahead of the Super Bowl and in a partnership with Jeeter, Highsman is releasing a limited edition cannabis and apparel collaboration featuring a new strain, with 100 percent of proceeds from sales going to Athletes for CARE, a nonprofit that advocates for athletes of all ages. For Williams, the timing is important. In some ways it will be like a conscious return to football, but on his own terms and behind a larger purpose.

“I don’t think it hit me until the other day, when we were shooting some content for the collab. At the end, I saw the merch that’s going along with the content and I got really emotional, because it’s real,” Williams smiles. “I realized it is full-circle, because so much time has gone by that I have a chance to tell a story that can hopefully inspire the young people about what is cannabis, and how to use it and how to think about it.”

While Williams hopes to use Highsman to bridge the gap between the negative connotations of cannabis in pro sports, the company is for everybody. Moreover, what Williams has found, inadvertently or not, is that Highsman’s ingenuity, and spark of connection, comes from his own proverbial ashes.

“It’s not only that I have a brand and we’re doing this, but it’s cool now. When this all started I was a pariah,” Williams says, noting that in his early promo for Highsman, doing meet and greets and signing autographs, a lot of people didn’t recognize him. “When I was running for yards, they were babies. Some of them weren’t even born. But when I tell them the story, they all light up.

“It’s just cool that having these conversations with young people, the only relevance to football is that I walked away from it. It’s something I see that they can actually relate to,” Williams continues. “But if I’m just talking to them as this retired, old football player, there’s not really a relation.”

Though it can be tempting to look back on the treatment Williams got throughout his football career and consider what could have been different if he’d been playing in another era, he mostly resists that inclination. Williams wouldn’t have found out the more meaningful way forward for himself without it. But there are other arenas where he knows he was ahead of his time.

“Beyond just cannabis, the fact that I wanted to view myself as being more than just an athlete, and I think with social media now, athletes are more encouraged to be more than athletes, and actually have a voice,” Williams says. “To me, that’s what’s exciting.”

While Williams says the way he used his voice during his career was primarily advocating for cannabis, football players now “have a lot of things. And athletes, especially African-American professional athletes, have been silenced for a long time. And the fact that our voices are being heard and taken seriously, I think is amazing.”

What often gets left out of stories about athletes like Williams, and what we are still largely bereft of language around pro sports to handle, is how difficult a decision to walk away actually is. And that just because a career appears to careen off-track from the outside doesn’t mean that the athlete living it isn’t going through feelings of doubt and disillusionment while still trying to perform. These things aren’t mutually exclusive, as much as they become easier to explain when framed that way.

Williams describes that push and pull as a big part of his “crisis as a football player.” Ultimately, this made it clear to him that he had to change something.

ricky williams highsman jeeter
Jeeter X Highsman

“When I was a kid and I thought about being famous, it wasn’t for money. It was because I thought I could make a difference. But fast forward, I was there and I wasn’t really making a difference. I felt like I was just distracting people for three hours on Sundays. And I’m sure some people were inspired, but I didn’t feel like that’s what I was here to do,” Williams explains. “And so when I left football, part of it was needing to find something that felt better in how I’m spending my time and my energy. Again, I wasn’t expecting it to be cannabis. I thought that would be the last thing, but here we are.”

Many of Williams’s personal interests, beyond cannabis and Highsman, have grown into small businesses. He has an astrology app called Lila; a holistic healthcare company, Real Wellness, he started with his wife; and is involved in the Freedom Football League.

“I’ve spent so much time and energy searching for truth, and cannabis and astrology have been a big part of my journey, and I feel like I’ve found something,” Williams says, noting the responsibility he feels to share those things back with people is the main impetus to him in starting any business. “I think we all have to make money to take care of ourselves, but if we’re not putting something out in the world that’s making the world a better place — at least that’s the way I feel — then what am I doing?”

Asked how he keeps the joy in what he’s doing when scaling his hobbies into professional pursuits and Williams stresses integration, over the more difficult to discern idea of balance, or having it all. The best way he knows how to do that is through people.

“That was the thing in football, when I was on the field I loved what I did but as soon as I stepped off the field I didn’t necessarily love the people I was around and the things that we were talking about,” Williams recalls. “And so I realized, I need to find somewhere where I love what I do, but I also really enjoy the people around me.”

Jeeter co-founder Sebastian Solano stresses that the company rarely partners with cannabis companies, but they clicked instantly with Williams and the initiative behind Highsman.

“It’s about breaking the stigma of sports, cannabis, and how cannabis can be something very beneficial, specifically for mental health,” Solano says.

The mental health component of the partnership is crucial to Williams, and central to his own journey. Williams, who has been candid about his difficult childhood and adolescence, struggled with anxiety his entire pro football career long before mental health and sports — let alone the impacts of head injuries caused by the sport — were topics the NFL was willing to broach, however imperfectly.

“I can speak to my history, and players history, but we also have to speak of the history of corporations, big companies in the U.S.,” Williams says when asked what he thinks of the gradual inroads the NFL has made with mental health and advocacy, and whether it’s enough. “There are certain ways that the NFL functions, and the fact that they’re willing to start investing money into doing some research into cannabis is at least a step in the right direction. There’s always the big bureaucracies, the big corporations, where things just move more slowly. And the common people, especially the ones ahead of their times, there’s always a time gap. But that’s just the way it works.”

True to the way in which he’s taken perceived problems, or points of adversity, and turned them into channels for change, Williams has an insightful saying: anxiety is information.

“My understanding of the purpose of pain is information, to let us know that we’re not making a stronger adaptation. Or that we’re in the wrong place,” Williams says when asked why he thinks it’s important not to turn away from the things with the potential to overwhelm or intimidate. “We’ve been taught to be skeptical of pleasure, of feeling good. And what I’ve realized is feeling good is one of the most important things in the world, because when you feel like crap, you can’t think straight, you just feel stuck.”

On that front, Williams has an abundant back catalogue of information that he once chose to compartmentalize, maybe more than most. But listening to him talk about the plans for Highsman and the good he’d like it to do, it’s clear that he has all the data he needs to push toward a place of more meaningful conversations around cannabis, within pro sports and beyond.

“I feel like even six months ago, the conversations about cannabis and mental health, people kind of look at you sideways,” Williams adds toward the end of the call, noting that COVID forced people to take their mental health more seriously. “And I was one of those people. I wasn’t comfortable mentioning cannabis and mental health because I was nervous about what people would say. But I’ve redefined what mental means to me. I think starting to have these conversations about how cannabis can be used to improve mental health,” he breaks off for a second, sighing happily, “I’m so excited about this.”

There was a time when he was growing up, and Williams recalls it with a knowing smile, “coach would always say, if you smoke pot you’re going to be a loser.” But from that first toe outside the line and all the crude dismissals that followed, Williams has shown that life in and after a pro sports career doesn’t have to go straight, or stay narrow. That the world can widen, in ways never expected.

“And that’s the story that I’m trying to tell.”

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