After earning the Heisman Trophy in 1998 and becoming a top draft pick, Ricky Williams went on to play 11 impressive seasons in the NFL as a top running back, first with the New Orleans Saints, then the Miami Dolphins and later with the Baltimore Ravens. He famously retired from football in 2004 after failing a series of drug tests for marijuana, and deciding that the league’s overzealous approach and demonization of cannabis was at odds with his own beliefs. Weed wasn’t legal yet, but he hoped it would be one day because he knew its benefits could help people in the sports field and beyond.

Today, the NFL has taken a decidedly lighter approach to the issue and, of course, weed is legal in most states. The stigma is fading and more football players are speaking out about their use thanks to the walls Williams broke down. On a recent Zoom chat about his perfectly named cannabis brand called Highsman, the Los Angeles-based activist and entrepreneur seems to have no regrets about how things turned out, and he’s full of ideas for new cannabis-driven products and events. Just this past Super Bowl, he collaborated with popular pre-roll brand Jeeter on a limited-edition strain, complete with stylized locker room-styled storage box (proceeds from the box went to Athletes for CARE, a nonprofit aiding athletes’ physical and mental health). As he tells LA Weekly in this enlightening Q&A, there’s much more to come from his new professional visionary playbook.

LA WEEKLY: So most people are familiar with what went down with you and the NFL not being cool with cannabis, right?  

RICKY WILLIAMS: Well, you know, it’s funny, like that’s kind of the way the story’s been told. But more of it is me not being cool with the NFL. People assume that being rich and famous, or being an NFL football player, is the greatest thing that I can achieve in my life. But my experience actually was that I achieved greatness in that area, but I felt like there was so much more for me to be doing than by wasting my time trying to score more touchdowns. For me, I’d already accomplished what I was there to accomplish, so that was a waste of my time. Consuming cannabis helped me wake up to that reality.

And I think that’s really what this brand is about. It’s about telling the untold story: that from the outside, it looks like a great football player walks away to smoke weed. But it was really a great football player who saw that there were greater things I was capable of doing. And if I would have listened to the NFL and not consumed cannabis, I would have been like everyone else trying to chase this dream way too long until I destroyed my body. I realized I had a higher purpose, and I put all my time and all my energy into pursuing that higher purpose. So when I retired from the NFL, the stories in the newspaper were again, ‘NFL football player quits to smoke pot.’ There were stories saying I was like the world’s biggest underachiever and all these assumptions. I started reading those stories and I realized it’s up to me to decide how the story progresses forward. So I gave myself permission to pursue my passions. I traveled around the world, and I started to get a better sense of who I was outside of being just a football player. What I realized is, the thing I love the most in the whole world is making other people feel better, and inspiring other people. So when I had that realization, I decided, ‘OK, I’ve been a football player my whole life.’ I don’t really know how to do anything else. So I decided to start going back to school and I started learning about alternative healing.

What I found moving toward alternative healing, and moving to Northern California and starting to study this, is it led me into yoga and spirituality, and I started studying that. What I found in those different circles is the people I was surrounded by – unlike when I was a football player – they thought pretty much the same way that I did. And so the end result was, it helped me find my people.

And so these are the kinds of stories that I’m trying to tell. Yes, it’s great that cannabis is becoming more and more accessible to us. But as it does, how are we utilizing it? What I found as a Heisman Trophy winner, a professional football player, and someone who was always seeking greatness, I found ways to utilize cannabis to help me grow and become a better person. And that’s the story. And this is why I launched the brand. It’s not only to address the narrative, it’s to change the narrative.

Ricky rolls. (Courtesy Highsman)

How will you do that? 

I think there’s so many things that people in their brains think that this is a bad thing. But if we can open their minds, and they can start to do things that feel good to them, and realize, ‘Wow, this can actually enhance certain things that I do’…  We need to push this conversation. I tried to tell the guys on the team, we’re not selling weed. We’re selling an idea. We’re selling a vision that people can contribute to and feel a part of. Because that’s sustainable. If people are utilizing cannabis to improve themselves, hopefully they want to improve themselves their whole life. So it’s something that can be a part of their process and their growth for their entire lives.

I think that figuring out what works and what hinders us is really an interesting and important thing to consider when it comes to cannabis. 

Yeah. A big part of our business model is launching a platform for people who are utilizing cannabis in this way to tell their stories – very successful people coming out of the closet and being honest about not ‘Oh, I use it,’ but I use this because it helps me do this. These are inspirational and aspirational stories. Because in my study of yoga and alternative medicine, I came across this interesting book, and it made so much sense to me, it says that in most indigenous cultures, most alternative healing methods acknowledge that most healing occurs in an altered state. Einstein said something similar – ‘we don’t solve a problem from the same level of thinking that created the problem.’

That makes sense. So it’s about changing your perspective. I was reading in your days as a football player, and sports in general, you realized that cannabis can help with things specific to athletes? Can you talk a little bit about that?

Yes. There’s tons of research starting to be done on pain, because that’s a main issue for athletes. But, truly, the biggest issue for an athlete is performance. In life, how can I produce better? From my own experience as a football player, the constant thought is, we have an opponent coming up. And in my position, I was like the star of the team. So we have an opponent coming up, and the whole focus for them to win is to stop me. Right? That’s stressful. There’s money and so many people are rooting for you, it’s a lot of pressure. If you get overcome and bogged down by that, it’s too much. So anyone in a highly stressful job, the ability to take your mind away from the stress, and put it on the performance, on what you’re trying to achieve, we call this creative visualization. I found when I was playing football, the coaches would say you guys need to visualize, and then I’d try to visualize, but it was hard. I noticed whenever I consume cannabis, my mind automatically goes to that more imaginative visionary state. So the way I used it after I’d come home after a bad game, or after a bad week or a bad practice, ‘I’d say, okay, I need to address this’ and improve. So I’d smoke a little bit, and just imagine myself performing better. Then the next day when I went to work, those images of seeing myself perform better were more powerful than the old worries and the concerns. So it’s utilizing the positive function of our imagination, to imagine things improving, and then doing something about it.

Where does the NFL stand on cannabis as of now? 

So when the NFL’s drug program started in the late 1980s/early 1990s, the nature of the program since then is – the guys are tested once a year. Then if you pass that test, you’re clean, you’re good for the whole year, they don’t care. If you fail that test, they put you on a substance abuse program, where now you’re tested nine times a month for two years. If you fail a second time, then you get fined a quarter of your yearly salary. And then if you fail another test, you’re suspended for a year. That was the old program. If you just had a little bit in your system, you were popped, but it was only once a year. Since then, they’ve raised the testing limits. And just this past year, they’ve said we’re not going to suspend any players, but we will fine the players, and they’ve shortened the window of testing. So on the inside, they’re making it easier for players, but publicly, they’re figuring it out. Earlier this year, they donated $1 million dollars to cannabis research. So they’re slowly moving in that direction because the players have taken a stance. They’ve said we’re not negotiating this as a substance abuse issue anymore, we’re negotiating as a wellness issue.

In your press materials, I saw a mention of social anxiety and how pot can help, but I think it also can increase it, if you don’t find the right products or strains. 

Part of it is understanding that it’s an internal process. So part of the paranoia is our imagination. Those times when we say our imagination gets the best of us, yes, it’s because we’re not utilizing the imagination. Because we’re taught it’s a negative thing. Most people don’t know how, or it feels weird to be intentional about their cannabis use. So it’s not rigid, it’s just thinking. Okay, like, the simple question is, why do I love this so much? Because that was the path that I went down, asking if something is bad, and I’m risking my whole life for it. Instead of ‘I’m bad,’ there must be something really special about this thing, if I’m willing to risk so much for it. I became curious, ‘ what is it?’ and I started studying, and this is how I came to these conclusions. It led me straight to spirituality. When you look in the old books, it says, you know, for years, for thousands of years, cannabis has been used as a holy religious sacrament. When I read that, I was like, what does that mean? Now I have a greater sense. Those times of prayer or whatever, where we feel exalted, it’s because that’s our imagination tapping into something greater. It lifts us up, and it inspires us to go and do better. At least that’s what it did for me. When I was playing and I’d smoke, every morning I’d wake up, like, excited about going to work because I cleared all the old stuff from the previous day, and I’m ready to go again.

I love that and think you’re right. You hear about music and you hear about art, but you don’t hear about how it can really enhance and help in the sports world.

Athletes – we’re creative. You have to think, ‘I got a big linebacker coming off the edge, I gotta be creative about how I’m gonna block him, or I got a defense that’s trying to take me out. I gotta be creative about how I get through that. I got to think outside the box, I got to study film. I’m telling you, smoking a little bit and studying film, I noticed little things that I didn’t notice before. It would help me get into the flow of the game and have this more internal connection.

There’s so much talk these days – thank goodness – about toxic masculinity. People are starting to talk about this more, part of the nature of cannabis is a male plant and a female plant. The one that gives us the THC is the female plant. As we consume it, it puts us more in touch with what’s going on inside. So much of the way we’re raised is to push down what’s going on on the inside. You can only push it down so much before it starts to overflow. So a lot of people, when they first start to smoke, all of that stuff that they’ve been pushing down, like they start to become aware of it, and it freaks them out. But if we’re having these conversations, and they realize, as I always say, ‘better out, than in.’ If it’s coming out, it’s because it needs to move.

I think especially for guys we’re taught to be tough all the time. I started consuming cannabis and I would sit back and I’d reflect and think like, ‘I’m not being a very good partner to my spouse, or I can be a better dad…’ I would reflect on ways that I could be better. So I started smoking and I started giving myself permission to be aware of how my actions were affecting the people around me. That led me to start changing my behavior to ways that I was more enjoyable to be around. And I had more fun being around people. I’m on this kick of always growing and always developing, and I found cannabis to be a great tool for that. That’s the story that I’m telling to the world.

Ricky smokes. (Courtesy Highsman)

Let’s talk about your cannabis brand specifically. Where does it come from? Do you have distributors or a specific farm connection? How do you curate product? Can you tell us a little bit about that process?

The business side of this is we found a grower, a farm up in Sacramento called Natura. We looked up and down the state, and there are two considerations: we needed to have a good business deal. But also it’s a cannabis lifestyle brand and we need to make sure that the people growing our cannabis are up to our standards. So it was a long process. My wife is the chief legal officer, so she was handling the deal side of it, and I was receiving the flower and testing the flower and handling that side of it. We found that by far, at least for our model right now, Natura works best for us. So we have a ‘pregame,’ a ‘halftime’ and a ‘postgame’ naming convention for what people have been calling indica, hybrid and sativa. Natura is really responsible for providing the flower for our everyday product – it’s low-priced, high-quality flower. We got a good deal, so it’s high-quality flower at a good price. But also, because we want to really hit that top shelf, in the deal we go out and we find people that are growing really amazing cannabis and they might be smaller brands who don’t have their name out. Procuring cannabis from there, that’s what we’re going to call Ricky’s Reserve. We’re working on our first batch right now.

When can we expect that that might be available?

It will be available in the next month. That’ll be a higher price point for more premium cannabis. And in the next year, we’re working on something we’re calling the Farm League, because one of the things that’s unfortunate in the cannabis industry right now is that cannabis that’s grown outdoors, people aren’t interested in it. They look at it as if it’s inferior. The truth is, in a lot of ways, it’s superior because it’s grown out in nature, and especially the amount of work and effort it takes outdoors. A lot of the farmers that we met with are really amazing people that really love this plant, and they put so much effort into it. But they’re struggling right now because no one wants to buy outdoor cannabis. Indoor cannabis is all the rage. So Farm League will highlight these farmers and the amazing work they do. It gives us the ability – because of the market, not because of the quality – to offer flower at a better price, and it gives us the ability to promote these farmers and also storytell. When I go to these farms and meet these farmers, it’s mind- , and to see what they’re doing and how much love they have, they’re sparking greatness. That’s how we’re diversifying on the flower side.

So what is your plan for the future? What are some things you’d like to do with the platform and with the product? 

We really launched at the end of last year. So the first push was really to get the hype up. Now that we’ve gotten hype and attention, now it’s time to really focus in on what we’re doing – our messaging and building a community. So as an example, we’re working on a golf challenge. Because a big part of the cannabis lifestyle brand for me is giving people who enjoy cannabis something to do that feels good to them. Community building. We started a Highsman softball team. We had our first game Monday at Cheviot Hills (in L.A.). We’re thinking we can sponsor more softball teams and so it’s expanding that way. We’re inviting people to compete in a golf challenge where there’s cannabis consumption. So creating community, creating events and really growing the brand, because to me, we’re not selling weed, we’re selling a lifestyle – a lifestyle that is utilizing cannabis to raise our vibration and spark greatness. I feel if we can do a good job communicating this message, it’s gonna make the world a better place.

 

LA Weekly