SAN ANTONIO — Nineteenth century author and poet Henry David Thoreau would have enjoyed a conversation with Ricky Williams, a free spirit whose life off the football field often overshadowed a long career that included a Heisman Trophy and 11 seasons in the NFL.
Like Thoreau, Williams always has been a free thinker and marched to the beat of a different drummer.
“I’m different every day,” Williams said Thursday. “Because people can’t put me into one category of how I’m going to be every day, they say I’m special or different. I just really wake up every morning and I’m curious to see what the day has for me. I really approach everything like that.”
Williams, who won the Heisman as a senior running back at Texas in 1998 and retired from the NFL after the 2011 season, made headlines nationally last month when reports surfaced that he was talking to the University of the Incarnate Word about a coaching job.
Sources said Williams’ hiring was imminent, but he didn’t attend a UIW workout until Thursday afternoon when head coach Larry Kennan introduced him as the newest member of the football staff at a news conference. The Cardinals started preseason workouts July 31.
Williams, who will be a part-time coach, said an email from the NFL Players Association about a program aimed at getting retired players into coaching piqued his interest.
“I talked to them a little bit about, but it didn’t really work for me,” Williams, 36, said. “But it really got me thinking about whether I really would enjoy doing this. I got excited about it.”
Williams, who lives in Austin, got in touch with Kennan through a mutual friend and visited UIW shortly thereafter. It didn’t take Williams long to make up his mind about joining the Cards’ fledgling program.
“I said I would never coach, and then when I really looked at would I have fun coaching, I was like, ‘Wow, I would have fun,’” Williams said. “A lot of people have asked me, ‘It seems like with your career in the NFL that you wouldn’t want to go back to football.’ But to me, I don’t think it’s fair to compare professional football with coaching college football at the University of Incarnate Word. They’re totally different.
“I just spent the last 20 minutes talking to a sister (nun) about religion, about Jesus, about philosophy, all the stuff I liked to talk about. It’s a different deal for me and something that I really look forward to. Not only being here, but actually thriving and being extremely successful and really contributing to the university, to the community and definitely to the running backs.”
Introduced by Kennan, Williams appeared upbeat and joked with reporters as he talked about his jump into coaching.
“The question I keep getting from people is, ‘What are you thinking?’” Williams said, chuckling. “I’m looking forward to it. Last year, my first year of being fully retired, I was really kind of bored. I’m a person who likes to be active, likes to be creative, likes to work with other people. It seemed like a really good fit.”
UIW started its Thursday practice at about the same time Williams’ news conference began. After meeting with the media, Williams joined the workout and mingled with players and coaches in the scorching heat.
Kennan was effusive in his praise of Williams.
“He’s a fabulous man and was a great, great football player,” Kennan said. “Better than that, he’s a great man. He will be a wonderful mentor for our guys, both as a running back coach and a guy who has lived a lot of life. He’s got some wisdom and that’s what we do as coaches. We want to give them (players) some of that wisdom and make them better than they think they can be. I think we’ll get that from Ricky, without question.”
Williams still will do work for ESPN, Longhorn Network Williams will work closely with Mike Briglin, who has coached the UIW running backs since 2010.
“Coach (Kennan) has been really cool about everything,” Williams said. “It seems like we’re going to take it as we go. I’m here to help these kids be as good as they want to be,” Williams said. “That’s on the football field and off the football field.”
Williams said one of his goals will be to try to sell UIW players on the idea “that they can be much better than they think they can.”
Although Williams will be a part-time coach, he said he expects to work “a lot” of hours at UIW each week. Williams’ contractual commitments with ESPN and the Longhorn Network will preclude him from attending every Cards’ game.
Williams said he expects to be on the team bus when UIW opens its fifth season in school history at Central Arkansas on Aug. 29, a Thursday, and probably will be on the sideline for “three or four games” total this year.
Williams left no doubt that he’s ready for the challenges of coaching.
“Everything in my life has prepared me for everything else in my life,” Williams said. “Being a collegiate athlete, being a professional athlete and not playing football and just being a regular person, I’ve kind of been in so many different worlds that I just have access to different information.
“Ideas, different ways to look at things. I’ve pretty much been around so many different types of people in my life that I can pretty much relate to anyone.”
Williams said he is excited about trying his hand at coaching at a smaller school that is still building its football program.
“I love stepping in when I can make a difference,” Williams said.
Although Williams went on to rush for more than 10,000 yards during his 11-year NFL career, his well-chronicled problems with the league’s substance-abuse policy often overshadowed what he did on the field.
“I’m an open book and anything the kids want to talk to me about, other coaches or anybody wants to talk to me about, I’m here for them,” Williams said.