Thursday, January 21, 1999
happy to Hula
The Heisman Trophy winnerBy Paul Arnett
started and will finish his college
football career playing
KAHULUI -- Ricky Williams walked through the doorway at Gate 15 relieved to see no crowd of camera crews and well-wishers rushing toward him like Nebraska's defensive line.
He had an orange plastic Slinky in his left hand that had gone through quite a workout during the long flight from Dallas to Maui. Judging how stretched it was in some places, it appeared Williams had applied an-around-the-world yo-yo motion to it on more than one occasion.
''It was given to me,'' Williams said absent-mindedly, as if he wasn't quite sure he could pick out the face in the crowd who had handed him this child's toy.
''It's not quite burnt-orange,'' Williams said, describing his University of Texas colors. ''But it's close.''
These days, nobody gets too close to Williams without working his way through the traveling salvation show. Williams needs two bodyguards and a Longhorn representative wherever he goes.
At one point during his walk to baggage claim, his entourage fell 50 yards behind him, causing him to look back nervously over his shoulder. Even in laid-back Maui, Williams can never be too careful.
''(Western Athletic Conference commissioner) Karl Benson was at the Doak Walker Award ceremony last night,'' Bowl Games of Hawaii chief executive officer Lenny Klompus said yesterday.
''And after Ricky accepted the award (for the second consecutive year), there was a crush of people that backed him into a corner. I think he's looking forward to coming out here and relaxing for a few days. He just wants to be one of the guys.''
Unfortunately for Williams, he will never be one of the guys again. That's what happens when you win the Heisman Trophy, and will likely be one of the top three picks during this April's National Football League draft.
Last year, he turned down $15 million to get his education and become the biggest name in Austin, Texas, since Earl Campbell ruled Memorial Stadium two decades ago.
Williams set the Division I rushing record, formerly held by Hall of Fame back Tony Dorsett, with 6,279 yards. That is just one of 20 NCAA and 44 Texas marks that Williams broke or tied since beginning his career against Hawaii on a September night in 1995.
''I was thinking about that game on the flight over here,'' Williams said. ''It's really nice that I can begin and end my college career in Hawaii. That was part of the reason I wanted to play in the Hula Bowl.''
Mind you, Williams isn't playing in Sunday's college all-star game because he needs to. In fact, he's so certain of his draft selection, the San Diego resident isn't even going to the NFL combine.
''After what I've been through since last July, I need a couple of months off just to get to know me again,'' Williams said. ''Going to all these banquets was great and all, especially the Heisman Trophy, but it feels like I've been going hard for six months.''
In addition to the Heisman Trophy, the consensus All-American won the Maxwell Award, The Associated Press National Player of the Year, the Walter Camp Player of the Year, The Sporting News Player of the Year, and Football News Offensive Player of the Year.
At times, it was overwhelming for the 6-foot, 225-pound running back, who was nicknamed ''Little Earl'' his freshman season. But if he's changed since scoring the first of his 72 touchdowns at Aloha Stadium, it doesn't show.
''I'm still the same guy who suited up that night,'' Williams said. ''I'm just more popular.''
He's got that right. After touching down at the Maui International Airport early yesterday afternoon, Hula Bowl officials took him straight to an autograph session at Kaahumanu Center.
The crowd that formed once Williams took his seat on the podium with former Heisman Trophy winners Mike Rozier of Nebraska, Glenn Davis of Army and Ohio State's Howard Cassady, looked like a line dance on a cruise ship.
Williams signed footballs, miniature Texas Longhorn helmets, Hula Bowl T-shirts, notebooks, pictures and even an old Texas pennant. It was something that he wanted to skip.
''I'm pretty tired. I hope it's all right if I don't go,'' he said just before getting into a car at the airport.
But 15 minutes later, there he was, happy to help promote the game.
''He's a great young man,'' Bowl Games of Hawaii executive director Marcia Klompus said. ''You hear about all these guys dropping out of the all-star games because their agents told them to, but not Ricky. And he's the best player in college football.''
Just how much Williams plays in Sunday's game, remains to be seen. But he promises he'll carry it a time or two because he knows that's why a majority of the 20,000 fans will come to the game.
''I'm just looking forward to hanging out with some of the best college football players around,'' Williams said. ''I'm going to have some fun and enjoy this experience because it's great to be back in Hawaii.''