In honor of Black History Month, Super Bowl Sunday, and in advance of our upcoming print edition, we bring you a special interview by Ricky Williams, NFL hero, football legend, astrologer, healer and plant medicine activist. Williams faced decades of penalties and discrimination over his cannabis use, which he has explicitly stated enabled him to win the Heisman trophy in 1998. Now he brings things full-circle with his cannabis brand Highsman - a play on his career and themed around athletics, but going levels deeper to give the public the sense of inner peace and focus Williams has achieved in his spiritual journey. What he really wants is to help people find their greatness and reach connections beyond their daily lives. His message of universal love, and self-love, has never been so needed.
In this exclusive interview, Williams reunites with his old college football friend Matthew Nordgren, founder of pioneering cannabis venture capital firm Arcadian Capital. During their conversation, Ricky explains how his continued education in spirituality brought him back to the plant unexpectedly. Not only is he a master of Pranic Healing, but he has also trained in acupuncture and massage, traditional forms of Eastern medicine, and of course Ayurveda with an emphasis on plant-based wellness. Who would have thought that a football star once publicly shamed for cannabis use would be able to reclaim it and be on the forefront of the movement changing its modern perception?
Watch the full interview here:
Career in the NFL: Who Is Ricky Williams?
Most know Williams through his sports accomplishments; the College Football Hall of Famer has broken numerous records, including all-times for rushing and scoring. With 11 seasons in the NFL, most notably with the New Orleans Saints and Miami Dolphins, Williams continued to break records in professional football, winning multiple accolades. He received a notable $8 million signing bonus when he was first drafted by the Saints in 1999; head coach Mike Ditka memorably traded all of the team's draft picks that year to the then-Washington Redskins in order to get Williams. During his time with the Dolphins, Ricky Williams' accomplishments included being named the league’s Leading Rusher title of 2002. He seemed to have it all... But his cannabis advocacy made him controversial in an era where plant-based healing was woefully misunderstood.
Cannabis Advocacy and Spirituality
Following his NFL career, Williams devoted himself to becoming proficient in Ayurveda, yoga, astrology, meditation, and many types of herbal wellness. Few people in the public eye are as eloquent, passionate and willing to be vulnerable about how spirituality transformed their lives as Ricky Williams has. But when our society is fractured, struggling to heal generational traumas, mental health crises, pandemic fallout, and striving to overcome the cynicism that says life is only face value, Williams is delivering the most powerful tonic. We have to follow his example and seek to understand what we bring to the collective energy. This is how we make our world better.
What Ricky Williams can teach us about cannabis and an appreciation for greatness, through Highsman, is powerful. But his pearls of wisdom on how to open oneself to a holistic connection with the Universe, and thus to a deeper happiness, are everything. We at Honeysuckle are privileged to share his deepest thoughts with you. You don’t have to agree with him, but we hope you’ll read and learn from what he says. May you be inspired to find your greatness within.
Listen to the full podcast here:
Ricky Williams and the Holistic View
MATTHEW NORDGREN: I’d love to let you touch on all these topics: Cannabis, the Super Bowl, and Black History Month.
RICKY WILLIAMS: It's the trifecta: I'm Black. I played football and I smoke a lot of weed. But I think the deeper conversation is really about diversity, and to me, the value of diversity isn't a quota or box you check; it's about having a holistic view [which] means you're taking the whole. In order to take the whole, you have to listen to all of the voices. In our country in general, I think the minority voice has been disproportionately not heard.
What convinced you to make cannabis and different types of plant medicines part of your health tools during your NFL career?
It was the evolution of my definition of health. Health means wholeness, but growing up and playing football, wholeness meant hundred yards a game, at least four and a half a carry, and scoring touchdowns at least every other game. I was doing a good job of that kind of wholeness, but my personal life off the field was crap. So I prioritized my mental health and I found the best thing for it was cannabis.
I'm using this terminology to make fun of it, but it was a “gateway drug” to myself. When I consumed cannabis, I started to become more aware of what was going on in there. At the time, I said, it's self-psychotherapy. I was having those inner conversations with myself and becoming more aware of my motivations. I realized playing football isn't really what I'm supposed to be doing.
I retired from the NFL and gravitated towards spirituality. Ayurveda, holistic healing, herbalism, meditation, yoga. As I learned to meditate, I noticed this felt almost exactly like those self-psychotherapy sessions I was having. I started reading more and I saw that the Indian god of meditation, Shiva, his devotees consumed cannabis. I connected the dots and realized that part of our mental health is being spiritually healthy.
Ricky Williams on Race and Black Athletes in the NFL
Based on the way you presented yourself then as a Black athlete who used cannabis and had dreadlocks, do you feel you would have been treated differently if you were a white football player?
First of all, it's because our eyes are our most powerful, trustworthy sense. Whatever we see, it activates certain free associations and connections in our mind. Race plays into everything… based on our past experiences, that's just the way our brains work.
If you're an outlier, you're a victim of stereotypes. How it affected me personally was when I got into the NFL's drug program in 2002. I was traded to the Dolphins and we were drug tested in training camp. I failed a drug test and they put me into the program, where you spend a whole day talking to psychiatrists and they put you through all these tests. Then they put you in a two-year drug program where you're tested nine times a month. Then you have to talk to a therapist once a week.
In the program they’d say, “It's hard to be Black, but you can't let the stress of being Black make you ruin this great opportunity.” That was the message, just the assumption of what the issue was. And that pissed me off even more, ‘cause I was like, “If you're trying to help me, at least see who I am.” I fail a couple more drug tests. At the very end, when I'm talking to the doctor, the doctor said to me, “The biggest mistake we made with you is we just assumed you were a certain kind of person. We didn't really take the time to realize you were just a seeker and spiritual.”
I think that's the biggest issue with race; we don't see who's really there. That's the biggest travesty because we miss opportunities to grow and to learn. We belittle people because we don't acknowledge and appreciate their gifts and talents in terms of creating a safe space for someone to be exactly who they are. If you can't create a safe space for somebody, how can you possibly balance them to achieve the highest level possible?
Do you feel that we're in a different time now, in terms of how Black athletes are perceived and the platform they have?
Things have changed culturally and we see the effects in sports. In 2004, I was shamed for my cannabis use. Now when there's a sports cannabis story, CNN calls me first to come speak about it. And one of my missions is to keep taking the conversation further. That's really the passion behind launching Highsman. But for me, wellness was always directly tied to being a better football player, so wellness was always tied to accomplishment. How can I get the most out of my potential? What I realized is those self-psychotherapy sessions reflecting and letting go, then being able to envision a brighter future, that was one of my greatest gifts because we see so many people with so much ability and talent. But they can't let go and give themselves permission to envision a better future.
Building Highsman: Ricky Williams's Cannabis Brand Comes From Spiritual Healing Journey
One of the reasons your current business Highsman is exciting is your divergent healing interests that led you here: Cannabis, hemp, astrology, Ayurveda, yoga, various therapies you've explored, putting that together with your physical, mental, and spiritual health.
It has been a journey. When I walked away from the NFL, I started traveling and [wanted to relocate to Australia]. I got the paperwork and a section asked, “What are you going to do when you come to this country? You’ve got to have some kind of skill.” I realized I don't have a skill. I can play football. But other than that, I can't do anything. It was a profound moment for me where I realized I want to offer something.
The moments that gave me the greatest pleasure were always making someone else feel better. So I wanted to learn healing. When I got back to the States, I came across Ayurveda and the philosophy really spoke to me. [I found] a class in Northern California’s Grass Valley.
I didn't know that Northern California was the Mecca of legal medical cannabis at the time, but I landed right in the middle of it. I was learning about Ayurvedic herbs, and about cannabis. From there, my interests expanded into body work, because my body was beat up from playing football and I was always going to body workers. The first day I took that class, I was nervous ‘cause I was this big football player with all these middle-aged white ladies. But there was a point where we had to put our hands on someone's head and feel their energy. As soon as I did it, I felt my heart just open. This is what I'm supposed to be doing.
I've collected a bunch of different healing modalities and now I do my own thing. Part of it is astrology. Part of it is body work, yoga, meditation. A lot of it is cannabis. I was studying Ayurveda, not even thinking about cannabis. Then I opened this Ayurvedic book and there's a whole chapter on cannabis. I'm like, “Oh my God, this has been medicine for a long time.”
*Editors’ Note: At Honeysuckle, we subscribe to the belief that everything operates within a holistic system. From human action to the planet’s natural phenomena to energies from the spiritual plane, what happens in one area will impact all others. We applaud Ricky Williams for highlighting these issues and explaining how this philosophy can be integrated into our daily lives. If you are practicing mindfulness in such a way that you’re connecting to energy beyond yourself, you are taking that first important step to self-discovery.*
What gives you the courage to fight mainstream stigmas against these modalities?
The reason I can do this is because of all these classes. In my yoga training, there's actually a science to terms like soul. Their definition of soul is the combination of all our past experiences. When we say, “That hurt my feelings,” what we're saying is based on my past experiences, that didn't feel good.
When we meditate, we can say, “I can see based on my experiences, that should have hurt my feelings, but I can respond in a different way.” Life is education, this constant growth and developmental process of adding new information that allows us to modify the past, to see a brighter future.
There’s this taboo against feeling good, but… if we could make even difficult things joyful, they stay productive. Creating positive associations with cannabis, the number one thing that needs to heal, is we've all come from the past. We've been told this is a drug and it's bad and there's something wrong with us. But let's look into the future. How do we consume cannabis and how does it help us move forward? As we have more open, honest conversations, we create more positive associations.
*Editors’ Note: Many spiritual practices will teach that our souls are destined to learn karmic lessons, but what Williams is emphasizing here is that we all have the power to choose what we do with that knowledge. We are all faced with opportunities to grow beyond our comfort zones and open ourselves to a greater consciousness. When you are given such chances, will you take them?*
Highsman's Cannabis Mission: An Appreciation for Greatness
You say the mentality of Highsman is the appreciation for greatness. What does that mean to you and how does it affect your mission with this brand?
The goal for me is for people to associate our brand with greatness. We're merch, but we're also a cannabis flower brand. Imagine consuming cannabis and the intention, the set and setting, carries this energy of greatness. To me, if we hit that, it's a home run and it comes from my own personal experience. It's easy to tap into greatness when you're on top. But you don't make it there unless you can envision the greatness when you're not on top.
When I talk to people, they're like, “It's easy for you, you're a Heisman trophy winner.” I wasn't born a Heisman trophy winner. If you saw where I came from, I had a very little shot. I had to be able to dream and see a bigger vision for myself. I remember I was on the precipice of, of fulfilling my dream of being the best college football running back ever. I came back to Texas for my senior year. I had an opportunity to not only win the Heisman trophy, but to become the all-time leading rusher in college football history, the most yards ever, the most touchdowns, and the most all-purpose yards.
First game, I tear it up; second game, I tear it up, but we get our butts kicked. I find out that my girlfriend is now with the quarterback. The next week we go to Kansas State. They hold me to 40 yards. I have this quad strain. I'm sitting here and my heart hurts.
One day my smoker friend said, “You need to chill.” I wasn't really a smoker [but] I was having a rough night, so I hit his bong. I went to my room, lay on the bed and just thought about things. And I was able to start letting them go. Then the idea popped into my head: I need to laugh. I rented Blazing Saddles, and I laughed and laughed. That moment was special because it was the ability to let go and connect to the bigger vision that I think saved me.
What does greatness mean to you in terms of getting yourself where you need to be and, with Highsman, preparing for greatness with a team?
Obviously I won the Heisman trophy; was best player in the country, went to the NFL, led the NFL in rushing. When I was playing ball, you put the team on one person's shoulders and everyone plays a supporting role. Then as I got into the business world, I didn’t want to have everything on my back. I want to work as a team. I want all of us to be superheroes. At Highsman we're finding that sweet spot. We got rock stars. We like each other and we care about what we're building and empowering. Envision something brighter, surround yourself with people that can help you achieve it. When you're interacting with this brand, that's what you get. This is what we are.
For me, the brand is about using my platform to get this important message out in the world. We all have these limitations in our mind about what's going to stop us or get in the way of us achieving our goals. I want Highsman to represent that when you're interacting with our brand, those limitations start to dissolve. It's a “we.” I measure my greatness by how much I inspire other people to achieve their greatness, because we can't do it by ourselves. All of us need to step up.
*Editors’ Note: Ask yourself, do you think in terms of “we” or “I”? What can we each contribute to improve humanity on a communal level?*
Black History Month and Spirituality: Ricky Williams Chooses Love
What does Black History Month mean to you, in your study of spirituality and evolution? How do you think that humans will evolve in terms of race on a spiritual level?
So if you say, “What color is your spirit?” It doesn't have a color. It's only when it comes into a body that has a color. When I was in India, traveling with my yoga teacher, she would always tell me whenever, she'd hear me going into a story about being Black, she would remind me, “You are not that.” She’d say, “You are the soul, you are the Atman” [Sanskrit for soul]. I realized that I am a soul having an experience in the body of an African-American.
From there, there's an expansive understanding and appreciation of race relations. I see it as bigger than race; it’s white and black, meaning certain things that we're taught are good, we're supposed to accept. Certain things that we're taught are bad, we're supposed to neglect. These are what get pushed into the unconscious or projected onto minorities. This is the real issue we have to see, that it's all beautiful. There is no darkness. There’s contrast. If we can appreciate the contrast, we can appreciate the difference. I think that's what we're moving towards. From a spiritual perspective, that's the point of race, right? We have to see our other side. We can hate it, or we can love it. But this is an opportunity to love.
We are right there with you, Ricky Williams and we can't wait to see what you offer up to the world next. Thank you for sharing your views with us and allowing us a very special learning experience, and for showing us ways to choose love.
Learn more about Ricky Williams in our upcoming print edition for Black History Month, featuring Wiz Khalifa! Buy your advance copy and get your tickets for our issue launch party in NYC on February 26th!