OWINGS MILLS – Ricky Williams’ dreadlocks have disappeared and his shaggy beard is gone, no longer wearing the look of an iconoclastic free spirit determined to live life on his own terms.
Outwardly, the Baltimore Ravens’ newly-minted backup running back is now the picture of conformity.
Williams practically resembles a military recruit with his new clean-cut look defined by a conservative, short haircut and a fresh shave.
"It’s just a mirror of my maturity," Williams said Tuesday afternoon following his first practice with the Ravens since signing a two-year contract with a maximum value of $4 million. "I think we all go through phases. At my heart, I’m a rebel. I think I have found more productive and mature ways to express my rebellion."
That’s not the reputation Williams has carried for the majority of his enigmatic career when he was a controversial figure who critics labeled as a flake and a druggie.
Williams became known in NFL circles for being different, for failing multiple drug tests for marijuana with four violations of the NFL drug policy, for being suspended by the league, for spending one season playing in Canada and for briefly retiring.
At age 34, Williams appears to be a changed man in many ways. That doesn’t mean he’s transformed himself completely.
After once living in a tent in Australia during his brief retirement, Williams remains a philosophical person who dedicates himself to yoga, a holistic lifestyle and is a practicing vegetarian.
He’s not your typical football player. He spends his free time journeying all over the world, including a recent trip to Peru.
"Football is how I put food on the table," Williams said. "It’s my passion and it’s what I love to do, but I think it’s important to keep things in perspective. Traveling and seeing the road has helped me kind of keep balance in my life.
"It makes coming back to football that much more fun because I have that balance. As animals, as mammals, the instinct for us is to provide for our loved ones and our families. I think that’s an instinct. When we can do something that we love for a job, it’s just icing on the cake."
Now, the former Heisman Trophy winner is just looking to contribute and not be an object of preoccupation.
Williams chose the Ravens over the Detroit Lions primarily because he’s never played in a Super Bowl and felt like Baltimore offered a better chance to contend. The Ravens have made three consecutive playoff appearances.
After rushing for 9,565 career rushing yards with 329 receptions for 2,523 yards and a total of 72 rushing and receiving touchdowns, Williams wants to finish out his career with a winner.
"Baltimore is an established organization with a lot of vets," said Williams, who led the NFL in rushing with 1,853 yards in 2002. "You don’t like playing against them because of the way they play. I thought I would fit in well in this situation and be able to enjoy myself and possibly win a Super Bowl."
For his first practice with the Ravens, Williams wore an unfamiliar No. 38 jersey.
However, he said he has brokered a deal with running back Jalen Parmele to regain his old No. 34 look.
"I have already talked to Jalen, and we cut a deal," said Williams, who said he didn’t enlist the help of his agent, Drew Rosenhaus to negotiate for him. "It’s a two-year contract. The terms are undisclosed."
What isn’t a secret is how the Ravens envision Williams boosting their run-first offense.
Williams gained 673 yards and scored two touchdowns last season with the Miami Dolphins while working in tandem with Ronnie Brown.
Having added Williams to replace Willis McGahee, signing Pro Bowl fullback Vonta Leach and retaining offensive guard Marshal Yanda, it’s not hard to see what direction this offense is going: the smash-mouth route.
At a compact 5-foot-10, 230 pounds, Williams is known for plowing through linebackers.
"We’ve got some good backs, and adding Ricky into the mix makes us a better team, no doubt about it," coach John Harbaugh said. "To me, he looks as good as ever. He ran the ball well, he’s very good in pass protection, understands pass protection. That’s really important for us right now, so it’s a big addition for us."
"All the schemes we’ve run, he’s run. He’s a downhill, hard-running guy. He’s got some elusiveness, but he’s not afraid to lower his pads and run behind his pads."
The Ravens have no intentions of utilizing Williams in their preseason opener Thursday night at the Philadelphia Eagles.
He still has to learn the offense and get acclimated to football again.
"I’m going to encourage him not to play on Thursday night," Harbaugh said. "I think that one practice out here is not enough to get ready and to keep him safe. I think he kind of wants to play, but we’ll probably hold him back."
Williams isn’t greedy when it comes to carries, and he’s aware that Rice is the featured runner and a former Pro Bowl selection.
"You never know," he said. "Some games, the defense is taking the run away and we have to pass. Other games, we’re going to have to pound the ball to win the game. So, it just depends. My guess is it will vary anywhere from eight and 12.’
Although Williams has maintained his powerful running style, the soft-spoken former University of Texas star said he has grown from his days where he was in trouble with the NFL substance-abuse policy. Williams has said that he doesn’t smoke marijuana anymore, overcoming that desire through meditation and yoga.
"I think I respect the game more, and I appreciate the game more than I did, but I’m not 20 years old anymore," said Williams, who got married two years ago and is the father of five children with three different women. "My priorities are a little bit different. I appreciate the game and I love to compete. I use my mind more than I use my body, but still my body’s strong and I enjoy playing this game."
Williams has no intentions of playing longer than two seasons. He’ll be consumed with other interests and his large family.
"I’ll be 36 when my contract is up," Williams said. "I think I’ll be ready to do something else at that point."