RICKY WILLIAMS was sitting on a couch in a smoke-filled room, blazing a joint to celebrate his cannabis lifestyle brand “Highsman” during one of the biggest sports weekends of the year.
A pronunciation guide might note that Williams’ brand sounds exactly like Heisman, as in the college football trophy awarded over the weekend in New York City that the Texas running back won in 1998. Fast-forward a few decades and Highsman hats, T-Shirts, and product were on display with a graphic of Williams exhaling over the words “spark greatness.”
Recreational weed has been slowly coming to New York City. Even as the plans to get dispensaries licensed are not going smoothly, it is legal to possess and partake. All around this 12th-story room on 25th St., little packets of marijuana bud with Williams’ No. 34 on the cover were there for the taking. The instructions: “Light and inhale.”
The culture has finally caught up with Williams. Even if I was completely unclear on what a “cannabis lifestyle” might be, Williams has been a notorious fan of the herb since his early days in the NFL. Drafted in 1999, Williams was too good to be held to the rules until the moment it was impossible to give him a pass.
“That’s what’s so special about even the name ‘Highsman,’ usually the guys who get in trouble for drugs are the lower-level guys that you haven’t really heard of,” Williams said. “For someone to be at the top of the game and choose to walk away, I didn’t realize it at the time but it seems like I made a statement.”
Williams tested positive for marijuana twice before announcing his retirement in 2004, played again in 2005, and then in February 2006 again violated the NFL’s policy. He played in the CFL for a season and was back with the Dolphins in 2007. He is the subject of an ESPN 30 for 30 called Run Ricky Run, which documented his gentle and curious spirit, his search for meaning beyond himself and beyond football, and the damage that did to his football career.
But part of that was due to the rules in place at the time, when not only the NFL barred marijuana use, but selling and using it came with harsh penalties from the criminal justice system.
Could Williams have imagined back then a sporting universe where he could legally blaze it up in the Heisman city, when college players were making money off their names, and a pre-game show can present yards and carries alongside the odds as brought to you by a sportsbook? I mean, could 2004 Ricky Williams ever have hallucinated that the StaplesCenter has been turned into the Crypto.com Arena, and even the NFL has four official sports betting partners?
“When you say it like that, it makes the cannabis stuff actually not a big deal because everything’s changed,” Williams said. “I think that’s natural. Usually the direction of growth and evolution is moving away from tradition and the old way of doing things. I can understand that now because I’m older and I can look back at history and I’ve thought about this a lot.
“But when I was young, I never would have imagined,” Williams paused to survey the community under the haze, a large caddy-cornered television blocking part of the Manhattan skyline with Monday Night Football, “this.”
Williams is a blunt ambassador, a weed warrior, an evangelist of the chronic who smokes what he preaches. He recalled the Toradol shots on Sundays that would wear off on Monday, gradually revealing the full spectrum of game-day pain. He exhaled to the other side as he spoke, as a courtesy.
“Cannabis is actually about prevention,” Williams said. “When I started smoking, I stopped taking Vicodin and I stopped taking Toradol and I spent an extra 30 minutes stretching. The thing about cannabis is it puts you more in touch with your body, where Vicodin takes you out of your body, it gives you a false sense of security.”
Who’s to say in another decade, Highsman won’t be the NFL’s official cannabis partner, with “spark greatness” emblazoned under jumbotrons in states where the bud is legal? Keep in mind, the NFL has official gaming partners even though gambling on sports isn’t legal everywhere. There is a poetic justice in the world where Ricky Williams would star in halftime commercials with whichever Mannings are in the league at that point.
The smokier the room got, the clearer the whole cannabis lifestyle thing became. I struck up a conversation with Highsman co-founder Lane Radbill. These parties, timed to coincide with events on the sports calendar, are only part of the brand outreach. Highsman has a softball team, and plans to sponsor a flag football team this year.
“It’s about the community,” Radbill said, and I nodded, now glassy-eyed from the second-hand smoke.
The later it got, the harder guests started hitting the snack table. Packets of Big League Chew were the first to go, followed by those tasty little peanut butter cups in the shape of footballs. I started to wonder how much cereal we had at home, and about how delicious it is to have granola with banana slices. If a cannabis lifestyle involves cereal, it might be pretty nice.
Well before the end of the night, a fellow partygoer came over to say he was leaving at halftime. The event was fun, but he wanted to pay closer attention to the game.
“Honestly,” he said, “I have a lot of money riding on it.”
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