BOARDROOM SPOTLIGHT

Ricky Williams’ Higher Calling

The record-setting running back speaks on his entrepreneurial journey, the launch of his cannabis brand, Highsman, and evolving the narrative of cannabis in sports.

Former Heisman Trophy winner and All-Pro NFL running back Ricky Williams has been closely associated with cannabis for a while now.

First, his name was splashed across headlines about multiple violations and subsequent suspensions due to cannabis use in the mid-2000s. Following his formidable football career, Williams doubled down on his interest in plant medicine and holistic wellness, traveling to the foothills of the Himalayas to better understand the origins of cannabis and studying Traditional Chinese Medicine and Ayurvedic practices.

Now, Williams and weed are making the rounds again—this time, to announce the arrival of his own cannabis brand, Highsman.

When it comes to legal cannabis, the state-by-state nature of the biz makes it complicated to keep things consistent. Each state has its own unique regulations for cultivation, testing, labeling, etc., so multistate brands that aren’t interested in building out a costly new farm in every state they touch (not recommended) will instead partner with local cultivators to supply the necessary buds, oil, etc. Williams created a versatile model for his brand that makes a variety of strains make sense state-to-state. 

The strain lineup includes:

  • The energizing “Pregame”
  • A more focused (but still vibey) “Halftime”
  • The relaxing, sink-into–the-couch “Postgame”

Each will be available as flower and pre-rolls.

In Oregon, flower selections were curated from Camp Toke, while in California, Williams collaborated with Jeeter on an exclusive cannabis and apparel capsule. Nevada is on the horizon for Highsman as well.

In an interview with Boardroom, Ricky Williams shared the humbling inspiration and goals for this latest entrepreneurial venture, and what shifting perceptions of cannabis use could do for the professional sports world at large.  

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BOARDROOM: Have you always been interested in being an entrepreneur? 

RICKY WILLIAMS: I’m just a curious person. When I first heard this term, “entrepreneurship,” I didn’t get it. It wasn’t until someone described it to me as “seeing a need and filling it” that it clicked for me. I liked that definition, and I started looking around for needs I knew how to fill. 

Thinking about my own experiences, when COVID first hit, I had started doing a lot more autograph signings, and cannabis inscriptions had become really popular. I’d sign my name and then add, “smoke weed every day” or “puff, puff, run”, or “hitting a hold and smoking bowl” or whatever—whatever they want. I noticed that the workload tripled, and I’m like, “there’s not that many Ricky Williams fans out there.” I realized these were people that were fans of cannabis and sports, and this was the only opportunity for them to honor the love of those two things.

The whole concept for Highsman quickly became clear: There’s a need for people to have a way to express their love for these two things, which traditionally have always been separated. And who better to give people a brand that allows that freedom of expression than me.

B: How does the Highsman lineup help incorporate those two worlds you described?

RW: The whole idea behind Highsman is finding ways to bring athletic culture and achievement together with cannabis. For sports fans, there are these built-in associations with a pre-game mood or mindset.

We all know that means getting hyped up; energized. Same for the state of mind when you’re in the game and when you’re post-game. It worked to use that vernacular and speak a familiar language when organizing the line. So the Pregame strains are always uplifting, and the package itself has a hoodie on it—what you wear when you’re getting your mind right. Then the Postgame is about after the game, when it’s time to recover: a relaxing, body high, with a package that shows the Letterman jacket you wear as you walk out of the locker room. 

B: Speaking to the intersection of sports and cannabis, how do you view that relationship changing?

RW: I think it’s been happening since the beginning of sports, really. Especially when professional sports were really taking off in the sixties and seventies. I think athletes had already been smoking. Then it became more of an issue in the eighties, and the NFL and a lot of other leagues were enforcing policies as a reputation thing. Fast forward a couple decades later, people are really starting to open up to cannabis and it’s forcing the leagues to rethink how they approach this. 

It has to be led by the players. If we let the other people define what cannabis is—people that aren’t using it—then it’s something that we’re punished for doing. But if we let the players start to share our stories and define how we’re using it, the conversation completely shifts from rule-breaking to wellness.

B: Right, it’s more about your performance and your recovery.

RW: Exactly. That’s what it was for me. The old, still-lingering model is just “work your ass off, and you’ll be successful.” You do it until it’s time to retire, and then you can take a break. But that was our parents’ stuff. So for me, reading stories when I left the NFL that I was “giving away everything to smoke pot,” I had to ask myself—did I give up everything to smoke pot? And, like, why?

B: And what was your answer? 

RW: It’s a simple answer: it’s that I valued what cannabis gave me more than what the NFL gave me. For me, I valued feeling good more than I valued money.

B: Do you think that would’ve been your answer at any point in your career, or did it take a few years and seasons under your belt to feel like that?

RW: I think so much of life is trying to untangle ourselves from our conditioning. A big part of my conditioning was the belief that I had to kill myself to be worthy — and that’s what I was doing. And then I started smoking and I was like, wait a minute, maybe there’s other ways I can contribute that feel better to me. I started to allow myself to think about that.

“It can help those who feel lost like I did. Cannabis helped me find my purpose.”

I love talking to people and helping other people feel better. I started to invest more time [into] developing those skills, and I found the quality of my life went way up. I was able to still play football, but I was enjoying it more because I wasn’t only taking care of that part of myself. I could fit it into a more holistic idea of who I was. 

At night, after practice, I’d go home and smoke and start to think different kinds of thoughts. I’d allow my imagination to go places and realize that there are other things that I could be doing. I think if I hadn’t given myself that freedom, sure, I might be in the Hall of Fame, but I don’t think I’d be happier. I don’t think my body would feel as good as it does right now. 

B: Is the sports world catching up with athletes are on these issues?

RW: It’s starting to. I realized that when all of that came out with me and cannabis back in 2004, it was the start of talking about cannabis and athletes in a different way, to tell a different kind of story. As more people started talking about it differently, it gave more people permission to talk about it differently. Now, the conversations are really changing.

When I saw [former Texas head coach] Mack Brown last, he came up to me and he said “you were right.” He told me his brother has cancer, and that he’s been using Rick Simpson Oil and it’s really been helping him. That’s a completely different conversation than I had with Mack 15 years ago, when he was saying, “Ricky, just put it down, you know, just put it down.”

B: Is normalization the purpose of your brand? Or is it something else?

RW: No, I don’t think of normalization as the goal. This plant isn’t normal—I learned that it has origins as a religious sacrament. Highsman is more of a multi-layered message about reconditioning ourselves on our own terms.

I’m trying to be quick and funny when I say “it’s not about a trophy, it’s about getting high,” but there is a bigger meaning there in regards to how getting high allows you to gain a greater perspective. It can help those who feel lost like I did. Cannabis helped me find my purpose. 

The most powerful thing I could deliver to people is proof that things can come full circle. To inspire someone to say, “Hey, maybe if I go off in that other direction, it might be a rocky road, but he made it, so I have confidence that I can make it, too.”

B: When you look back at your past, do you feel like you were more of a pioneer or a player that got punished?

RW: Neither. I mean, if anything, I hope the story that’s told about me is that I was a pioneer in being myself. I think in order for us to be happy, we all have to figure out, in our own world, what rules are we following that actually don’t apply to us? Because if we try to live a life by other people’s rules, we limit ourselves.

I want to be an example of someone who believed in themself, trusted in themself, and made choices because of that. My choices happened to be related to cannabis. And, as people are seeing now, maybe I was onto something.

This interview was edited for length and clarity. 

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