THE CHILDREN WERE LINED UP AGAINST A FENCE AT one end of the school playground, a ribbon of billowy T-shirts, ponytails and fourth-grade innocence, awaiting their teacher's command to begin the footrace. Moments earlier they had sat spellbound in their classroom at Kiker Elementary in Austin as Texas running back Ricky Williams answered their many questions. (Who was the biggest influence in your life? My mom. What was your favorite subject in fourth grade? Social studies. Do you have a son? Huh? No.) Finally they would ask how fast could he run. "I'll race you guys," Williams had said, beaming, and at the back of the room, two teachers nearly fainted because it's not often that a guest speaker proposes recess.

On the playground Williams, a 225-pound Paddington Bear in dreadlocks and cross-trainers, stood at the center of the line of 31 kids. When nearly all of them jumped the gun and darted away, he broke into a full sprint, swallowing up the peanuts until he was alone in front, the noontime sun lighting his face as he filled the air with a little boy's laugh.

Williams is many things to many people; all of the perceptions are obvious but none of them complete. To NFL general managers, coaches, scouts and draftniks who translate bench presses (400 pounds) and 40 times (4.39 seconds) into potential wins and losses, Williams is precious. He has speed and power: a six-foot tailback who can run through a linebacker or past a cornerback, plus he's smart and tireless.

To idealistic fans Williams is the latest in a short line of stars (Peyton Manning, Tim Duncan) who exemplify what's good about college sports by forgoing the pro draft and instant wealth and staying in school.

To Orangebloods who worship Texas football, Williams is the horse that the Longhorns and their new coach, Mack Brown, will ride in their pursuit of renewed glory. After this season Williams could be the leading career rusher in college football history, the Heisman Trophy winner and the No. 1 pick in the 1999 draft.

Yet at his core he's just a child in search of a childhood, eager to please. He will return to Texas for his senior season largely because he was mortified at the prospect of calling a press conference to announce otherwise. "I would have had to get up there and say, 'Thanks for all the good times, but I'm leaving,' " he says. "I couldn't do that."

As a high school senior in June 1995 Williams got a $50,000 bonus to sign with the Philadelphia Phillies, and he sprinkled the money so liberally among family, friends and strangers that it was gone before he had invested a penny. Within two years of Ricky's arrival in Austin, his mother, Sandy; twin sister, Cassie; and younger sister, Nisey, were living there as well. Most remarkable of all, Ricky has forged a cautious, long-distance relationship with his father, Errick, who left the family when Ricky was five and was soon after convicted of a misdemeanor for abusing Ricky and Cassie.

One afternoon in April 1998 Williams lay sprawled across the floor of former Longhorns running backs coach Bucky Godbolt's family room, furiously punching a game controller in a cutthroat round of PlayStation college football. When his 1997 Texas team had beaten 14-year-old A.J. Godbolt's '97 Michigan squad, Williams tossed his controller into the air, shrieked and danced out into the sunlight. "He's one of the kids," said Bucky, who helped recruit Williams and is one of his closest friends. "That's what Ricky is now--a kid. He missed it the first time around in his life."

WHAT SANDY WANTED MOST FROM life was the perfect family. "You know, Mommy and Daddy and a white picket fence in front," she says. Sandy was 19 when she married Errick and barely 20 when, on May 21, 1977, she gave birth to twins Cassandra and Errick Jr. Six years--and one more child--later the elder Errick was gone. The circumstances of his departure are in dispute. Errick says he left because Sandy had been unfaithful to him. Sandy says she threw Errick out of the house when she learned that he had been abusing Cassie and Ricky. "When he was five years old Ricky came to me one night," says Sandy. "He said, 'Mommy, you know how you always say there's nothing we can't tell you? There's something Daddy did to me that I can't tell you, because he'll hit me if I do.' I always wanted them to have a mother and a father, but that was it."

Under terms of a divorce settlement in September 1983, Sandy was awarded primary custody of the children with Errick's visitation rights "limited and supervised by the wife due to the fact that the children are undergoing psychosocial assessment and treatment for suspected child abuse." Eight months later Errick was convicted of the misdemeanor of annoying or molesting children. He says he was given a six-month suspended sentence, three years probation and was required to register as a sex offender.

Errick denies molesting Cassie and Ricky. "Yes, there's a court record that says I sexually molested my children, but that record isn't true," says Errick. "When a woman gets up in front of a judge and says her husband abused the children, the judge is going to believe her. But I can stand before God and say that I didn't verbally, physically or sexually assault my children. This has devastated me."

Whether from the scars of abuse or the stress of the crumbling marriage, Ricky became an angry, maladjusted child who often beat up smaller boys and girls. "I remember hitting this girl when I was in first grade," he says. "I don't know why. I just hit her. I was always mad." He underwent counseling to control his rage, treatment that lasted until he was in junior high. Despite his obstreperousness Williams had been slotted from an early age in gifted and talented classes, mostly because of high scores on standardized tests. In junior high, however, his grades slipped, and at the start of eighth grade he was put in regular classes for the first time. "All busy work," he says, "and busy work wasn't my thing." He stopped doing his schoolwork and dug himself into a hole academically until his mother begged school officials to give him a final chance. He was allowed to transfer to another junior high, placed in gifted classes again and, at the end of ninth grade, won the school's award as the most improved student. "The school challenged him, academically and athletically, and he grew," says Sandy.

Sports came easily to Williams. At Patrick Henry High he rushed for 4,129 yards and 55 touchdowns, and hit .340 with three homers and 26 stolen bases his senior season in baseball. He also ran on the 4×100 relay team and lost just one match in his lone season as a varsity wrestler. Heavily recruited for football by Stanford, Cal and Texas, among others, Williams signed with the Longhorns and then joined the Phillies, who selected him in the eighth round of the amateur draft, before graduation. After spending a little more than two months playing outfield for Martinsville (Va.) in the Rookie League, he was in Austin for the start of two-a-days.

One more thing: In high school Ricky began speaking by phone to Errick, and a cautious friendship developed. At one point, after an argument with Sandy, Ricky considered moving in with Errick, at which point Sandy said to him, "Don't you remember why your father left?" Ricky said he didn't, so Sandy told him everything. He stood in front of his mother and softly wept. But he didn't sever the new ties with his father. One evening in April 1998 Ricky stood outside an Austin restaurant. His dreadlocks hung like dark icicles, framing his face, and the shiny gold stud in the center of his tongue made occasional appearances as he spoke. "I don't remember anything," Ricky says now. "That's the truth. I don't know what happened, because I don't remember. He's my dad. We get along O.K."

A SCRIMMAGE THIS SPRING WAS SCARCELY 10 PLAYS old when Texas quarterback Richard Walton pitched the ball to Williams, who hurtled toward the right corner. Senior defensive back Tony Holmes, 5' 9", 180 pounds, darted into the seam to meet Williams as he turned upfield. They collided with a distinctive pop, and Holmes was lifted off the ground and sailed five yards backward before landing on his back.

The only startling thing about the play was that it took place in Austin, and not in Chicago, St. Louis or Oakland, where many had expected Williams would be by now, rich beyond his dreams. "The team that gets him is going to be incredibly lucky," says Bryant Westbrook, who played with Williams for two years at Texas and is now a starting cornerback with the Detroit Lions. "The whole NFL is looking for guys who can get you three to five yards every play. Ricky can do that, but he can make big plays too."

Last autumn Williams emerged from the train wreck of Texas's 4-7 free fall with a season better than that of almost any running back in college history. Despite rushing for just 191 yards in the Longhorns' first two games, Williams finished with a school-record and NCAA-leading 1,893 yards and scored 25 touchdowns. There were six games in which he rushed for more than 200 yards, and he had four runs of more than 70 yards, all of which went for touchdowns. "Guys never, ever catch him from behind," says Godbolt.

Williams had an immediate impact at Texas, running for a Longhorns freshman record of 990 rushing yards. He did that while playing fullback in John Mackovic's complex pro-style offense. As a sophomore Williams gained only eight yards on seven carries in the biggest win of the Mackovic era, a 37-27 upset of Nebraska in the inaugural Big 12 championship game, yet it was one of the best games of his career. Playing fullback, he blocked All-America ends Jared Tomich and Grant Wistrom viciously all day, providing the time for James Brown to pass for 353 yards.

Off the field Williams developed a maturity that was as strong as his playfulness. He used baseball money to pay his mother's bills when she moved from San Diego to Katy, Texas, and then to Austin. He paid for part of Cassie's tuition at Southeastern Louisiana before she transferred to Texas.

In truth there was little reason for him to return for his senior season when, on the morning of Dec. 5, he went to meet with Mack Brown, the former North Carolina coach who would be introduced as Texas's new coach later that day. Williams grilled Brown relentlessly. Who will be the running backs coach? Are we going to play some defense? How quickly can you turn this program around? Brown had few concrete answers. "I was dreadfully honest with him," says Brown. "After the meeting I thought he was probably leaving."

Williams only sought a reason to stay. "I just didn't want to go 4-7 again," he says. "After meeting with Coach Brown, I thought things might be O.K. This team needs discipline; we had guys out drinking on Thursday nights last year. I told him that. I told him the team needs work. I think we'll be better."

The autumn could be extraordinary. Williams needs 1,928 yards to break the 22-year-old NCAA record of 6,082 career rushing yards, set by Tony Dorsett of Pittsburgh. He needs 20 rushing touchdowns to break Indiana tailback Anthony Thompson's career record of 64, established in '89. Texas promises to get at least a little better.

At sunset on a spring afternoon, Williams stood on the floor of Memorial Stadium, still wearing his orange jersey and full pads from the day's practice. He saw his mother on the sideline and Nisey in a corner of the coliseum. Williams tiptoed to the side of the field, where trainers had dumped crushed ice in a pile, and scooped up a handful. Forming the chunks into a ball, he rushed toward Nisey and heaved the ersatz snowball at her, a boy at play, living his youth for another day and another season.

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