Celebrating The 25th Anniversary of Ricky Williams’ 1998 Heisman Trophy

Ricky Williams, honored for the 25th anniversary of his 1998 Heisman Trophy, speaking at the Heisman Trophy Gala, Sunday, Dec. 10, 2023 in New York, NY. Credit: Heisman Trust

The Heisman Trophy Trust recently celebrated the 25th anniversary of Ricky Williams winning the Heisman in 1998. Below is the article that was included in the 2023 Heisman Trophy Journal.


The scoreboard at Darrell K Royal–Texas Memorial Stadium was ticking down on Nov. 27, 1998, a day after some 84,000 in the crowd had celebrated Thanksgiving.

The clock, sure, but most fans had their eyes locked onto a different part of the scoreboard which was counting down the remaining yards Texas senior running back and eventual 1998 Heisman Trophy winner Ricky Williams needed to break the NCAA career rushing record.

He began the day with 6,020 yards, 62 short of 1976 Heisman winner Tony Dorsett’s 22-year-old record.

Dorsett was on the sidelines in Austin for the Texas-Texas A&M grudge match, waiting for the moment Williams would break his mark so he could personally congratulate the Longhorn back.

Late in the first quarter Williams peeked at the scoreboard and his eyes couldn’t help but see that he was close to breaking Dorsett’s mark. 

“I remember looking up and needing 11 yards to go and there was this moment, one of those numbers moments,” Williams recalled this fall. “Earlier in the year I’d changed my uniform from 11 to 34 and I’m looking up and I had this sense that I’m going to do it on this play. It was just a sense.”

1998 Heisman winner Ricky Williams

But we are getting ahead of ourselves. We need to rewind for a moment.

Years before he ultimately broke numerous NCAA, Southwest Conference and Texas records, he was a kid from San Diego being raised by his single mother, Sandy, along with his twin sister Cassie and younger sister Nisey.

By the time Williams finished middle school, he was excelling in multiple sports and soon became an honor roll student at Patrick Henry High School while competing in football, baseball, track and wrestling. 

On the gridiron, Williams was almost unstoppable, rushing for over 2,000 yards and earning 1994 San Diego Union-Tribune Player of the Year honors.

He also excelled on the diamond and was a good enough outfielder that the Philadelphia Phillies drafted Williams in the eighth round of the 1995 Major League Draft.

When Williams was looking at college programs, he strongly considered what kind of offense he might fit into but also wanted to make sure he could also play in the Phillies’ minor league system in the off-season.

Williams looked closely at schools like Colorado, USC, San Diego State (chiefly because hometown legend Marshall Faulk had played there) and Texas.

He seriously eyed Stanford, too, which was running a West Coast Offense under Bill Walsh. But when Walsh left Stanford after the 1994 season, Williams decided to become a Longhorn and play under Coach John Mackovic.

Williams earned the starting fullback job in Austin as a true freshman and broke the school’s freshman record for rushing yards in a game in his debut. By season’s end, his 990 rushing yards broke Heisman winner Earl Campbell’s Texas freshman season record and he was named the SWC’s Freshman of the Year.

As a 1996 sophomore, Williams again thrived at fullback and led the Longhorns with a team-high 1,272 yards rushing, breaking the 100-yard mark seven times.

Williams moved to tailback as a 1997 junior and busted out with school records in yards (1,893), carries (279) and rushing scores (25). His 2,043 all-purpose yards were also a school record.

He won the Doak Walker Award, earned All-American first-team honors and tied for fifth in the Heisman balloting in a packed field that saw Charles Woodson edge Peyton Manning. Williams later said he took it hard that he didn’t finish higher in the balloting.

The NFL seemed to be calling, and it rang louder when Coach Mackovic was fired after the season.

But an innocuous off-season visit to the school’s athletic media relations department helped keep Williams a Longhorn for one more season.

While flipping through a college football almanac, Williams noticed how close he was to Dorsett’s NCAA rushing record as well as to a handful of other marks. 

At that time, Williams still considered himself a baseball player first — remember he played in the Phillies’ minor league system after each Longhorn football season. Williams wanted to maximize his college football experience as a complement to baseball.

The opportunity to etch his name in the record books — coupled with a growing relationship with first-year Texas Coach Mack Brown — was enough to convince Williams to return for a final year. 

He opened his senior season with 215 yards on 36 carries in a 66-36 win over New Mexico State, carving up a team named the Aggies for what would be the first of two times in 1998. Williams also rushed for a school-record six touchdowns in Brown’s head coaching debut.

A week later, Texas stumbled at No. 8 UCLA, falling 49-31. The lone bright spot was Williams, whose 160 rushing yards helped him break Campbell’s Longhorn program rushing record (4,443).

The low point of the season came seven days later when Texas lost at No. 10 Kansas State, 48-7. Not even Williams could supply highlights, the back gaining only 43 yards on 25 carries.

Back to the drawing board, and back to Austin, where the Longhorns — and Williams — got well with three home games among their next four.

Texas got right with a 59-21 win over Rice, riding Williams to the tune of 318 rushing yards on 30 carries. He not only equalled his three-week-old, school-record six touchdown runs, but all were 16 yards or more.

A week later against Iowa State, Williams’ Heisman campaign got a big boost as he set the Texas school-record with 350 rushing yards to go with five touchdowns (That rushing total still stands as the most ever by a Heisman-winning back).

Also in the game, Williams broke the NCAA records for rushing touchdowns, career scoring by a non-kicker and most yards in consecutive games (668).

If that wasn’t enough, Williams also paid tribute to Heisman winner Doak Walker, who died earlier that week at the age of 71. Williams, who had befriended Walker after winning his award in 1997, wore a decal on his helmet featuring Walker’s No. 37.

A week later, in the Red River Showdown, Williams wore Walker’s No. 37 and led Texas to a 34-3 win over Oklahoma in the Cotton Bowl, rushing for 139 yards and two more scores.

Ricky Williams rushed for 139 yards and two touchdowns in Texas’ 1998 Red River win over Oklahoma.

Following a bye week, Williams tacked on another 259 yards and two scores in a 30-20 win over Baylor and then led the Longhorns to a 20-16 upset at No. 19 Nebraska with 150 yards.

Williams appeared mortal again, briefly, in a Texas 37-24 win over Oklahoma State with 90 yards and one score while gaining 141 yards and rushing for one more TD in a 42-35 loss at Texas Tech on Nov. 14.

As Heisman races go, Williams was a heavy favorite with one regular season game to go. 

He had to wait out a second bye week before the Nov. 27 meeting with Texas A&M, another Aggies squad he was about to dismantle.

Williams began that day 135 yards shy of 2,000 and 62 short of Dorsett’s NCAA mark.

Which leads us to flashing back into the Texas A&M game, to a 1st and 10 from the Texas 40 with 1:57 left in the first quarter.

“I got the ball and everything just worked out,” Williams said. “All of the other 10 guys all did their job. Kwame (Cavil), our receiver, goes down and cracks the safety, the corner comes up and I get down and he bounces off, and there’s no one there. I’m just in the open field. 

“And I see one of the fastest guys in college football was the opposite corner for the Aggies and he had an angle on me. So I’m thinking I’ve got to score, I can’t go down on the 1. So my best friend on the team, (receiver) Wane McGarity, blocked him and pushed him out of bounds and i just barely fell into the end zone.”

And there it was, a new NCAA rushing king with his lone score of the game. Officials paused the contest to honor Williams, who went on to rush for 259 yards — and eclipse the 2,000 mark — as Texas upset No. 11 Texas A&M, 26-24.

Ricky Williams on his way to breaking the 2,000-yard mark against Texas A&M in 1998.

Willams finished the regular season with 2,124 rushing yards and 27 rushing touchdowns with another 24 receptions for 262 yards and another score.

Two weeks later, voters made it official as Williams ran away with the 1998 Heisman Trophy as easily as he ran away from linebackers, totaling 2,355 votes and garnering a then-record 78% of the 920 first-place votes (714). Kansas State quarterback Michael Bishop was second and UCLA quarterback Cade McNown were third.

Half a year later, Williams was drafted fifth overall by the New Orleans Saints. Despite multiple injuries, he rushed for 1884 yards and 10 scores in his first two seasons, including exactly 1,000 in 2000. That kicked off four straight 1,000-yard seasons, highlighted by a career-best 1,853 with Miami in 2002 (that included 16 touchdowns) and another 1,372 yards a season later.

Williams retired in 2011 with 10,009 career yards, which is still 31st on the NFL’s career rushing chart, while his 66 career rushing touchdowns are tied for 42nd most. He also finished with 342 career receptions for another 2,606 yards and eight more touchdowns.

Williams, a member of the College Football Hall of Fame and the UT Hall of Honor, has pursued myriad interests following his football career, which has included coaching, broadcasting and working as a wellness expert. In fact, his interest in wellness — which includes yoga and meditation — has dovetailed into entrepreneurship and he has co-founded Real Wellness Herbal as well as other businesses.

Earlier this year, Williams received the University of Texas’ highest honor and was named one of six recipients of the 2023 Distinguished Alumnus Award.

Congratulations to Ricky Williams on the 25th anniversary of his 1998 Heisman Trophy.


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