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Williams practices, apologizes to fans

DAVIE, Fla. (July 25, 2005) -- With an apology to fans and teammates, running back Ricky Williams returned from retirement and joined the Miami Dolphins for their first training camp practice.

Lining up for his first play since the 2003 season, Williams took a handoff from Gus Frerotte and ran 20 yards to the end zone. But there was no defense on the field, and Williams is sure to meet stiffer resistance in the weeks to come as he tries to regain favor and reclaim a starting job.

At a team meeting after players reported for camp, Williams spoke briefly and apologized for the impact caused by his retirement a year ago. The Dolphins went on to finish 4-12, their worst season since the 1960s.

Williams reiterated his comments at a news conference after the first practice.

"There were things about life that I wanted to explore outside of football, and I had never had the chance," he said. "I realize by making that decision, I affected the team in a negative way and upset a lot of fans. I'm very regretful that people were hurt in the process of me doing that. I do realize that to a lot of people it comes off as being very selfish. So I do offer an apology to all the people who were negatively impacted."

Williams said he no longer smokes marijuana but declined to discuss the subject further. He faces a four-game suspension at the start of the season for violating the NFL substance abuse policy.

His apology seemed to satisfy teammates, including center Seth McKinney, who a year ago called him a quitter.

"In the team meeting, he did what he had to do," McKinney said. "He's a man about it. We're all being men about it. Nobody is holding any grudges. We all want him back. He's a great player."

Most fans attending practice shared that sentiment. Nearly a thousand turned out in humid, 85-degree sunshine, and when Williams ran toward the stands as a pass decoy they cheered, coaxing a grin from him.

Williams smiled again later when he stepped to a lectern to answer questions from a cluster of reporters, never his favorite activity and something he hadn't done in 19 months.

When asked why he decided to return to the NFL, Williams hesitated.

"Why? Why? I don't know," he said, prompting snickers. "I've been away doing my own thing, studying a lot of alternate theories about life. To go into that answer - it can't be picked up in a sound byte or easily understood. So the best way I can think of to put it is that I'm back here to work."

Williams' return overshadowed Nick Saban on the new coach's first day of camp. It was Saban who reached out to Williams in January, laying the groundwork for the running back's comeback.

Saban acknowledged doubts about Williams' commitment.

"Look, we're kind of in the risk-taking business," Saban said. "I've talked to the team about it. I think everybody is accepting of his ability and respectful of him as a competitor. I think everybody is anxious to see that he is committed and to evaluate his level of commitment."

After leaving the Dolphins last July, Williams lived in a tent in Australia, studied holistic medicine at a California school and spent a month at a yoga center in India, becoming certified as an instructor. He lost 30 pounds on a vegetarian diet and took the field Monday at 213, well below his listed weight of 226 on the 2004 preseason roster.

A court found the 1998 Heisman Trophy winner in breach of contract by retiring, and ordered him to repay the team $8.6 million. The Dolphins have not yet sought to collect the settlement.

Because Williams sat out last season, he's due only the NFL minimum $540,000 this year. Agent Leigh Steinberg said financial issues related to Williams' return can be addressed later.

"The first step, miraculously, is that Ricky's here," Steinberg said. "Let the healing process begin."

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