Ricky Williams says his pot-smoking in the NFL cost him $10 million — now he's making a business out of cannabis

Ricky Williams
Real Wellness

Infamous for being a pot-smoker, former NFL running back Ricky Williams estimated two years ago that he'd lost as much as $10 million in salary and potential endorsements during his playing days due to his marijuana use.

Now, Williams thinks cannabis can help him make some of that money back. In March, Williams, 40, unveiled his new career: founder of Real Wellness, his personal brand of cannabis-based products.

"I realized that I was a healer," Williams tells CNBC Make It.

"I feel like with my unique background as a football player, having to deal with a lot of pain and a lot of stress [and] anxiety — and the path that I've been on, most importantly my education over the past 10 years — has put me in a unique position where I have a niche, an expertise to offer the world," Williams says.

Indeed, Williams, a Heisman Trophy winner at the University of Texas and a first-round pick in the 1999 NFL Draft, played 11 seasons of professional football and rushed for over 10,000 yards in total. He earned a total of more than $24 million from his NFL contracts, according to sports contract website Spotrac.

But his career was frequently disrupted by the criticism and punishment he received over his unapologetic use of marijuana as a treatment for depression and social anxiety disorder. He failed multiple drug tests early in his career and served a one-year suspension for violating the NFL's substance abuse policy, at one point even stepping away from the field for a yearlong "retirement" in 2004 rather than face a suspension for a failed drug test.

Since retiring for good in 2011, Williams has spent much of his post-NFL life studying everything from psychology (he earned his undergraduate degree from UT two years ago) to herbalism and holistic medicine. And, over the past few years, he's also become an outspoken advocate for legal cannabis and was actively looking for investment opportunities in the rapidly growing marijuana industry.

Ricky Williams
Real Wellness

Williams says he saw an opportunity to bring together his love of marijuana and his knowledge of herbalism to create wellness products that combine cannabis with herbs traditionally used to treat a variety of health problems, from anxiety to headaches to menstrual cramps.

"I went online and I cross-referenced what people were searching 'herbal remedies' for with what people were searching for medicinal marijuana for," he says.

What he came up with were products such as "Head Ease," a formula that features herbs that are used as natural remedies for headaches, like angelica, chamomile and peppermint. Real Wellness (or, RW for short, like Williams' initials) sells Head Ease in oil form, putting it in a pre-filled cartridge that can be inserted into a vaporizer pen and inhaled. The product also contains 220 milligrams of THC (Tetrahydrocannabinol, the psychoactive component of cannabis) per cartridge.

Williams' favorite product is called "Serenity" and it is also available as a vape cartridge or as a tincture of liquid extracts featuring a mix of THC and CBD (Cannabidiol, a component of cannabis that does not get you high but is purported to have other health benefits) along with herbs such as lemon balm and passionflower. Williams says these herbs target the body's nervous system, calming the nerves and treating anything from anxiety to muscle spasms.

RW also has a "Sport" line of products "for sprains, bruises, muscle tightness" that include a topical salve that combines CBD with herbs like arnica, cayenne, lavender and St. John's Wort.

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For now, Real Wellness products are only being sold in certain California marijuana dispensaries, including almost a dozen in his hometown of San Diego, where the company is based. Prices vary by dispensary, but Williams says customers can expect to pay anywhere from $35 for a vape cartridge to over $60 for a tincture bottle.

"We have to figure out how to scale to produce more before we can expand," Williams says, noting that the company is considering strategies based on current marijuana laws, including online sales of CBD-only products and partnering with marijuana growing facilities outside of California to sell the products in additional states.

Williams adds that the company has raised about $500,000 from a group of investors (including himself), and he'd like to kick off another fundraising round in the next six months.

It may be too early to tell whether Real Wellness will make enough money to offset the millions Williams believes he lost due to the NFL's strict drug policies. But "I have hopefully another 40 years to make that money," says Williams, who plans on sticking around in the cannabis industry for the long-haul.

Real Wellness

Meanwhile, years after Williams left the NFL, the league's stance on marijuana could actually be softening. Over a decade ago, Williams says he got little support from the NFL Players Association when he was facing suspensions for his marijuana use. But, more recently, the NFLPA has pushed for less harsh punishments for players who test positive for cannabis, and the NFL said last year it could be open to studying the use of medical marijuana to help players manage pain. Williams even say he had "a good conversation" with NFLPA leadership about the matter.

"There's a little piece of redemption here too," Williams says, remembering a time when his first retirement from the NFL was met with snickering headlines.

"The story was 'football player retires to go smoke pot,'" he says. "And, part of that was true, but it was much bigger than that. I was really redefining myself and figuring out what I want to do with my life.... So, releasing this brand is really my first step into the public eye with a new identity, a new calling, a new career."

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