July 2006: The World According to Ricky


The World According to Ricky

30 July 2006 – Toronto Star

By Morgan Campbell

On a scorching Sunday afternoon Ricky Williams walks barefoot across the players’ parking lot at the Toronto Argonauts‘ practice facility in Mississauga.

The former NFL all-pro strolls past a silver Mercedes-Benz coupe and a couple of monster SUVs, their massive silver rims gleaming, before arriving at his own ride – an unadorned Ford Explorer.

Yes, Williams has fallen into the NFL media routine, giving interviews only on Wednesdays and game days. And he may still wear football gloves emblazoned with the “NFL Equipment” logo. His decidedly non-luxury car, however, screams CFL.

But playing for the Argos while serving a one-year drug suspension from the NFL, Williams hasn’t found much room to run in Canada. The previous week he rushed for just six yards on nine carries against Winnipeg. Six days later he would break his left forearm in the second quarter of a game in Saskatchewan, an injury that will sideline him for at least a month.

Williams, however, says none of that bugs him, and vows he’ll finish the CFL season strongly once his arm heals.

He may have enjoyed bigger money, bigger cars and bigger stats playing in the States, but Williams won’t let his early struggles in the CFL break his stride. In Toronto, he says, he has two things he lacked for most of his six-year NFL career.

Balance and privacy.

When he played for the Miami Dolphins, Williams had an apartment in South Beach and a bike he rode all over the city. If he wasn’t at practice or at the beach, you might find him on Calle Ocho in Little Havana, playing dominoes with elderly men.

Sometimes he could explore the city unnoticed, but in football-mad Florida he was often recognized.

In Toronto, though, he’s learning to live with anonymity. If you didn’t already know Williams, his thick, tattooed arms and massive calves might clue you in to his profession. But he shaved his signature dreadlocks long before coming to Toronto. And even while playing in front of 25,000 fans at the Rogers Centre, his helmet obscures his face, so it’s far from familiar to most Torontonians.

“It’s natural that you expect people to recognize you,” he says. “But now it’s so simple. Go to the gas station. Go to the grocery store. Go to the park. I don’t have to worry, you know? I’m just another black dude.”

Not that Williams has put his celebrity to the test since moving here.

Williams doesn’t explore Toronto like he did Miami. Down there, he says, he wandered the city to find answers, fulfillment. Up here, Williams says he searches for those things within himself.

He hasn’t been to a restaurant since coming to Toronto, and doesn’t socialize much with teammates. He doesn’t even have a favourite hangout here besides the three-bedroom house near the University of Toronto he shares with his pregnant fiancee Kristin (due to deliver next month) and 4-year-old son Prince. Williams also has a daughter, Marley, who lives with an ex-girlfriend.

After practice Williams typically retreats to his private space – a small room in his house – and spends a few hours alone, trying to restore the “balance” he says he has worked so hard to achieve.

“You have to make sure that whatever you’re doing here (playing football), you go home and you balance it,” Williams says. “Playing football, especially in the situation I’m in, is outer stuff. You run with the ball. People ask you questions about the game. If you don’t have any balance with your internal life, taking care of your mind, then you’re going to be unbalanced.”

The room includes a few photos and some books, but Williams won’t describe it further, lest discussing it in public make the space less private.

“Part of it is that it’s my personal space,” he says. “So to talk about it in an interview sort of defeats the purpose. I keep this space for me and I keep it very sacred. Every morning and every afternoon I go into my room and I recharge and refuel and get ready for the day.”

His inward focus is so intense that Williams, who doesn’t own a TV or stereo, no longer pays attention to the Dolphins or the NFL. He says he’s so intent on relaxing after practice he doesn’t have time for phone calls. Since coming to Toronto in late May he didn’t speak to Dolphins coach Nick Saban until last Sunday, when the Dolphins called him to check on his broken arm.

“I have no idea what’s happening outside my house,” he says.

For Williams, the peace he finds alone in that small room is both the cause and the evidence of his inner growth.

He says the Ricky Williams who plays for the Argos is different from the one who flunked four NFL drug tests in six years. And from the one who retired days before training camp in 2004, then jetted to an Australian retreat before surfacing at a California school of holistic medicine. And even from the one who would bike across Miami for a game of dominoes.

“I’ve spent so much time and energy going outwards that now I’m to the point where I have no desire to go out and see things,” he says. “Now I’m passionate about turning inwards, learning more about myself.”

But haven’t we heard that before? Didn’t Williams sing a similar song the last time he changed uniforms?

In September 2002, after his trade from the New Orleans Saints to the Miami Dolphins, Williams and Miami Herald columnist Dan LeBatard co-authored a feature for ESPN The Magazine detailing how the running back had matured.

“I’m in a good, sunny place right now … physically, emotionally, spiritually,” he wrote. “I’m happier than I’ve ever been. … I’m a better player, better teammate, better leader. … I’ve grown more in the past six months in Miami than I have in the past six years.”

Two years and two flunked drug tests later, Williams walked away from the Dolphins and a reported $8.6 million (U.S.) signing bonus, embarking on a retirement that lasted a year.

So why should we believe Williams has changed this time? Because, Williams says, in his year away from football he found the truth.

And the truth, for Williams, is yoga.

He had never practised it before his year away from football, but had to take a class when he enrolled at the California College of Ayurveda, where he wanted to study ancient Indian medicine. Quickly, yoga went from a chore to the core of his philosophy.

In fact, he chose his house because it’s so close to the Sivananda Yoga Vedanta Centre, where he attends classes – and sometimes teaches them. There, he says, nobody cares that he’s the highest-profile athlete to play in Toronto since Vince Carter.

“(The instructors) are all yogis. Most yogis don’t watch football,” he said. “And for a lot of (students), those 11/2 or two hours at yoga class are the only two hours they have to themselves.”

Williams awakens before 5 a.m. daily for two hours of stretching, breathing exercises and chanting.

He says this sadhana or “spiritual practice” energizes him so he doesn’t need as much sleep, and helps him relax, so he no longer wants marijuana, which caused three of his positive tests.
“Now I know how to relax,” he says. “(Yoga) is more work. It’s not as easy as sitting back and rolling up a (joint), but you get more back from it.”

The daily ritual travels too.

During the first road trip of the season, running back John Williams sat up in his bed at the Fairmont Winnipeg Hotel, awakened by the smell of incense and the sight of his roommate in full sadhana.

“He’s on the floor in lotus position, chanting and breathing deep,” John Williams said. “But it didn’t really catch me off guard because I knew what kind of guy he was.”

Three weeks ago at the Rogers Centre, Ricky Williams – mind, body and spirit more balanced than ever – caught a swing pass just in time to see Winnipeg defensive back Kelly Malveaux speeding toward him, planning to drop him for a huge loss.

With a flick of his right arm, Williams deposited Malveaux on his back, then hurdled Winnipeg halfback William Fields. He was bumped out of bounds three strides later, but had already turned a 10-yard loss into an eight-yard gain.

That play energized the home crowd, and showcased the power and speed that won Williams the Heisman Trophy in 1998. But he has displayed only sporadic brilliance playing for the Argos. His 231 rushing yards put him sixth in the CFL after week six.

Williams says two years of yoga have made him a more mature man than the one who won the NFL rushing title in 2002. But it’s not yet clear whether, with his new lifestyle, he’s a better runner and teammate.

Argos head coach Michael (Pinball) Clemons has all the evidence he needs. Clemons points out that Williams was on pace for a 1,000-yard season before he broke his forearm. He also says statistics alone don’t show how Williams earned huge first downs against Hamilton in week one, safeguarding the Argos’ lead. And they don’t reveal how he contributed to a second-half comeback against B.C. two weeks later.

“He came out and proved that he can control the fourth quarter,” Clemons said. “He’s always on time for meetings and he hasn’t on a single occasion had a ‘me’ attitude.

“Ricky is not the Toronto Argonauts. He’s a player on the Toronto Argonauts, and a very good one.”

But he won’t be one for much longer. Williams’ one-year contract with the Argos calls for the team to return him to the Dolphins after this season. So unlike quarterback Damon Allen, retired cornerback Adrion Smith or Clemons himself, the club can’t count on Williams’ presence as a long-term branding tool.

Clemons, though, doesn’t mind.

“The fact is all these guys are here for one year,” he said. “Do you know if Damon Allen is going to be back next year? We’re playing for this year and that’s what it’s all about.”

Williams likes it that way, too.

Four months from now he’ll be gone but his new, inward-focused lifestyle travels well. He can practise his sadhana in any city, provided he has a little time and some space of his own.

And it’s part of the reason Williams hasn’t grown attached to any city he has played in. He isn’t nostalgic about the domino games in Miami, and he won’t miss Toronto when he leaves.

“I’m not a misser,” Williams says. “I just go.”

Copyright ©2006 Toronto Star
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