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The moment of truth for the Toronto Argonauts arrived at 4:20 p.m. last Saturday, as the home team faced a third-and-one at the Winnipeg Blue Bombers' 15-yard line in the first quarter of a scoreless game. Exhorted to go for it- Canada, remember, is three-down territory-by 26,304 fans at the Rogers Centre, Argonauts coach Michael (Pinball) Clemons sent in a play in which Ricky Williams lined up as part of a split backfield.
The crowd roared before Williams, the Canadian Football League's highest-paid running back, motioned to his left and shifted into the slot. Quarterback Spergon Wynn took the snap and ... kept the ball, slipping forward for a first down.
Ricky Williams, marquee decoy? Welcome to the land of the maple leaf, where Williams, the exiled NFL All-Pro, is attempting to stay sharp while serving a seasonlong suspension for violating the NFL's substance-abuse policy. At 29, two years removed from an abrupt and short-lived retirement, Williams has embraced his temporary move, even as he struggles to find his footing. He gained just six yards on nine carries-including a pivotal third-and-one attempt late in the first half on which he was stuffed for no gain-in Saturday's 24-17 loss.
With a 1-3 record the Argonauts might be tempted to question their investment in a player who is essentially on a six-month loan from the Miami Dolphins. But Williams, whose lack of pretense has charmed the Argos, is considered a vital import by team president Keith Pelley. "He's had two good games"-97-yard efforts against Hamilton and British Columbia-"and two games where he's had no blocking," Pelley said after Saturday's loss. "Our offensive line is struggling. When you can't convert a third-and-one in a league where the defense lines up a yard [off] the ball, that's pretty scary. But the bottom line is, we're happy to have him here. He's a phenomenal person."
Williams has been similarly thrilled with his latest life turn. "At first I didn't think I wanted to come up here," Williams said last Saturday night as he prepared to spend the Argos' bye week in Montreal with his pregnant fianc�e, Kristin Barnes, and their four-year-old son, Prince. "I had planned to volunteer as a yoga teacher in San Francisco. But the more I learned about the organization and the coach, the more open to it I became."
After flying to Toronto on his own dime in late May and meeting with team officials, Williams was sold. When the Dolphins granted permission, after securing a written promise that the Argos wouldn't exercise their option to keep Williams beyond this season, the halfback agreed to a one-year, $240,000 deal, sweetened by a series of endorsements.
But Williams, who's still on the hook for $5.4 million to the Dolphins, the result of a judgment secured against him after his premature retirement, insists his decision to play in Toronto wasn't driven by financial concerns. He relishes an atmosphere far freer than what he experienced in the NFL. "It's easier for me to be a person up here," says Williams. "Since it's not so much of a business, I'm not so much of a product. If you value money it's better to be in the NFL. If you value life, it's better up here."
Yet Williams says he plans to honor his promise to return to the Dolphins in 2007, and Miami could be getting a more grounded and mature player than the one who ran for 743 yards in 12 games in 2005, including 280 in the final two. Dare we say Williams, who once received a diagnosis of social anxiety disorder, has emerged as a leader? A few days before Toronto's 16-9 defeat at Winnipeg last month, he addressed his teammates during practice, reminding them they'd have to lift their intensity. "It was really good," Toronto receivers coach Paul LaPolice recalls. "He told me it was the first time he'd ever spoken to his teammates like that."
Williams is at peace with his performances thus far in Canada. He cites Clemons's mantra that putting one's best foot forward supersedes even winning and losing. "It's different here," Williams says. "There's room for that kind of coach in this league, and that's part of what makes it such a good experience. Right now I'm in a wonderful space."
Even if, on third-and-one, there isn't much room to run.