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.
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.
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.