The moment oftruth for the Toronto Argonauts arrived at 4:20 p.m. last Saturday, as the hometeam faced a third-and-one at the Winnipeg Blue Bombers' 15-yard line in thefirst quarter of a scoreless game. Exhorted to go for it-Canada, remember, isthree-down territory-by 26,304 fans at the Rogers Centre, Argonauts coachMichael (Pinball) Clemons sent in a play in which Ricky Williams lined up aspart of a split backfield.
The crowd roaredbefore Williams, the Canadian Football League's highest-paid running back,motioned to his left and shifted into the slot. Quarterback Spergon Wynn tookthe 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, theexiled NFL All-Pro, is attempting to stay sharp while serving a seasonlongsuspension for violating the NFL's substance-abuse policy. At 29, two yearsremoved from an abrupt and short-lived retirement, Williams has embraced histemporary move, even as he struggles to find his footing. He gained just sixyards on nine carries-including a pivotal third-and-one attempt late in thefirst half on which he was stuffed for no gain-in Saturday's 24-17 loss.
With a 1-3 recordthe Argonauts might be tempted to question their investment in a player who isessentially on a six-month loan from the Miami Dolphins. But Williams, whoselack of pretense has charmed the Argos, is considered a vital import by teampresident Keith Pelley. "He's had two good games"-97-yard effortsagainst Hamilton and British Columbia-"and two games where he's had noblocking," Pelley said after Saturday's loss. "Our offensive line isstruggling. When you can't convert a third-and-one in a league where thedefense lines up a yard [off] the ball, that's pretty scary. But the bottomline is, we're happy to have him here. He's a phenomenal person."
Williams has beensimilarly thrilled with his latest life turn. "At first I didn't think Iwanted to come up here," Williams said last Saturday night as he preparedto spend the Argos' bye week in Montreal with his pregnant fiancée, KristinBarnes, and their four-year-old son, Prince. "I had planned to volunteer asa yoga teacher in San Francisco. But the more I learned about the organizationand the coach, the more open to it I became."
After flying toToronto on his own dime in late May and meeting with team officials, Williamswas sold. When the Dolphins granted permission, after securing a writtenpromise that the Argos wouldn't exercise their option to keep Williams beyondthis season, the halfback agreed to a one-year, $240,000 deal, sweetened by aseries of endorsements.
But Williams,who's still on the hook for $5.4 million to the Dolphins, the result of ajudgment secured against him after his premature retirement, insists hisdecision to play in Toronto wasn't driven by financial concerns. He relishes anatmosphere far freer than what he experienced in the NFL. "It's easier forme to be a person up here," says Williams. "Since it's not so much of abusiness, I'm not so much of a product. If you value money it's better to be inthe NFL. If you value life, it's better up here."
Yet Williams sayshe plans to honor his promise to return to the Dolphins in 2007, and Miamicould be getting a more grounded and mature player than the one who ran for 743yards in 12 games in 2005, including 280 in the final two. Dare we sayWilliams, who once received a diagnosis of social anxiety disorder, has emergedas a leader? A few days before Toronto's 16-9 defeat at Winnipeg last month, headdressed his teammates during practice, reminding them they'd have to lifttheir intensity. "It was really good," Toronto receivers coach PaulLaPolice recalls. "He told me it was the first time he'd ever spoken to histeammates like that."
Williams is atpeace with his performances thus far in Canada. He cites Clemons's mantra thatputting one's best foot forward supersedes even winning and losing. "It'sdifferent here," Williams says. "There's room for that kind of coach inthis league, and that's part of what makes it such a good experience. Right nowI'm in a wonderful space."
Even if, onthird-and-one, there isn't much room to run.