The CFL's Problem Players

Ricky Williams takes a hand-off, sweeps right and bursts past a couple of defenders, untouched - his new Reebok high-tops kicking up grass at the TORONTO ARGONAUTS' training camp in Mississauga, Ont.

The CFL's Problem Players

Ricky Williams takes a hand-off, sweeps right and bursts past a couple of defenders, untouched - his new Reebok high-tops kicking up grass at the TORONTO ARGONAUTS' training camp in Mississauga, Ont. Only then does the Argos' latest NFL rent-a-star really accelerate - propelled by freakish calf muscles that bulge from under a pair of white knee-high socks.

Running backs in the CFL aren't normally this strong, this fast, this gifted. In fact, the former Heisman trophy winner, who has been one of the best backs in the NFL since 1999, is way too good for these parts. But here he is - for a season, anyway - thanks to a one-year ban from the NFL following his fourth failed drug test (the first three for marijuana; the league will say only that the most recent was for something else - it's rumoured to be a herb).

Some consider Williams (from whom the NFL requires up to 10 drug tests a month) the poster boy for all that's wrong with the CFL - a league with a long history of welcoming deadbeats. NFL hall-of-fame quarterback Joe Theismann, who played with the Argos in the early '70s, says the signing "shows classlessness in the organization," while Hamilton Tiger Cat legend Angelo Mosca says it's further proof the league is "a dumping ground for illegitimate people."

Still, that's tough to square with the five-foot-10-inch, 220-lb. goofball stretched out on the large leather couch in a team trailer after practice. Even though Williams hasn't smoked a joint in about 14 months and has chopped his trademark beard and dreads, he is no less the gentle hippie now than he was in 2004 when he literally walked away from the Dolphins - after his third failed drug test - and ended up in the Australian outback, living out of a tent and looking for God. It's just that now he's replaced pot with yoga.

He's soft-spoken but not nearly as shy as he's often described. In fact, he's confident. And a bit verbose - a product of his new-wave thinking: "I don't necessarily believe in right or wrong," he says, when asked about the failed drug tests. "If I'd never smoked marijuana, chances are I would have never found yoga. So I can't say smoking marijuana, for me, was wrong."

These days, Williams wakes up around 5 a.m. to perform sun salutations, meditation, breathing exercises and yoga postures before breakfast - which usually consists of fruit, as well as yogourt and granola (he's vegetarian). He earned his yoga teacher's certificate in India last year and plans to teach it twice a week at a Toronto studio. In his duffle bag, which he's been living out of for the last six months, he carries items for his altar ("mainly pictures of uplifting people"), clothes, a Bible, the Bhagavad-Gita and a couple of astrology books - a new passion.

Williams is simply a yoga-loving optimist - and hardly the most objectionable one in this lot. Which is not the same as saying the CFL doesn't have a problem (remember, this is a league that gave cokehead Dexter Manley another shot in the early '90s after he was tossed from the NFL). There's nothing in the rule book, for example, that precludes guys from playing because they've had brushes with the law. Recently, the TiCats signed Anthony Davis, who pleaded guilty in 2003 to punching his girlfriend in the face (prosecutors later dropped the case after Davis took part in a first offenders program). Winnipeg added Kyries Hebert to their pre-season roster even though he pleaded guilty this off-season to two misdemeanours in connection to a domestic dispute - he was arrested, but not charged, for allegedly holding his wife's head under water and threatening to kill her in a fight over an unpaid cellphone bill.

In another controversial case, Trevis Smith was still a Saskatchewan Roughrider when he was charged with two counts of aggravated assault for allegedly having unprotected sex with two women without telling them he was HIV positive. (He was suspended immediately; his trial begins in October.)

The league is even open to guys with criminal convictions. "We're like many other employers that do not discriminate for criminal offences," says Michael Copeland, the CFL's chief operating officer. "If you have a criminal record you're entitled to seek employment."

The CFL has no drug policy - at all - making it a refuge for NFL stars who are riding out suspensions. In addition to Williams, Onterrio Smith is the other big American import this spring. The Winnipeg Blue Bomber running back has already been tagged by fans as the Blue Bonger. Now clean, Smith - who spent seven of the last 12 months in rehab - says he was once young and careless, and had a problem with marijuana. Following four failed tests, Smith was caught in May 2005, yellow-handed, at the Minneapolis-St. Paul airport with dried urine and "The Original Whizzinator" (used to beat drug tests). Bombers management are taking the one-year, $65,000 chance on the 25-year-old - who faces a civil suit in Minneapolis later this month related to a sexual assault case.

Many with troubled pasts end up in the care of Argo head coach Mike "Pinball" Clemons. Argo offensive tackle Bernard Williams, a first-round pick in the 1994 NFL entry draft, was suspended a couple of times by the league for marijuana. Receiver R. Jay Soward became an alcoholic and was banned from the NFL indefinitely in 2002 for repeatedly breaking the league's substance abuse policy. Wideout Robert Baker is another product of the CFL redemption plan. Several years ago, he spent 10 months in a maximum security prison for trafficking cocaine. He thinks Williams should get a break. "Ricky deserves a second chance, a third chance," Baker told the New York Times. "As long as you're breathing, you deserve a chance. He ain't killed nobody yet. He hasn't taken a life, so he deserves a chance."

The pipeline may soon close partway. Last week, CFL commissioner Tom Wright announced the league is talking with the NFL about a reciprocal agreement that would see each league uphold the other's suspensions. Of course, until then, the CFL remains a rehab centre for NFL drug offenders.

Clemons is all about second (or third, or fourth ... ) chances, and has high hopes for his latest reconstruction project. "If a league is thought less of for giving people an opportunity and helping them turn their life around," he says, "that's where I want to be." It's a nice sentiment, but Williams isn't exactly a charity case. He's a game-breaker. A guy who puts fans in the seats. In fact, he's already proven to be a major box office draw (Argo ticket sales were moving 20 times faster than normal after he signed last week). Orders for his No. 27 jersey are skyrocketing.

Williams says he didn't seek out the opportunity with the Argos - it simply presented itself to him. "When I walked away from football, I really walked away," he says. "Football didn't let me go." If so, he's lucky (or has good karma, at least), considering that he has kids to support (a seven-year-old daughter, a four-year-old son and another on the way) and owes millions to the Dolphins for breaking his contract in 2004. Williams' salary with the Argos is estimated to be worth at least $240,000. "Ring on my finger or not, it will be obvious by the end of the year why I was supposed to be here," he says. "If one person looks at their life a little differently because of me, that justifies why I'm here." Does he miss Australia? "I don't really miss anything," he says. "Missing means that you're not living in the present - I always try to live in the present." On his right forearm, Williams has a tattoo of Bob Marley. His favourite Marley tune? Running Away. But that's an old tattoo. That's not Ricky Williams now.

Maclean's June 12, 2006