"I come to work, I go home, play with my kid, walk to the store. It's really nice. I get to teach. It's wonderful here." -- Ricky Williams, speaking of his life in Toronto (The National Post, August 24, 2006).
Canadians didn't quite know what to make of Ricky Williams, although in their defense no one else did either. By the summer of 2006, Ricky's life had become strange; he failed multiple drug tests, left his team for India, retired and unretired from the NFL, studied holistic medicine, and lived in a tent. With a season long suspension from the NFL for once again violating the league substance abuse policy, Williams had come to Toronto, signing a one year deal for just under a quarter of a million dollars to play for the Argonauts.
So there was Ricky, on Ontario public television, sandwiched between segments about the Seven Years War and a retired Kung Fu master who lived in Kitchner. I sat in my brutalist high rise near the intersection of Keele and Shepard, the sort of dingy box in the sky that a postdoc salary pays for, watching my favorite athlete give a bizarre interview to a straight-laced Canadian political reporter. Ricky had fallen into a weird pit, and I was there, too.
At least the Chinese food was good. And you could buy roti in the strip mall at the corner.
I didn't know what to expect when I moved to Toronto. I had grown up only a short 90 minute drive away, just on the other side of Lake Ontario. Despite it's proximity to my childhood home, I knew next to nothing about Toronto. Now, I was settled and adjusted, in my second year of marriage, my life seemingly again on track -- at least for the time. I had put serious thought into coming to Toronto. It was part of a master plan, still in progress, but less than a year away from unraveling completely. Ricky didn't have a plan; Ricky was just here.
I had arrived in Toronto the previous summer, and had tried to embrace the local culture. One way that I tried was by watching Canadian football. During that previous summer, CBC employees were striking, and CFL games were broadcast without commentary. It was refreshing in a way. Still, although I tried hard, I just couldn't sit through it. I couldn't get myself to care about the CFL. What the hell was an Alouette? Now I would try again. Now I would care; Ricky was here. I would read the sports section on the subway into work, where Ricky would serve as a nice distraction from the crowded, yet nearly silent, train car; the people of Toronto may be the most quiet transit riders in the world.
What was Ricky's life like, I wondered, finally in a place where he wasn't a celebrity, but where he could blend in, walking the markets munching on moon cakes or red bean pastry. Running backs aren't stars in the CFL -- no one is really a star in the CFL -- but particularly not running backs. Teams play with three down urgency, and the quarterbacks take the center stage even more than they do back in the States, south of the border. Ricky Ray was a star, Ricky Williams was a curiosity. On the streets of Toronto, he was just another guy.
Ricky Williams suffered through injuries, but managed to carry the ball 109 times, gaining 526 rushing yards, the sixth highest rushing total in the league. Ricky played well, thriving even, out of the limelight. I was out of the limelight as well, not really thriving, but I was getting by.
Toronto was Ricky's turning point, setting the stage for his second act. A year later, he would be back in the NFL, taking a minor role before injury struck. Ricky would come back again, and would stick in the league for a few more years, carrying the ball when it was needed, blocking when it was needed, doing what was asked. He had transformed from an erratic flake to a model of NFL professionalism. The once painfully shy but supremely talented kid from California finally seemed almost comfortable in his own skin. I had watched him with excitement as a student. I had watched him through the papers and his website, suffering with him during those difficult days in Miami and Australia. I had watched him up close -- a fellow expat -- during his exile in Canada. Now I watched with joy as this complicated man had finally found peace.
Ricky and I have a bond, but it only goes one way. I was there, in the fall of 1995, a freshman living on the 13th floor of the Jester Center, cheering while Ricky was taking his first steps in Memorial Stadium. I was there, celebrating along Guadalupe Street, when Ricky accepted his award in New York -- the capstone achievement of Texas football during my student days. And I was still there, in Toronto, cheering him on when no one else would, as he taught yoga, played some football, and put his life back together.