After tracking Ricky Williams for the better part of a month, Toronto Sun reporter Perry Lefko was finally granted an exclusive interview with the player by his agent, Leigh Steinberg.
Lefko asked Williams about a variety of subjects, which he answered willingly and candidly.
Ricky Williams is sitting across from me, looking nothing like the player with the dreadlocks and bushy beard so often portrayed in photographs.
He has a buzz cut, is clean-shaven, which he said came in February after his yoga instructor in India told him to shave it off.
Before the interview began, Williams wanted to know why his signing was such a big deal. I told him that, notwithstanding the fact the Argos had been in existence for more than 130 years, the city of Toronto had been infatuated with the National Football League. I also told him there had been numerous former NFL players who had played in the Canadian Football League and specifically in Toronto, but none in the prime of their careers.
I also explained to him that last week a young boy had shown up at an Argos practice wearing a Miami Dolphins jersey with Williams' number 34 and his name on the back.
I also told Williams he had been the subject of widespread debate in the media and among fans. He told me he doesn't watch television, listen to the radio or read newspapers, but had been shown an article about him and that he said he liked it.
Sadly, it was not an article I had written.
We talked a little more, mainly about pre-determined results and coincidences, and he took a napkin and, with a red marker, wrote three lines, representing the past, the present and the future. He said everything in the past is related to the present and, in turn, the future. But he believed in free will.
And that's when I began the interview by telling him I wanted to talk about existentialism, figuring it was a subject far more interesting to him than the X's and O's of football. It turned into a one-hour conversation about the X's and O's of life.
"Why are you here right now," I wondered, tying in the idea of pre-determination, but also specifically why Williams had come to Toronto on his own several days before he was signed.
"I'm not going to say why I am here right now because I don't know," he began. "I can't even tell you that I made the choice to be here. I know it's hard for people to understand what that means, but the way I live my life is that I'm trying to eradicate likes and dislikes. Likes and dislikes are what lead to confusion, anger, discontentment and I think when you can learn to accept whatever life gives you, then that's the only chance you really have to be truly happy in this life.
"When I was suspended by the NFL (for the entire 2006 season for a fourth substance abuse violation), I went to see what was next for me. I was planning to volunteer and teach yoga for the next year and then I was approached by the Argonauts to come and play football.
"I looked at the situation and I tried to make the best choice of what life is telling me to do.
"I had totally left football behind and moved on to the next step to something that was pulling me here, so I had to check it out."
Williams indicated that he would have accepted it if the Dolphins had not allowed him to sign with the Argos because of concerns about the risk of injury and some legal issues. He said he had no control over the decision.
"I'm just a witness," he said. "Any time in life you think you can control things -- outside of how you feel or think -- then it's an illusion. The only thing I can control is the way I handle every situation that comes in front of me. If I handle it in a positive way, positive things will happen in the future. If I handle them negatively, negative things will happen in the future. Things that happen now are a result of the past, so how you deal with those things is what's real. It's what you have control over."
So how did he not control the situation in 2004, when he left football for a year rather than sit out a four-game suspension for his third substance abuse violation? He was branded a quitter by his teammates.
"But even to say that was a choice, the way you're compelled so strongly to do something that you do it, it's not a choice unless you're aware of why you're making the decision. Does that make sense?" he asked.
"There were so many reasons why I walked away that you can't say it was one reason. I looked at my life and I said 'What is life telling me to do right now?' Life was telling me to take some time for myself and go try to find who I really am. If you live life, whether you're conscious of it or not and you don't understand what the purpose of your living this life is, then you cannot be effective in living your life.
"At that point in my life, I had no idea what I was doing. I was a good football player, I had all this money and all these things, but I had no mission, I had no drive, I had no purpose in life. No matter who you are or what you're doing, unless you have a purpose in life your life isn't worth anything. You're just floating. You're not doing anything."
But through the experience of leaving football and travelling to India and Australia and to California, Williams has found his purpose and mission in life.
"Definitely," he said. "Anything you look for in life you're going to find. It might take a while, but you're going to find it. Because I had that opportunity to go look for it, I found it. People might look at it and say it's a negative decision (to leave the game), but for me it's the most positive thing I ever did in my whole, entire life."
I wondered if other football players would be able to understand what he was saying. There is a perception in football that you have to live for the game and give it your all -- body and soul -- and adapt to the rules, which he supposedly couldn't.
"I don't think it's fair to say football is so regimented," he said. "The life I live now is more regimented than I guess anyone that I know. Regimented is really all in your mind. Do you watch your mind? Do you control your mind or does you mind control you? If your mind controls you, there's really no regiment. The thing that I had to learn to come to grips with is if you're looking for your friends or your coaches or your fans or anyone outside of yourself to validate yourself, then you're always going to be on a roller-coaster ride.
"What I had to learn is to find myself, to let myself invalidate myself, regardless of what's going on on the outside. Growing up being such a good football player without even asking for it, you're validated from the outside in every corner, every turn, and so for me I had to take some time to get away from that and find out who I was and validate who I was and that's what I had an opportunity to do.
"I don't like to do things with expectation of the result, then it undermines what you're trying to do. I've always said life is a journey. I've always been excited about journeys. Winning the Heisman Trophy, was this a journey for me? These past couple years it's been a journey and it's been so amazing the things I've experienced and the things I've learned. I've learned more in the past two years than I've learned in the previous 26 years. What I learned is that no matter where you go in the world, you're still yourself. It's still the same mind, the same body. The only real journey that people can make is the journey inwards -- what their mind is thinking, what they're all about, the things they're hiding from themselves, the things that they fret too much about.
"I went searching and then I found. It's like you look and once you find what you're looking for, you just go deeper into it. So, I've found myself now and I'm going deeper into myself. I wake up every morning and I can't find one thing to be unhappy about. I can look and look and search. but I couldn't find a thing to be unhappy about. I've come to that point. It's been a process. I think I've had the attitude my whole life. I could always tell myself things were okay, but it doesn't mean that they are; that I understood how and why. Now I have a better understanding of how things are okay and why things are okay."
I wondered if in his journey for contentment he has been able to overcome social anxiety disorder. It's been reported that it led to taking prescribed medicine, which he didn't like and that led to marijuana use.
"People say overcome, but now we have all these titles like social anxiety disorder or hyperactivity disorder or attention deficit disorder, but from a spiritual level you have to see that," he said. "The spirit is where everything starts. Alcoholism, drug abuse, obesity, all these things are just outer manifestations of inner turmoil. For me, the kind of person that I am -- I'm a more introverted person, but I'm also very passionate about what I feel and what I believe -- and being in the box that I put myself in as well as the box that the NFL is, I wasn't able to express myself the way I needed to, so it's expressed as social anxiety disorder."
That begged the question of whether something happened growing up -- whether it was his own sensitivity or an inability for others to understand him -- that caused his inner turmoil.
"First of all, it's expectation," he said. "To a certain extent, we all expect everyone else to think the way that we think. In college, I had a really wonderful support group, so I felt like I was appreciated as a person -- as a human being -- so I felt free to express myself. Then when I got to the NFL, I saw that I was just a brand. It kind of threw my whole life off. It was hard for me to find anyone -- including my close friends and family -- that could truly pass the brand that the NFL player is, especially of my stature. At that age in life, that's when you find yourself; that's when you get to know yourself. For me, I had no idea I was even looking to find who I was, so it made it hard for me to find who I was. Does that make sense?"
It was often portrayed in stories that Williams did media interviews wearing his helmet that included a dark visor because of his social anxiety disorder. But it turns out it had more to do with something else.
"The point I was trying to make is that if you say I'm just a brand, what does it matter what I really look like when you don't really care what's going on inside of me. So for me it was insulting. It was just my young, rebellious streak. I was just making a point that you really don't care what's on the inside of me, so don't pretend.
"We need to turn inside and love ourselves. People throw so much guilt and so much shame about being depressed or having social anxiety disorder or being obese or having a drug problems, all these things you feel ashamed about ... pity is like the lowest thought and emotion you can have. Just to love yourself and be thankful for what you have will pull you out of all those things.
"We all have issues in life and it's all about being positive and pulling yourself out of those things; not feeling sorry for yourself, not feeling ashamed. Find some inner strength and you'll keep on moving forward."