Friday, December 09, 2005

Back in the game

San Diego Union Tribune - United States... He studied Hinduism, became a certified yoga instructor and learned about holistic medicine, which he claims helped him overcome his dependence on marijuana. ...

After a year off, Ricky Williams stopped running away and is ...
By Jim Trotter

DAVIE, Fla. – While Ricky Williams was hopscotching the globe last year, telling anyone who asked that he was done with professional football, Michelle Sanfilippo refused to accept it.

She and Williams have been friends since attending the same middle school and high school in San Carlos, and her initial reaction to his sudden retirement a week before training camp was that something didn't add up. Even when Williams called and said his heart wasn't in the game, she had doubts.

Several months later, a phone rang in her house.

"What are you doing this weekend?" Williams asked.

"Nothing," she answered.

"Good, we're going to go to a Charger game."

"Ah, well, OK."

As the two watched the Chargers rout the Tennessee Titans that sunny Oct. 3 afternoon at Qualcomm Stadium, with LaDainian Tomlinson running for 147 yards, Sanfilippo smiled to herself. Her suspicions had been confirmed.

"We're sitting there and I'm like, 'Look at you. You're watching LaDainian run and cut, the way he's holding the ball, and you're on the edge of your seat,' " she said. "I was like, 'You want to be out there. I know you miss it.'

"Ricky clenches his fists when he gets excited; he clenches his fists and flexes his arm a little bit. You could tell he was excited because he'd do his little flex thing when LT did something. I was like, 'Yeah, you miss it.' "

On Sunday, Williams and Sanfilippo will return to Qualcomm Stadium for the second time in 14 months. The difference, however, is that she'll be in the stands while he'll be in the backfield for the Miami Dolphins, the team he left so suddenly in July 2004.

It would make a warm and fuzzy story to say Williams, 28, returned because of his love for the game. The truth, however, is colder and harder. He came back largely because he has a judgment against him for $8.6 million for breach of contract, and because, he said, he has financial responsibilities to his three young children, each of whom has a different mother with a vested interest in his financial situation.

"It's never that I really wanted to come back; it's just that it got to the point where it was the only thing to do," Williams said from a seat in front of his dressing stall in the Dolphins locker room. "I had traveled the world and I was looking for something. What I found is, one thing that I've been lacking my whole life is purpose."

He went in search of it during his year away from football, stopping in Australia, Japan, Fiji, India, Thailand and the Sierra foothills. He studied Hinduism, became a certified yoga instructor and learned about holistic medicine, which he claims helped him overcome his dependence on marijuana.

He increased his awareness and decreased his body weight, dropping 40 pounds after becoming a vegetarian. At different points, his travels were about education, enlightenment and entertainment, which sometimes meant hitting the road with rocker Lenny Kravitz or hitting a joint with friends in Australia, where he spent several weeks living in a tent with a guy called Mystic Steve.

Sharing time at running back, Williams has yet to gain 100 yards or carry more than 17 times in a game for the Dolphins this year.
If his time away taught him anything, he said, it was that he has the speed to run from defenders, but not from his problems. That includes his past use of marijuana, which resulted in three failed drug tests before his retirement. He now is subject to 10 drug tests a month and faces a yearlong suspension if he has another positive result.

"I was talking to my (yoga/philosophy/religion) teacher back in California, and she was explaining karma to me," Williams said. "She was saying that in life you create the situations that you're in. Everything in life that you deal with is something that you created. If you want to run away from what you've created, it's always going to follow you. The second you start to turn to face it, you can start to dissolve it and get rid of it.

"When she said that, it just resonated with me, thinking about everything that I had done in my life, all the trouble that I had caused, all the mischief that I had gotten myself into. I saw a way to face it and get through it so it was all gone."

He wasn't just talking about football.

"At the depth I'm talking about, it goes back to the time when I was in sixth grade and thought to be somebody you had to be famous and you had to have money," Williams said. "Me putting my energy into that is what got me to where I am, and the fact that I wasn't happy with all that stuff proved to me that that's not true. Any person, just because they're alive and have breath, is a special person.

"I realized that if you're not happy without money, you're not going to be happy with money. If you're happy without money, you'll be happy with money in the same way. Happiness is something that's on the inside; it's not on the outside. That's one lesson that, with everything I've been through, is worth knowing and having in my heart. It's something I really wish I could share with other people. The best way I can show it is: My situation isn't ideal at all; a lot of people would say that with everything I've been through (losing out on at least $7 million in salary the last two years), I should be the unhappiest guy in the locker room. But that's not the case."

In fact, teammates marvel at Williams' positive attitude. His smile is as common as his shaggy beard and dreadlocks. And his work ethic remains among the strongest on the team.

"His whole attitude and his outlook, the way he kind of looks at things in a positive way, that's something that's good, and I try to take from that," said rookie running back Ronnie Brown, the second pick in the draft, who rotates with Williams. "He tries to look at the positive side of everything."

He has the look of a man who has found inner peace in a violent profession.

"The Ricky of today is so different from the Ricky of a year ago," Sanfilippo said. "He's grown up so much. He's more responsive as a friend. Before, he'd call you and he'd be into half the conversation while he's playing video games or text messaging somebody else. He'd always be on the phone like it was his security blanket. Now, you can sit there and actually have a conversation with him and talk to him about other things, whether it's the new things that he likes. He likes psychology now and he's into yoga, just different areas that I don't think he would have ever been interested in before. He's not afraid to go out in public anymore. He's just grown up a lot. He's more oriented with his family. It's nice."

Williams' journey for enlightenment and self-improvement is ongoing. He doesn't try to push his beliefs or interests on others, choosing instead to make statements with his actions, such as how he dresses or in refusing to shave.

He claims the majority of his wardrobe is white because that represents "a blank sheet of paper – you want to stay open and receptive to everything that comes your way." And he says he hasn't trimmed or shaved his beard since September because it represents his fight against vanity.

He is always on the lookout for the next lesson, for some higher meaning (no pun intended). He goes through books the way he used to go through defenses as the league's leading rusher. He loves classic movies because they often get him to expand his mental boundaries.

Limited duty
In his first year back from a one-season hiatus, Miami Dolphins running back Ricky Williams has not matched his previous numbers at least in part because he shares duties with Ronnie Brown. Williams' per-game rushing averages before and after his year off:

Before announcing his retirement, he told friends he planned to leave the game for good after the 2004 season. With a four-game suspension likely facing him for a failed drug test, however, he thought back to some of the questions raised in the 1964 James Garner/Julie Andrews movie "The Americanization of Emily" and decided to leave football earlier.

"The movie was about war, and the main thing people were talking about was, 'Why do you go to war?' " Williams said. "It focused on the soldiers, and the honor of soldiers. Maybe they're there because they've messed up to this point in their lives, and they want to go prove that they're worthy or that they're proud or they're valuable. Or some people just have a big ego and they just want to be the hero. And some people, they don't really have any motivation. They're the ones that are like, 'I'm out here risking my life, but for what?'

"I got to the point where I was putting all this work in and all this time and this effort, and I was really asking myself what was I doing it for? I wasn't doing it for the money. I wasn't doing it for the attention. I was asking what am I doing this for, and I couldn't come up with a good answer. . . . I've always had interests – I don't want to say outside of football – but bigger than football. You know, life. I think when you're a football player, you're really kept in a box. For me, stepping away was a chance to step outside the box and understand that there was more to life, more to myself, than football. I realized I have so much more that I'd like to do and learn."

To some degree, those lessons will have to wait until he is done playing. Like his new coach, Nick Saban, Williams says he has given no thought to anything but the current week, the current day. Others have speculated that he will be traded in the offseason to make room for Brown, but the organization has given no such indication.

"None of those decisions has been made," Saban said. "He's a good player, and we want him on our football team. He has value to our team, and I think that's important. It was never part of our intention to have any preconceived notion of what we would do in the future with him, other than evaluate every circumstance that comes up in terms of being helpful to him being a good player and making good choices and decisions and to obviously move forward as an organization in the future."

Williams has led the team in rushing in three of its past five games. He has yet to run for 100 yards, but he also hasn't had more than 17 carries in a game. Not that any of it matters to him. Sounding a lot like his coach, Williams talks about focusing on the journey and the process instead of the result.

"I definitely think that I'm happier now," he said. "The biggest thing is my personal life; I've always had something going on that I had to deal with. Having a year to really get away from everything – I got away from my family, my friends, from everything – I really had a chance to clear a lot of the junk out of the closet. My life is very simple now, very plain, nothing outside of football that I have to worry about.

"Really, I found that if you're gone long enough – and the way I left, it wasn't like people were trying to grab ahold of me – but being that I was gone that long, there was no way for people to really get in touch with me. It's like everything kind of ran its course and died on its own. And as I came back into the world, the things that were genuine and the things that were real were the things that survived. Those are things that I can live by and deal with."

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