From Yesterday's NY Times[url=http://www.nytimes.com/2006/05/24/sports/football/24argonauts.html?pagewanted=2&_r=1]http://www.nytimes.com/2006/05/24/sport ... ted=2&_r=1[/url]
Players N.F.L. Banished Find Refuge in Canada
By JOHN BRANCH
Published: May 24, 2006
MISSISSAUGA, Ontario, May 22 — The Toronto Argonauts are here, on a quiet college campus in this Toronto suburb, but Ricky Williams is not, at least not yet.
Williams, the enticing and enigmatic Miami Dolphins running back, has famously flunked four drug tests administered by the National Football League, resulting in a one-year banishment from the league. He remains under contract with the Dolphins through 2008, but the team is contemplating letting him play this year for the Argonauts, who hold his Canadian Football League rights.
Why would a C.F.L. team give Williams a chance that he does not have in the N.F.L.? Simply put, it is what Canadian Football League teams do.
"It's like that old saying, when you get to the end of your rope, you tie a knot," said Adam Rita, the Argonauts' vice president for football operations. "We're the knot."
The Argonauts have two other former N.F.L. first-round draft choices who have been barred from that league for violating its substance-abuse policy too many times: receiver R. Jay Soward, the 29th pick in the 2000 draft; and defensive end Bernard Williams, the 14th selection in 1994. The Argonauts also have receiver Robert Baker, who spent 10 months in prison for distributing and trafficking cocaine.
In all, Toronto's roster has 14 former N.F.L. draft choices, including the former Heisman Trophy-winning quarterback Eric Crouch and the two-time Pro Bowl linebacker Lee Woodall — players whose only crime is wanting to continue playing professional football.
"Maybe we have had more high-profile players than other teams, and maybe it has shed a little more media attention our way," said Greg Mohns, the Argonauts' director of player personnel. "But this league has always been about giving guys a second chance."
Viewed from the prism of the N.F.L., the Canadian league is a quirky cousin, a pass-happy place with three downs instead of four, and an odd rush of receivers sprinting toward the line of scrimmage before the snap. It has long been a sort of island of misfit toys, filled largely with players who do not conform to N.F.L. standards and players hoping to use it as a steppingstone to the N.F.L.
Without mandatory drug testing, and with no move to start it, the C.F.L. is increasingly a place for those who are not welcome in the N.F.L., even if they possess the talent to play there.
"I'd probably be working a warehouse job, or trying to go back to school to get my degree, or trying to do some real estate, or hustling, scamming, something illegal," Soward said of what he would do without the C.F.L. "Probably just throwing away my life."
The Jacksonville Jaguars drafted him with their first pick in 2000. He signed a five-year, $5.5 million contract, caught 14 passes as a rookie, failed several drug tests and was banished from the N.F.L. The league does not disclose what substance is found, but it does test for performance-enhancing and recreational drugs.
After being suspended from the game, Soward drank away the next few years. An admitted alcoholic, Soward now makes $50,000 a year for the Argonauts, has five children and is thankful for the chance to rebuild some semblance of what he lost.
"It gives me a reason to get up every morning, not just turn to the bottle or smoke weed all day, just throw away my life," he said. "It gives me some stability in my life, and something to work toward and look forward to. It makes me realize I am a blessed person to have the attributes I do have."
Soward's primary attribute is his speed; he runs the 40-yard dash in under 4.4 seconds. Talent, not charity, is the reason the C.F.L. scoops up discarded N.F.L. players. It is why the Winnipeg Blue Bombers recently signed the former Minnesota Vikings running back Onterrio Smith, another player barred from the N.F.L. for violating its substance-abuse policy. And it is the reason C.F.L. teams have taken chances in recent years on troubled players like running back Lawrence Phillips and quarterback Todd Marinovich.
It is also the reason the Argonauts want Ricky Williams. He would make them an instant favorite to win the league's championship, the Grey Cup.
Williams quit the Dolphins before the 2004 season, then returned last year. After serving a four-game suspension at the beginning of the season for his third drug-test violation, he ran for 743 yards, rushing for more than 100 yards in each of the final two games.
But he failed another test in December, leading to his one-year suspension by the N.F.L. He can apply for re-entry next year.
Each C.F.L. team is allowed to place 35 players on a negotiating list; the Argonauts gained the rights to Williams by being the first team to put him on their list.
Simultaneously holding contracts in different leagues is the main issue slowing Williams's entry into the C.F.L. The Dolphins want to make sure they will be able to get him back.
"There are three things that have to happen before we sign Ricky Williams," said Keith Pelley, the Argonauts' president and chief executive. "One, Miami has to give us permission. Two, we have to come to a contract. And three, which is most important, we have to understand that he is mentally, emotionally and physically ready to stand up and be a role model against drugs. If he can't, then he won't be a part of the Toronto Argonauts. End of story."
Still, local newspaper columnists have criticized Toronto's interest in signing Williams as contradicting the team's often-stated goal of being a stellar franchise filled with role models. Similar voices are heard every year when a C.F.L. team entertains the idea of signing players of questionable character, although none of those players has ever had a profile higher than Williams's. Such criticisms belie the C.F.L.'s history as a place of refuge.
"Ricky deserves a second chance, a third chance," said Baker, who played parts of five seasons in the N.F.L. after being released from prison. "As long as you're breathing, you deserve a chance. He ain't killed nobody yet. He hasn't taken life, so he deserves a chance."
With Michael Clemons, the effervescent and hugely popular former Argonauts star, as its coach and public face, the Argonauts began to overhaul their profile and image in 2004, after the team was sold to two Toronto businessmen. A marketing push and a Grey Cup victory in 2004 boosted average attendance to 30,000 in 2005, from 12,000 in 2003. Players, cheerleaders and team officials make 600 public appearances a year, including 125 school assemblies; violence, drugs and bullying are the primary topics.
The trick is meshing those pursuits with the pursuit of players like Williams. It might be the easiest way to squirm from the debate, but the Argonauts say that denying troubled football players another chance would be antithetical to what the team preaches in the community.
What better antidrug role model, if he will play the part, than Ricky Williams?
"We're not going out as perfect pro athletes trying to provide insight to the lesser of us, to show us the way that life should run," said Clemons, a small man with a broad smile and a penchant for hugs, who spins philosophy with an evangelical bent. "We're a bunch of imperfect people telling young people: 'Yeah, I struggled, too. But you don't have to remain that. You can change that. You can make a difference.' "
Rita, the Argonauts' vice president who has won six Grey Cups as a coach and executive, sees the issue more in strictly football terms.
"If a guy gets suspended, I think they have the right to earn a living," Rita said. "The way they earn a living is running, catching, blocking, tackling. Right now, our league provides that."
He paused, chewing on the alternative. "When you make a mistake, where do you go?" he said. "What do you do, dig a hole and they just throw you in there?"
He smiled. It is late spring in the C.F.L., the start of training camps across a thawing country, the season of hope and renewal.