A Very American Coup By Michael – Louis Ingram, Editor-in-Chief...
Williams’ Clear Vision: An NFL Comeback
NEVADA VALLEY, Ca. — Dreamers and desperados came to these lovely foothills a century and a half ago seeking gold. Ricky Williams comes here seeking the antidote.
If you’re seeking Ricky Williams, you turn off Route 49, the old gold-mining trail that is now a speedway, wind along a beautiful country road for 6 miles, travel down a bumpy dirt road for a mile and arrive at the Sivananda Ashram Yoga Farm, 80 green acres of ommm.
There is a cluster of cheery, brightly painted, main buildings, and several tiny cabins overlooking a pond, near which is the “Fire alarm gong.” The farm sits in a valley and it’s all very clean and quiet and peaceful. Hey, it’s a yoga farm.
A sign on a door inside the main building: “Blessed self: No entry, please. Office staff only.”
This is where Ricky Williams spends his non-football days, teaching (without pay) and studying yoga and its many elements, such as meditation, spiritualism and positivism.
Though most come to the yoga farm to collect their thoughts, a man from the NFL’s drug-testing lab comes here two or three times each week from Oakland to collect Ricky Williams’ urine. As a four-time loser in the NFL drug-test lottery, and still on suspension, Williams gets cut no slack.
Yes, Williams hopes to play football in the NFL this year. Soon, he will petition the NFL commissioner for reinstatement, having been suspended in ’06 for flunking that fourth drug test.
Williams also intends to continue along his yoga spiritual path, even though being both a running back and a yogi seems the strangest dual career since Clark Kent/Superman.
Less than a mile from the farm, perched on a mini-mountaintop, is Williams’ home. He just moved into the plain, yellow, two-bedroom wooden house that he bought sight-unseen.
He lives here with his partner, Kristin Barnes, and their children, Prince (almost 5) and Asha (5 months). This valley is Ricky’s home base when he’s not playing football or on a yoga road trip to India or the Bahamas.
How he got here: Williams retired from football just before the ’04 season and traveled to Australia. A man he met there gave him a book on Ayurveda, an ancient Indian system of healing.
Upon returning to the United States, Williams surfed the Web for an Ayurveda school, found one in Grass Valley, and studied at the school for one semester, during which a friend “dragged” him to the yoga farm. He knew there would be altars and chanting, and he says the whole idea frightened him.
“One class and I was hooked,” Williams says.
After the class, he was approached by Swami Sita, the camp’s director. She told him, “I have a job for you.”
She gave Ricky a sledgehammer and asked him to knock down two old sheds. It took him two days. It’s called karma yoga, selfless service. Swami Sita, obviously a sharp cookie, picked up on what the football world knows: If you’re looking for a one-man wrecking crew — take that any way you want — Ricky is your guy.
Swami Sita and Williams sat and talked, and he says, “I’ve always felt misunderstood, but in two hours, she was able to understand me better than anyone has in my whole life.”
Williams says yoga has weaned him from pot. And yes, it’s weirdly comical that he found the way to deal with his marijuana habit in a place called Grass Valley.
(Another oddity worth noting: Ricky drives a Nissan Pathfinder.)
Because Williams is youngish (29) and in great health, he would seem to have at least a few years of great football left … if he can avoid the bong.
And he does want to play. He skipped his annual trip to India in order to be accessible to the drug-testers.
“Smoking marijuana got me in a lot of trouble,” he says.
He says he smoked to cope with social anxiety disorder.
“One of my biggest problems is that I’m always so influenced by what other people are thinking about me,” Williams says.
“When I smoked, I would achieve some kind of peace, regardless of what people around me were thinking about me. I came here and I was able to manufacture that kind of peace without having to use any kind of substance. …
“Here, we don’t talk about social anxiety, about things being clinical. We see that it’s much deeper than that, it comes from identifying yourself with the wrong thing. If you identify yourself as a great football player, anytime anyone challenges that, you’re going to have some kind of problem.
“The reason I was smoking was to find that place of clarity. When I realized I could get it through this (yoga), a light went on. … Because it was a habit of mine for a couple of years, the thought (of smoking) does come back into my mind. Fortunately for me, the thought that comes right behind it is that there’s a better way.”
If Williams continues to test clean, and the commissioner green-lights him back into the NFL, the yoga mentality will come in handy in coping with negativity, because Williams has way too much baggage to be given a clean slate by fans and media.
Speculation will continue that he’s back only for the money, to avoid repaying the $8.6 million bonus he was ordered to forfeit after walking out on his contract with the Miami Dolphins before the ’04 season.
But questions about the money don’t rattle Williams. If you want to draw an angry reaction or touch a nerve with this guy, pack a lunch. Everything, going in or out, passes through Ricky’s mellow filter.
“In the past, I had a rebellious streak; I’d say it’s not true (that he’s coming back for the money),” Williams says. “In the past, I might have been so offended that I wouldn’t come back. I don’t take it personally anymore”.
“Now I see if you do what you’re supposed to do in life, you get rewarded, and one way is to get a paycheck. If I was doing something for the money, I’d be quite miserable.”
Williams plans to use football as a pulpit from which to teach, in word and deed, the benefits of yoga. His role model and mentor is Jim Brown, who uses his football fame and power, and his occasional notoriety, to push for positive social change.
The hero of “The Razor’s Edge” (by W. Somerset Maugham) is Larry Darrell, whose life path is very similar to that of Williams (Ricky has not read the book). Darrell’s girlfriend asks him how he plans to use the wisdom he seeks.
“If I ever acquire wisdom,” Darrell replies, “I suppose I shall be wise enough to know what to do with it.”
Williams believes he knows what to do with his.
“I think I’m in a perfect place to help spread news of one of the ways to find happiness,” Williams says. “If I can take what I’ve learned and somehow be able to efficiently, consistently express it through a whole football season, it says a lot for me and where I’ve come from, and it says a lot about the teaching”.
“I think a good teacher has to be a good practitioner of what he’s teaching, and I think this is a great opportunity for me to see how far I’ve come.”
Can he still play? Williams had a non-superstar season in the CFL last year, and he’s now a vegetarian, and he’s so … mellow. Can Tofu Boy put a hurt on linebackers? Isn’t yoga about controlling the mind, “taming the wild horse,” and football is about getting the horse so fired up that it busts down the barn door?
“Some people say that (a vegetarian or yogi) can’t have that violent streak that you need,” says Williams, a solid-looking 220 pounds, close to his playing weight. “I think it’s a myth. We talk in yoga about instinct and intuition. They’re similar, but one is a higher faculty of the mind.
“When you lift weights or run, adrenaline kicks in and that’s a form of instinct. But when a football player gets into the zone and they’re just feeling everything, that’s intuition”.
“When you really learn to focus your mind and tap into intuition, it’s so much stronger than instinct. You have to give up one to get the other. So I might not have the edge, but I’ll have the ability to get into that heightened state any time I want.”
Williams has hitched a ride on the great wheel of life. Football led him to spiritual discontent, which led him to yoga, which now leads him back to football and a way to lead others to yoga.
“The goal of Classic Yoga,” says the yoga farm’s Web site, “is inner peace and self-realization, i.e.: realization of one’s potential.”
If Williams is allowed back into the NFL, we will see whether he is merely a super-glib huckster who squanders more human and athletic potential than most people can only dream of, or a man whose journey and karma yoga hard work have allowed him to tap into the clear, clean center of his mind and soul and become a better person, and a leader, and maybe a superstar again.
It figures to be a fascinating drama unfolding on a huge stage. He says he is ready.
“I feel I’ve lived more in these past two years than I did in the previous 27,” Williams says, gazing over the railing of his back deck. “One thing I’ve learned about life is that if you really let go, it’s just a joy ride.”