Playing his part
After the mighty archer Arjuna had set down his bow, refusing to shed the blood of his own relatives, the hero of the Hindu epic Mahabharat was made to realize he had no choice but to fight in a civil-war battle between not only countrymen but also family members.
It was his duty – an obligation made clear to him by his charioteer and friend, Lord Krishna, in Hinduism’s most sacred text, the Bhagavad Gita – or “Song of the Lord.”
“You have to play your part,” said Ricky Williams, “so Arjuna had to go and fight.”
Williams, the 1998 Heisman Trophy winner and former NFL Pro Bowl running back, walked away from football in 2004, leaving behind a game he had dominated most of his life and a multi-million dollar contract.
He’d had enough. The game, the money, the fame all fell short of bringing him the happiness he had so long been seeking. He said the beliefs he had followed, worked so relentlessly toward, were untrue.
And once he realized that, Williams was looking for something else to believe.
“For me,” he said, “since I was kid I had this belief, this very strong desire, this belief that happiness comes from: from one, people liking you; two, from being free; three, from being somebody. So I had to experience those things to realize that’s not where happiness lies.
“This path wouldn’t have had any appeal to me (at a younger age), because at that time I still believed that being the best athlete and being the best football player would make me happy.
“When I saw that wasn’t the truth … I had spent so much time, so much energy into that goal that when I found out that wasn’t the truth, I was really open to anything that would show me something more.”
Along the way to that realization, he left a team, a franchise and a city up in arms over his early retirement and his violations of the NFL’s substance-abuse policy.
But in the peaceful life he now lives and the beliefs he now owns while teaching at the Sivananda Ashram Yoga Farm in southern Nevada County, he has learned that a return to his former life – the violent, billion-dollar business world of NFL football – is his duty, or like the Hindu hero Arjuna, his part to play.
“To me, I look at it as very much a parallel to me coming back to football,” Williams said. “Because when I left football, I thought there was no way I was ever going to play football again. And not until I came here and I started to learn about this teaching, the idea that there is a path laid out for us, that there are certain things in life that we need to do in order to learn certain lessons.
“I’m not motivated by anything except for getting over the idea that being somebody is important. And if I’m here, I’m not going to be able to get over that idea. Because here you’re nobody. Everyone is the same.
“But by going back to being somebody, I have to keep dealing with that. So I can tell that there’s a message in it, that it’s not real.”
Running into trouble
Williams returned to the NFL one year after his 2004 retirement, and after serving a four-game suspension for the substance-abuse violations.
In that return, though he certainly remained a “somebody” around the league, he played primarily a backup role. In 12 games, he rushed for 743 yards and six touchdowns.
In his six seasons in the league, he has rushed for more than 7,000 yards and has scored 51 touchdowns. In his first two seasons with the Miami Dolphins, after being dealt from the New Orleans Saints, Williams ran for 3,225 yards.
His retirement after such a pair of stellar seasons raised more than eyebrows in South Florida, as the Dolphins were suddenly left without their top offensive weapon. But it was the decision he made, one he feels he needed to make at the time.
“There’s an assumption, and it’s a very powerful assumption, but at the same time it’s completely wrong,” he said. “It’s an assumption that people that have money, people that have a good job, people that are famous are happy. It’s a very, very big assumption.
“And the truth of the matter is that it’s completely not true.”
He said he understands why his teammates, coaches and fans were so upset.
“From their perspective, I did let my teammates down,” he said. “The reality was my teammates were upset. The reality was that a lot of the fans were upset. So from their perspective, yeah. I was irresponsible. I was a jerk. I wasn’t fair. I was very self-centered. I was very selfish.
“And I can respect that. Anytime you play a game – and I’m not talking about football, I mean just the game of life – there’s consequences and rules that you have to follow.”
In early 2006, it was announced Williams had violated the league’s substance abuse a fourth time. The consequence of that was a one-year suspension from the league. According to the Associated Press, the previous positive tests were for marijuana, but the latest test apparently involved a drug other than marijuana.
Drugs of any sort are not allowed on the grounds of Sivananda Ashra, nor is alcohol or tobacco – or meat, fish, fowl, eggs, garlic and onions for that matter. Williams said he is asked to provide test samples to the league twice a week in anticipation of his return for the 2007 season.
Whether he will be allowed to rejoin the Dolphins is a decision that will be made by both the NFL and the franchise. Dolphins owner Wayne Huizenga said in late January he will leave that decision to the team’s “football officials,” including new head coach Cam Cameron.
Williams certainly hopes to be granted the opportunity to return. After all, he still believes he has something to learn from his connection to the league.
“People can relate,” he said. “You’re in a relationship with someone and the relationship never works. It’s always falls apart, always falls apart, always falls apart. Somehow you always get back together again. Somehow it always happens.
“That means there something’s there that needs to be worked out. When a situation or a person won’t let you go, it means there’s something there that you need to learn.
“To me, it’s the ultimate challenge to deal with my past.”
From yoga to football
“It’s very difficult,” Williams said. “It’s very easy to come back here, but it’s very difficult to go – to go back out there.”
Life on a yoga farm in comparison to life in the NFL is a world apart, he said. But what he has learned in his two years of studying yoga certainly applies to the world he plans to enter once again for the 2007 season.
“It’s like if your grandparents are having a party and you walk in there with a thong on,” he said of the return ahead. “The things that I’m doing, the person I’m realizing I am, it’s so different, so counter to everything else that it takes a lot of strength to be who you are no matter who you’re around.
“So if I’m going to be somewhere, I have to be able to be myself. I have to be the same person I am teaching that (yoga) class as I am in the huddle. That’s really what yoga is all about. That you can be who you are and you can hold onto your truths, no matter what.”
In his previous return to the team, he said he had already realized a change in his thinking.
“I remember when I went back and we were at training camp, one of the rookies on the team talked me into – we had a day off – and he talked me into going to a club,” he said. “And I remember, we go into the club, we walk into the club, and I walk maybe 20 steps into the club and I turn around and walked straight out of the club.
“Back in the day, I would have had a blast. But just where I was and how I’ve grown and the way I see things differently, I’ve realized that there is nothing at all in this place for me. Nothing good can really come out of it.”
He believes that he can bring his truths to the NFL, possibly making a difference by the example he is now setting. He has finally found the happiness he has sought. And the truth is it has been within him all along.
Williams said not everyone will be open to the message.
“It’s just a sense of what is something higher, is it money, is it power, is it women, what is it?” he said. “Is it something that’s really going to take you there, something that’s going to last forever, or is it something that’s going to be gone tomorrow?”
Though he says he has gained physical strength and flexibility in his yoga practice, he does expect to need to hit the weights – after all, everyone else in the league will be – in preparation for his return to the field.
But the benefits of becoming a “whole person” have also made him stronger.
“Yoga is built to keep you going through life … not to be on a battlefield all the time, physically,” he said. “But I think it’s important for your mind.
“I think what happens with athletes, especially high-level athletes, is they grow up through their life and they’re a little bit lopsided. Because of their talent, they don’t have to develop other parts of their being. … So it’s very difficult for a high-level athlete to have a holistic anything – holistic health, holistic life, holistic mind, anything. Certain parts of their being are going to be neglected, because they’ve never had to develop those things.
“I think what yoga does, the whole system, it really develops every part of your being.”
Down on the farm
There wasn’t much question whether Williams would return to Grass Valley, where he first came to attend the California College of Ayurveda in the winter after his short retirement.
“I remember it was late October and I was driving up 49, entering Grass Valley, and I was awestruck by the beauty,” Williams said. “I didn’t think that places like Grass Valley and Nevada City really existed still, especially not in California.
“So I was coming here and it’s fall and all the leaves are changing colors and just seeing everything I was like ‘Whoa, I can’t believe this is really happening.’ So I was impressed. The first impression was really strong. My first experience here, you know, I thought I’d never leave. I was really impressed.”
In his first stay in western Nevada County, he lived in a Nevada City cottage on Wet Hill Road, where he watched the sun come up in the morning and enjoyed the natural beauty he had stumbled upon.
“It’s kind of funny. I always seem to stick out everywhere I go,” he said. “Obviously, there’s not a lot of black people in Nevada City and Grass Valley.
“But there’s a lot of people that drive Jeeps and there’s a lot of people that have beards. And at the time I had this big beard. I totally fit in, you know? Just who I was and my lifestyle, I really fit in.”
He recently moved his family, including two children, to a home near the yoga farm where he continues to study and work as a yoga instructor.
He said he started living a simple life when he traveled the world after retiring from football. Life on the farm clearly agrees with such a mindset. He remembers the early days there, learning to begin and end his day by chanting.
“I’m like the worst singer. I have the worst voice ever,” he said with a laugh. “So when I first got here Ð sometimes they’ll just call on random people to chant – and every time I’d be like ‘please don’t call me, please don’t call me.’ And then like I’d be so nervous every time, and I’d do it and of course I would butcher it.
“But what I find is that I keep surrendering to the idea and keep on doing it and keep on doing it. And I get a little bit better and I learn a little bit more about myself.”
Before making a return to the NFL, Williams will turn 30 in May. He knows he can’t play football forever and, apparently, he’s just fine with that.
“They say ‘What do you do before enlightenment? You chop wood and carry water,'” Williams said, smiling. “And they say ‘What do you do after enlightenment? You chop wood and carry water.’
“So, this is my life, you know? Until somewhat the universe tells me to be different, this is what I’m doing … chopping wood and carrying water.”
To contact Sports Editor Brian Hamilton, e-mail firstname.lastname@example.org or call 477-4240.
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