Northern exposure

PAUL FRIESEN -- Winnipeg Sun

, Last Updated: 8:18 AM ET

It looks like the Winnipeg Blue Bombers went after the wrong banned NFLer.

Ricky Williams showed up at Toronto Argonauts training camp yesterday in great shape, wowing spectators immediately.

Meanwhile, Onterrio Smith, all 245 pounds of him, continues to nurse a foot injury and warm the bench at Bomber camp.

Two NFLers carrying similar amounts of baggage, but making entirely different first impressions in the CFL.

You wonder what their lasting impressions are going to be.

Mere footnotes to the 2006 season, or all-stars? Up here for a cup of coffee, or a Cup of champagne?

One thing is certain: this should be interesting to watch.

Williams, who ran for some 1,800 yards in the NFL not so long ago, comes to town with the Argos, Week 2.

"It's great for the league," Bomber receiver Milt Stegall was saying yesterday. "I'm sure every team is happy. Because you're probably going to get a sellout when Ricky Williams comes to town."

He may be right.

I can still remember Aug. 8, 1981, when 32,896 jammed Winnipeg Stadium to see Montreal quarterback Vince Ferragamo, who'd led the Los Angeles Rams to a Super Bowl appearance just two years earlier.

Turned out to be quite the party, too -- a 58-2 Bomber romp.

Like we said: footnote, or all-star?

BOMBER NOT AWE-STRUCK

The man who'll be most responsible for stopping Williams June 23, Winnipeg middle linebacker Barrin Simpson, hopes it'll be the former -- at least, on that day.

Simpson played against Williams in college, so he won't be star-struck.

"As a linebacker, we love the competition," Simpson said. "He's just like any other running back, in my mind. I'm coming to play. We ain't giving nobody 200 yards."

It's interesting, too, to hear Simpson and Stegall, both deeply religious men, talk about the baggage Williams and Smith bring to Canada.

Both have repeatedly failed NFL drug tests, and are banned from that league for a year. Yet, both will be thrust onto pedestals here.

Simpson, an ordained minister, says professional athletes are role models, whether they like it or not.

"Sometimes guys make mistakes," Simpson said. "Are you justifying the mistake they made? No. Everybody deserves a second chance."

Sometimes, even a third or fourth.

Stegall, himself a parent now, says it's up to the moms and dads out there to keep their kids from making sports stars out to be something they're not.

"Your parents should let you know that these guys are just football players," Stegall said. "They're human. They're going to make mistakes. Don't put 'em up as a hero."

That'll be tough in Toronto, where they're gushing about Williams like he's Mother Teresa. Or, at least, Pinball Clemons.

The Argos owners are falling all over themselves, comparing Williams' character to that of Clemons, their universally respected and admired head coach.

All we'll say is the man is obviously different, and there's nothing wrong with that.

Williams' travelogue doesn't read like your average football player's: he once appeared on the cover of Sports Illustrated wearing a wedding dress; he quit the NFL two years ago to search for enlightenment, travelling to India, studying ancient Indian sciences and Hindu medicines instead of play books; his hero isn't Bob Griese, but Bob Marley; and, yes, he admitted to being a dope smoker.

"I'm not judging anybody," Stegall said. "What would happen if they started drug testing in the CFL? I'll leave it at that."

So will we.

And we'll judge them as players, just like everybody else.


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