October 21, 2006

Fear this farm boy

Ricky Foley was country before it was cool, and is set to make his mark in football

By Mike Beamish,
Vancouver Sun

Ricky Foley has put up with a lot of crap in his young life — cow muck, actually.

On a 200-acre family farm east of Toronto, the farm boy who dreamed of a career in professional football had the task of mucking out the barn after the cows had done their business, a chore complicated when the mechanical stable cleaner broke down.

Needing $5,000 to repair the machine, at a time of economic difficulty for cattlemen across Canada, the Foleys made do. Ricky grabbed a shovel and a wheelbarrow.

“We didn’t have any money to fix it,” says Foley, a rookie defender with the B.C. Lions. “I told my dad I’d clean it up by hand. I did such a good job, he put off buying a new one. Five years later, I was still cleaning the barn the old-fashioned way.”

A lot of things have made Foley tough, fit and strong, not the least of which were pushing and tugging recalcitrant 1,000-pound animals, heaving bales of hay, and hauling buckets of feed.

Hard times gripped the family after Ricky turned 14. His older brother, Don Foley Jr., left Willow Crest Farm, where generations of Foleys had tilled the soil since the 1850s, to pursue a career in business. Ricky, a child of the earth, was expected to shoulder much of the load in carrying the operation.

“You’re like 14 years old and somebody says to you, ‘Here, you’re going to be a farmer now — for the rest of your life,’ ” Ricky says. “I like aspects of farming, but I’d fight with my dad all the time. I couldn’t get off the farm to do anything.”

Don Foley Sr., the family patriarch, decided to switch from dairy farming to less labour-intensive cattle ranching just before the Mad Cow scare evolved. Consumers started believing it would be fatal for them to eat beef. The Foleys, like other farm families ensnared in the politics, saw the value of their herd shrink to a fraction of the original investment.

“Once the crisis hit, we were all under stress,” says Ginny Foley, Ricky’s mom. “We couldn’t make any money farming. Ricky was burdened with picking up the slack and felt there was basically nothing else in his life.”

They’re tight now, but Ricky admits to having a rocky relationship with his dad, especially when friends asked if he could abandon his chores and join them at the mall or the basketball court. His answer was usually no. Money was tight, and there was always something else to be done around the farm.

Despite its agricultural heritage, Willow Crest Farm, in the Durham region near Oshawa, Ont., is a small pocket of ruralness being quickly surrounded by suburbia as Greater Toronto pushes east, north and west.

Ricky’s closest pals weren’t kids who can pick up a newborn calf in the field as easily as others caress a puppy, but guys like Julian Jarvis, black kids into hip hop and hoops at the playground hangout.

“We did everything together,” says Jarvis. “Ricky was great at any sport he played. He was the most athletic person I’d ever seen. Definitely, the farm gave him a work ethic, but he never had a lot of idle time.”

As the second of the Lions’ bumper crop of three first-round draft picks this season — he was taken fourth overall — one side of Foley is as country as an ear of unshucked corn. Peel back the layers, however, and you see corn rows, diamond studs, tatties and the baggy clothes favoured by rappers. He takes meaning from Tupac, and the bible.

Seemingly trapped on a treadmill of chores, school, and more chores, Ricky grew disenchanted as life became harder for the Foleys. At one point, he briefly moved out on his own, took an apartment, washed windows to make money, fell in among a crowd doing and selling drugs.

“Basically, we knew he had a lot of potential,” Jarvis says. “I talked to him every day, and told him, ‘You can’t let this one thing hold you back. Don’t waste your talent.’ Regret is the worst emotion in life. A lot of people would kill to have the talent he has.”

Though he transferred from Courtice, the high school closest to the farm, to Paul Dwyer secondary in Oshawa specifically to play football, a work-to-rule campaign by Ontario teachers precluded extracurricular sports through Foley’s high school years. One who defied the edict was track coach Kevin Dillon, who continued the athletics program at Dwyer and coached Ricky in the decathlon.

Foley did many of his workouts for shot put and discus right on the farm. On Saturday mornings, he drove to York University, northwest of Toronto, to work on his pole vault. By his graduating year, he was offered a track and field scholarship to Baylor University in Texas, but he turned it down on the advice of some fellow athletes.

“Baylor wasn’t interested in me playing football, at all,” Foley says. “I didn’t see myself being able to make a living in track.”

Instead, Foley wrote Tom Gretes, the head football coach at York, and explained he’d like to play on his team, going both ways — offence and defence — without a lick of high school experience, mind you.

“I didn’t know much about the kid,” Gretes says. “But he was 6-2 or 6-3, 230, a former decathlete, and he sounded like a good athlete. He had the assumption he could play anywhere. We told him, it’s a little different at this level.”

The York Lions experimented with Foley at four or five spots, eventually settling on rush end as his most natural position. By the end of his third year, Foley was so confident in his ability that he attended an NFL camp for undrafted collegians near Baltimore — even though he wasn’t supposed to be there. Foley fudged the eligibility requirements; the camp was supposed to be for graduating seniors. “I had to get my name out there,” Foley explains.

“He was fitting right in with all-stars from big-time universities,” Gretes says. “Teams were asking themselves, ‘Who is this kid?'”

In May, the Baltimore Ravens, whose director of player personnel, O. J. Brigance, played with the Lions from 1991-93, signed him to a free-agent contract and brought him in for a six-week training session. “We like the way he ran to the ball, his quickness and his instincts,” says Ravens defensive co-ordinator Rex Ryan. “He’s raw, but the talent is there.”

Foley was released by the Ravens in June, however, the month in which he turned 24. Some of that rawness needed to be refined, he needed to play. And the Ravens believed his best option was the CFL, not an NFL practice roster.

Though his two-year contract with the Lions means he isn’t eligible to take another NFL shot until after the 2007 season, Foley still has the NFL in mind. He is intrigued by the story of Brendon Ayanbadejo, an ex-CFL linebacker who used the Lions as a launching pad to an NFL job. Ayanbadejo, now with the Chicago Bears, was featured in Sports Illustrated’s 2005 All-Pro team as the NFL’s best special teams tackler.

Foley thinks excellence on punt and kick coverage could be his ticket back, too.

“I was hesitant and unsure, half-speeding it when I first got here,” he says. “I was thinking too much, not wanting to screw up. I felt I was stealing money. Now, I’m playing with a lot more confidence. I give a lot of credit to Carl Kidd. He’s done a lot of good for me, telling me how to read the blocks better, how to get downfield at full speed. And nobody plays special teams better in this league than Carl.”

When his rookie season is done, Foley will throw his gear into the back of the big Chrysler — his dad’s car, the one Ricky modified with tinted windows, a stereo and gangster rims — and drive straight to the farm.

His parents, who have never flown, spent two nights in a hotel for the first time in their lives when they drove up to Montreal for the Lions’ Sept. 1 game against the Alouettes.

In their previous 36 years of married life, Ginny and Don Foley, now retired, were away from the farm on just one other occasion — their wedding night — which they spent in Smith Falls, near Ottawa. (Ginny’s maiden name is Smith).

“Morning and night, Don never missed a milking,” Ginny says. “Hopefully, we’ll get another trip this year.” The Foleys plan to drive to Winnipeg if the Lions get to the Grey Cup game.

As for Ricky, he’s planning an off-season move into his grandparents’ old place, on his parents’ property, marking a return to the reassuring rhythms of farm life. He misses the quiet, the grazing spaces, the smell of the barn, the simplicity that compelled him to visit the PNE this year to commune with farm families and livestock.

“I just value that so much now,” he says. “It’s in me, I need that. I just have to go to the barn in the morning and be with the animals. I miss ’em.”

Even if it’s not an ideal life, it just seems to embody everything to a football player who is a little bit country, a little bit rap and soul.