The feeling around the Bay Area in the weeks after the San
Francisco 49ers' victory in Super Bowl XXIX last January was
that Carmen Policy, the Niners' president, would surely find the
money under the salary cap to keep running back Ricky Watters.
Watters certainly thought Policy would come through, and so did
Watters's agent, Blaine Pollock. After all, Watters had gone to
the Pro Bowl in each of his three full seasons with the 49ers,
had accounted for nearly 4,300 yards of offense and had scored
Pollock had called Policy shortly before the Super Bowl, hoping
to begin negotiations, but Policy had told him to come back
after the game. Pollock telephoned Policy again after Watters
scored three touchdowns in San Francisco's 49-26 win over the
San Diego Chargers. Once more he was told to wait. Two weeks
after the game, on Feb. 15, Policy finally declared his
intentions to Watters: The 49ers would designate him a
transition player--meaning that they reserved the right to match
any other offer Watters might get--but for the moment the Niners
would tender him only a one-year contract for $2.27 million in
1995, $1.4 million more than his 1994 salary, which would put
him among the five highest-paid 49ers and make him the
sixth-highest-paid running back in the NFL.
As a result of that relatively skimpy--and short-term--offer,
Watters soon would become a former member of the best team in
football, and the Niners soon would bid farewell to one of the
strongest offensive players in the game.
Two weeks earlier, on Feb. 2, another 49er, defensive
coordinator Ray Rhodes, also had been preparing to leave San
Francisco. He had just been hired to coach the Philadelphia
Eagles, and during his first meeting with his new boss, owner
Jeff Lurie, he made the case that Philadelphia needed a strong
running game to take the pressure off quarterback Randall
Cunningham. And who better to build it around than the hungry
Watters, one of Rhodes's favorite 49ers.
In early March, Rhodes took Watters to dinner in Philadelphia to
woo him. "I want to win," Rhodes told him, while also promising
to give him more carries. "If we don't get you, what am I doing
It was all Watters needed to hear. On March 18 he signed a
three-year, $6.9 million contract with the Eagles--which the
49ers declined to match--that made him the highest-paid running
back in the game. What Watters sought in Philly, though, went
beyond money; as he moved into his prime the Eagles gave him the
opportunity to push himself to the edge of his talent. There he
might find the respect and the attention that he believed had so
far been denied him.
Even amid the glory of January's Super Bowl, Watters, despite
having run the ball 15 times, acted the bit player with the long
face. "I'm a running back," he says. "Running backs are hungry.
What coach would want a running back who didn't want to carry
"I could have played my whole life as a 49er," Watters also
says. "Done great things. But people always would have said,
'Well, he wasn't Emmitt Smith, he wasn't Barry Sanders.' Who
wants to live with that for the rest of his life? I'd like the
chance to prove that I'm as good as they are."
What Rhodes gave Watters was the assurance he needed, the only
commitment he had wanted from any of his coaches since he began
playing football back in the streets of Harrisburg, Pa. He
promised to give him the ball.
Jim Watters nearly wrecked the car that April day in 1969. He
had just picked up his wife, Marie, at work, and now he was
driving up Second Street in Harrisburg when she turned to him
and said quietly, "You have to go pick up your son tomorrow." He
almost drove through a red light.
"What did you go and do now, Marie?"
"You wanted a son, didn't you?" she said. "Well, I got you one."
Several months earlier, at a neighborhood party, Marie had told
a woman that after years of trying to have a baby, she and Jim
had adopted a daughter, Rhonda, and how much the couple also
wanted a boy. "My daughter's pregnant again, and she doesn't
take care of the children she has," the woman said. "I'm going
to make sure she puts it up for adoption. Would you be
When the baby was born in April, Marie hired a lawyer to arrange
for the transfer of custody, and only then did she tell her
husband what she had been up to. The hospital where the boy was
born asked that the transfer not be done on their grounds, and
so the morning after she broke the news about the new member of
the family, Marie and Jim drove to the parking lot of the old
Trailways bus depot on Chestnut Street and waited there for the
lawyer to bring them their child.
This exchange is noted nowhere in the NFL record book, but that
bus depot handoff surely ranks among the most memorable in the
history of the league. At four days old the child, whom the
Watterses would name Richard James, had juked one world and
slipped into another.
Now, 26 years later, Ricky has returned to Pennsylvania
hungering to be born anew. After four often tempestuous seasons
under coach Lou Holtz at Notre Dame, where he played in the
darting shadows of Tim Brown and Rocket Ismail, and after those
triumphant seasons in San Francisco, where he caught no more
than the reflected light of Jerry Rice and Steve Young, Watters
is looking for the kind of peace that he can find only in
knowing, truly knowing, how good he is and how far he can go
when given the ball.
"I've never been the Man before," Watters says. "I never was at
Notre Dame. In San Francisco I was one of the men. Now I'm the
The fact is that Watters grew up with a powerful sense of
entitlement, with the conviction that the ball belonged to him,
that he deserved to be the Man. He was taught to assert
Jim and Marie raised Ricky in the rough-and-tumble uptown
section of Harrisburg. Both parents had steady work, he as a
postal worker, until he retired with a disability, and she as a
licensed practical nurse. Over the protests of the
tougher-minded Jim, who had grown up in poverty in rural Alabama
and won four Bronze Stars and two Purple Hearts as a demolitions
expert in the Korean War, Marie indulged her kids merrily. "I
had waited so long for children, and I wanted them to have all
the things I didn't have," she says. "We always had a good
income. Our house at Christmas was like a department store. Our
sofa was filled with nothing but toys. Ricky always had the best
basketball, the best football."
He grew up as the kid who had it all. Skinny Rick, as the boys
called him, would head off to Our Lady of the Blessed Sacrament
looking like he had stepped from the pages of a Macy's catalog.
While Jim governed Ricky's upbringing with a booming bass voice,
he also did his share of doting on the boy. Until he was 16 and
could drive himself, Ricky was taken to and from school every
day by his father. "I wanted him concentrating on school work,"
Jim says. "And sports." Until Ricky left for Notre Dame, Jim
rarely missed one of his son's football or basketball games.
And in football Ricky always insisted on having the ball. If his
quarterback ignored him too long in pickup games, he would pout,
then grab the next pass thrown anywhere near him and sail for
home with a half dozen boys in howling pursuit.
As he grew, Ricky became enchanted by the televised exploits of
NFL running backs Tony Dorsett and Walter Payton. "Dorsett had
the vicious spin move," says Watters. "That and his acceleration
in the hole were unbelievable. He made people miss at the line
of scrimmage. A lot of people tell you not to do that because
you might spin into a lick. But Dorsett was so quick and he
could turn it so well that he could make people miss in the
smallest of areas. The little pony kick and the use of my arms
to shield myself from defenders, I got from Payton."
He learned well. Defenses chased him up and down football fields
all through an exemplary career at Bishop McDevitt High, and
toward the end of his senior season, scouts gathered whenever
Ricky played. As Watters remembers it, the Fighting Irish
hustled him the hardest, with Holtz coming by to deliver an
hour-long speech on the virtues of a Notre Dame education before
he finally proclaimed, "Now, Rick, we think you're the finest
tailback in the nation." Ricky's eyes widened when Holtz told
him, "If you want to win the Heisman, where else would you go
but Notre Dame?"
That was all Watters had to hear. He was off to South Bend. And
it was there, not long after he arrived, that the whispering
began: Watters is not a team player; he is unwilling to
subordinate his own ambitions to the greater good.
In the first game of his freshman year, in the fall of 1987, the
Irish were beating Michigan at Ann Arbor, and there was Watters,
standing on the sideline, his uniform spotless, his helmet in
his hand. It had been only eight months since Holtz had told him
that he was the best schoolboy tailback in the nation; that he
could even start for Notre Dame right away. And now, even in the
fourth quarter, with the Irish ground game grinding it out,
Watters was doing nothing but watching.
And suddenly he was striding about in a fury. "Rick was running
up and down the sideline ranting and raving and complaining that
he wasn't playing and wasn't getting any touches," recalls Todd
Lyght, then a Notre Dame defensive back, now a member of the St.
Louis Rams. "He's yelling, going crazy. He's yelling at Coach
At first Holtz appeared not to notice. Then, all at once,
clearly peeved, he decided to let the big Michigan defenders
shut Watters up. So he put him in the game. And the third time
he ever touched the ball for Notre Dame, Watters slanted like a
stag through the Wolverine secondary, 18 yards for a touchdown.
Watters was even louder in exultation than he had been in
frustration. Surrounded by teammates, within earshot of Holtz,
he shouted over and over, "I told you! I told you. Just give me
the ball! I want to help this team win. All I want is the ball!"
That afternoon was a harbinger of Watters's career at Notre
Dame--one in which he was moved to flanker his sophomore year, a
decision he protested. "He was moving a lot of people around,
and they all moved," says Watters. "I was the only one who said,
'Wait a minute. You said I'd be a running back for four years.'
He didn't like that. He said I had an attitude."
One August night in 1989, the offense was practicing pass
patterns when quarterback Tony Rice overthrew Watters on a post
pattern. It was Watters's duty, under Holtz's rules, to retrieve
the ball and run briskly back to the huddle. Not Watters. When
the ball sailed over his head, he showed up Rice by standing for
a moment and then lazily walking over to the ball. After picking
it up, he jogged slowly back. Livid at the show of disdain,
Holtz ordered the Irish to do calisthenics. He did not need to
tell the players who was to blame for their being forced to do
push-ups in the summer heat.
When practice resumed, Watters was carrying a naked pitch
around end when safety Pat Terrell grabbed him around the neck
and threw him, karate-style, to the ground. Watters tried to
retaliate, but Terrell got in a couple more licks before
teammates halfheartedly separated the two. Holtz watched but did
nothing as the fight unfolded. Plunging his hands into his
pockets, he turned and walked away.
Watters stayed out of Holtz's doghouse long enough to gain 1,652
yards and score 18 touchdowns as a receiver and a tailback in
his last two seasons. The 49ers took him in the second round of
the 1991 draft, only to see his first season shot after Watters
broke his right foot in training camp and his right hand two
months later while working with the practice squad. But over
the next three seasons, by land and by air, he became one of the
most complete offensive backs in football. What he also brought
to the game was an energy and exuberance for his work that
appeared almost alien to the cool efficiency of the 49er
organization. And he again found himself saddled with the
reputation that had cloaked him at Notre Dame: He was selfish;
he was jealous of the limelight that bathed many of the Niners'
After Watters left San Francisco, Oakland Tribune columnist
Monte Poole wrote: "Rick is, in short, all about Rick and Rick's
pursuit of glory for Rick, by Rick. In Rick's world, there is
Rick and 4 billion others taking up space that could belong to
Rhodes has heard it all before. "A lot of people think he's
arrogant and selfish," says Rhodes, "but it's all about winning
with Ricky." Then he adds, in apparent contradiction, "In San
Francisco, with the system they had and all the players around
him, a whole lot of his talents weren't exploited. He just wants
an opportunity to show what he can do."
Days after Watters had signed the Eagles' offer sheet, but
before the 49ers announced that they had decided not to match
it, Niner coach George Seifert returned from a fishing trip in
Mexico. Rattled by the news that his star back might not be
returning, Seifert took him to lunch.
To Watters, Seifert seemed genuinely pained. "The one getting
screwed in this whole thing is me," Watters says that Seifert
told him. "They expect me to win here, and then they take away
one of my best players." Seifert acknowledges taking Watters to
lunch but denies criticizing the front office.
Watters liked Seifert well enough, but the 49er organization had
a smug, superior air that he found hard to breathe. And he was
growing weary hearing about how the Niner system had created
him. "It's a great system, and I never want to forget the years
I played with those guys," Watters says, "but don't try to say
that they made me. The year I was hurt, they didn't even make
the playoffs. Same quarterback. Same wide receivers. Same tight
end. Same offense. But no brand-name running back to take the
pressure off Steve. I came in and made the offense work again."
Obviously, Policy does not think so. He could have matched the
Eagles' deal, could have manipulated the figures, as he is so
adept at doing, to fit Watters under the salary cap. But he
chose not to do so.
Instead, he decided to make an issue of Watters's desire to
carry the ball more, raising the old selfishness issue again.
From his vacation retreat in Costa Rica, Policy said, "We're not
comfortable allocating millions of dollars to a player not 100
percent committed to our long-range goals, our game plan and our
Which is to say, the ingrate can take a hike. With a wistful
glance back, Watters says, "I learned I didn't mean as much to
them as I thought."
He has waited years for the chance that awaits him in
Philadelphia. At last, the bus depot handoff will learn just how
fast and far and high he can go. "I just want to show I'm as
good as those other backs," he says. "I will be at peace to