This Much You Know About Ricky Watters -- Now, Meet The Ricky No One Ever Seens To Notice
His eyes are big, his face alive, and you can see the power that drives Ricky Watters. The most misunderstood man in the NFL is a mass of movement. Arms shaking, body jiggling. He punctuates his words with his hands and draws his dreams with his fingers, bracketing them with open palms.
All you have heard, all you have read about the Seahawks' new running back is "me, me, me." He wants the ball, and if he doesn't get it, wait for the tornado that will surely come roaring in, ready to tear your team apart.
But what you don't see are the letters from parents of children he has met, children who are sick, the children who are dying. They write to his mother, Marie, and tell her of the hours he spent at the hospital, talking, laughing, smiling and crying. Hours he didn't even have for his parents when they drove from Harrisburg, Pa., to Philadelphia to see their only son.
The parents of the children call his fiancee, their voices choked, asking that, well, if Ricky isn't in town, could she come instead? They need something to remind them of him.
Before he came, the children never smiled, the parents say. Then the sight of the football player standing in their door, his hair ballooning in an Afro, punching words in the air with his hands, letting this raspy laugh gurgle out of his throat, somehow makes them laugh.
And when the children die, as so many do, the parents come to Ricky, their eyes blotted with tears, to thank him for the time he gave. And he tells them everything will be fine, even though he doesn't know because he never has had a child of his die. But he has been this voice of comfort for so long, they nod and say, "Yes, it will."
This is the Ricky Watters you never see.
And here is where it hurts: He lays himself out in the open, raw and exposed like the rows of red snapper and eel and tuna lying before him recently in an Eastside sushi restaurant. He doesn't protect himself. He never really has tried. The words come tumbling out, a boombox with the amps turned high. He believes if he's honest, if he says what he feels and is true to those feelings, then everything will be fine.
Then he says something, and the words come back to hit him; in headlines, on newscasts, on radio shows, in the locker room. And there's Ricky Watters, honest with his words, true with his feelings, standing naked before the world with the arrows of derision flying from all directions. He knows how to win, so he tells them just let him win. Suddenly, he's selfish. Suddenly, he's an ego run wild and out of control.
"You know, it says in the Bible, everything you do that is positive and with love, you get back twofold," he says, looking up from the table, his eyes fresh and hopeful. "I really believe in that. I'm going to get it all back. It's going to change and turn around."
Back in Harrisburg, there are times Marie Watters wants to throw open the window and scream to the world, "Can't you see he's not like this?" Then she stops. She doesn't bother. It's like hollering into a hurricane.
"This is my son," she says. "That's my baby. There's nobody out there to tell everybody the right story. He's always been the type of child who spoke his mind. I taught my children to be honest and express their feelings and emotions."
He is an exclamation point in a sport that accepts only periods. Football players are not trained to let words burst out. They understand emotion when it comes packed hard inside fury. They accept players who pound on their chest after a big play. But they don't comprehend proclamations of "I can do it. I can do it."
They don't make sense of a player who points to the stands and stomps on the side of the field. They judged him early as a prima donna. Then they tried to figure out why the player they mocked so much ran out every play in practice, why he worked harder than any other running back they ever saw. He was making them better. How hard was that to understand?
In the end, when the Seahawks called around about Watters last winter, wondering if they should sign him, the responses came from the best players he's been with - people like Steve Young and Jerry Rice. They said they loved his talent and his heart. Nobody else, they insisted, wanted to win nearly as much.
"I don't think anybody has had a chance to know him," his fiancee, Catherina Chang, says.
She is nuzzling against him at a table in the restaurant. They bicker playfully about directions on the highway. They play board games. They rent movies. They sit up for hours and do nothing but talk.
Once, Ricky wanted to turn his exploding mass of hair into braids. So Catherina taught herself how to make the rows and spent two hours a night twisting his hair into long, even strands. She once took four hours to help him learn a back flip so he could spiral backward, out of the end zone, after scoring a touchdown.
When Catherina, who recently finished law school, was studying for the bar in their home state of California, Ricky would rush back from workouts to make sure he did something - do the laundry, take out the trash - to at least help out.
"He really is my best friend," she says. "Nobody, no female friend, can come as close."
Ricky makes a face. The same face he makes when she squeals as a child comes by, looking up at him with amazed eyes, "Look, Boo, I think they really believe you're Barney!"
He tells her he hates it when she does this, that he can't stand the little stuffed animals she used to send to his locker. The players tease him about it mercilessly.
But then he'll look to the side, see her recoiled in mock hurt and say soothingly: "She tells me stuff you wouldn't believe. Things she should tell her friends. I say, `Should you be telling me all this?' "
They met at a Bennigan's in the Bay Area. He was in his second year with the 49ers. She was a waitress at the restaurant and a junior at the University of Santa Clara. He sat in a booth with teammate Adam Walker and waited to talk to her long after the bar closed. They've been together since.
At first she was skeptical of the football player who came roaring up to her sorority house on a Harley that rumbled like a fighter jet. Then she went home with him one day, right after they began dating, and his family was there on a trip from Harrisburg. She met them, and instantly her fear flowed away.
Because there's something about the people who raised Ricky Watters. Those who don't understand him, who can't quite grasp the player whose proud, boastful rants belie this softer side, don't know much about Jim and Marie Watters.
They don't know about how Marie, unable to have children of her own, adopted Ricky from a family member who didn't want another child and how they spoiled him with gifts none of the other children in the cold, hardened neighborhood dreamed of owning.
And how Marie, a nurse, insisted on opening the house to all the children without fathers or mothers, and how they would stay for weeks. How she worked two nursing jobs to make sure Ricky went to Catholic school in the suburbs rather than attend the troubled public schools in his neighborhood.
Maybe, too, they never heard about the times Jim - once in Special Forces in the Korean War, injured and retired from the post office - would send Ricky to the store to pick up groceries. And how when the older boys on the corner tried to take the boy's money, chasing Ricky home, Jim would walk him back to the corner, make him face those kids and learn to fight for himself.
He took all this, all the life lessons bestowed by Jim and Marie, with him to Notre Dame, where he discovered he needed one more. He was unhappy; he wanted to leave. Marie had him come home. She took him to a hospital room where a young man lay dying of AIDS. And they stayed in the room for what seemed like an hour, the man who was fighting for a few more days to live and the football player who wanted to give up.
When Ricky came out, his cheeks glistened with tears.
"We can help these people," he told his mother.
"You can't if you stop playing," she told him. "But if you keep going, you never know what you're going to be able to do."
Marie says now: "Here was someone who was losing a battle, and they could still smile even though the next breath they took might be their last. I told him you can do something."
Ricky never has forgotten.
And Marie was never prouder than the day in 1994 when the American Cancer Society named him humanitarian of the year in the San Francisco area.
You see there are a lot of pieces go into Ricky Watters, so many of them glued together throughout his life. A mosaic of a player who isn't quite like all the others. But the word in the NFL is that he's a cancer. Keep the ball out of his hands, and the smile fades and the complaining wears on coaches and teammates so much that the record deteriorates and they can't wait to be rid of him.
Cancer? Until last year, Watters' teams made the playoffs every season. In 1994, the 49ers won the Super Bowl with him.
Cancer? Ask Michael Black, Seattle's undrafted rookie running back, if he thinks Watters is a cancer. Black saw Watters bobbing through the lunch room at training camp wearing sunglasses indoors and a big bright chain around his neck. Watters not only welcomed Black, he embraced him, inviting him to his house, to listen to music and play games. Hardly the things Pro Bowl stars do with undrafted rookies.
"He talks to you like a man," Black says. "He told me that Jerry Rice and some of those guys were helpful to him along the way and showed him the way, and now he wants to do that for us."
The Seahawks love this. They wanted a player who could boom through the locker room and challenge players when things weren't right. A few weeks ago, after the team looked flat in an exhibition loss to San Francisco, he told them he was glad the defeat happened. He said they needed to have the adversity to see how they would respond. The next week, they scored 31 points in the first half.
And in that 31-point game, at the end of the first drive, quarterback Warren Moon handed off to Watters near the goal line. Watters, stopped short, tried a couple of moves and attempted to roll in for the touchdown. He was tackled on the 1.
As they came back to the huddle, as they set to run the same play again, Moon gave Watters a curious look. "I've seen you get in on that play before," he said with just the slightest hint of accusation. Watters understood. The handoff came again, and this time he leaped high in the air, tucking his knees over the outstretched hands of the tacklers, and tumbled into the end zone.
He will make this season work. He wants you to know this.
Watters gazes around the restaurant, out through the windows, through downtown Bellevue and into the promise he insists will come true.
"I think I am the person I am today and player I am today because of what I went through in San Francisco and Philadelphia," he says. "I think I needed to have those places. But I also needed to move on and come here. I think this is the perfect situation, I think it's the perfect marriage. I think this city is perfect for me."
There is so much he wants to do. When Watters signed in February, his agent, Leigh Steinberg, said a portion of the salary would go toward building a youth foundation. It sounded like so many of these things do, like a gratuitous attempt to fill some social obligation the way athletes do when they sign big contracts.
But, no, this is what he always has wanted. He can still remember the day when he was about 10 or 11 and he told his mother he would be a big star and make millions of dollars. She smiled and told him she would love it if she had a big house, with lots of bedrooms and acres of land and she could keep bringing in the children with no place to go.
And so here at dinner, Ricky can see the place, he can draw the vision with his hands. It will be in Seattle, not in Harrisburg. He wants the kids to have a place to escape the streets, to play basketball, to play video games, to have their own rap studio. He can see it in his mind.
"I want to call it the Jim and Marie Watters Foundation," he says. "I think it's only fitting I use their names. Because I think if they could, this is what they would be doing."
It has been almost two months since the Seahawks started preparing for this year. Two months, and Watters has been everything they dreamed. He smiles, he runs hard, he races out to see teammates when they've fallen on the field.
It has been two months, and we've waited for the real Ricky Watters to show up.
Turns out he's been here all along.