Marcus Hayes: Watters lives with aftereffects of punishing football career

Posted: October 12, 2012

FOR WHO? For what?

Forever.

Forever, Ricky Watters will live with his infamous dismissal, his implication that his health was more important than winning a football game. It is what many fans will remember, with disgust, on Sunday when he addresses them as an honorary captain before the Eagles play the Lions.

It is ugly irony, then, that, forever, Watters will live with pain he suffers from carrying and catching footballs at Veterans Stadium, among other places; pain, from head to toe.

"I got it all," he said.

His knees ache, of course. He tore his right medial collateral ligament and his left posterior cruciate ligament.

He has five pins in his right ankle. A metal plate envelops his right femur. He carries a pin in his right foot.

A shattered right index finger never properly healed; it has robbed him of his ability to draw and paint, which he loves.

Periodically, his neck and shoulders freeze up so badly, his cheeks hurt. An undiagnosed crack in his sternum healed improperly and he thought he was having a heart attack. When back issues snuck up on him a few years ago, Watters thought his kidneys were failing.

Only 43, Watters has arthritis in his hips, his right hand, his right wrist, his shoulders and his ankles; and, yes, even in his toes.

And that's the good news.

Ricky Watters' mind is broken, too.

Watters is among the legion of players involved in concussion litigation against the NFL.

He said he had dozens of concussions, from the time he starred at Bishop McDevitt in Harrisburg, then at Notre Dame, then in San Francisco, Philadelphia and, finally, Seattle, his last stop in a 10-year NFL career.

"Not that I knew what a concussion was then," Watters said.

How many times did he play without his full mental faculties?

"Hundreds of times."

Watters ignored the signs: headaches, fatigue, forgetfulness. His wife of 13 years, Catherina, was his fianceƩ when he was in Philadelphia. The Ricky she knew was disappearing: the Ricky with a photographic memory; the tireless Ricky who always followed through. She begged him to file for disability.

"How I'm going to file for disability, when I'm Superman?" Watters asked.

This is how.

Watters and his wife were bickering one day in 2004 about something she claimed to have told him. Again.

Ricky Jr. spoke up:

"Dad. She did tell you that."

Watters filed for his disability.

Certainly, he earned it.

Watters was a retooling jewel in 1995, a restricted free agent stolen from the 49ers after three seasons to be the premier player on a rebuilt team. He knows, however, that he might best be remembered for uttering four unforgivable words after his first game in Philadelphia. He short-armed a pass in the left flat, and, when asked about it later, spat out, "For who? For what?"

That is the blackest heresy in a blue-collar town, where grown men play tackle football in empty lots.

Watters apologized the next day, then rededicated himself to excellence. He discovered the weight room, the film room, the blocking dummy. He altered his diet and began an intense training regimen.

He went to the Pro Bowl his first two seasons in Philadelphia. He helped the Eagles beat the Lions in the first round of the playoffs and helped them make it back the next season.

Watters won a Super Bowl with San Francisco after the 1994 season, scoring three touchdowns in that game. He has a ring. He gained 14,891 yards from scrimmage. He went to five Pro Bowls in his first five seasons.

All but two of the eligible running backs who rank ahead of Watters in yards from scrimmage are in the Hall of Fame.

One, Tiki Barber, made only three Pro Bowls and never won a Super Bowl.

The other, Jerome Bettis, needed three more seasons than Watters to gain 220 more yards. Bettis went to the Pro Bowl six times, but the sixth was a gift to a faded star. By the time he won a Super Bowl, he was a role player; his ring, a retirement present, since he quit after that 2005 season.

Watters scored 12 TDs in 11 postseason games. He finished with 91 career touchdowns, more than O.J. Simpson and Thurman Thomas.

Does he seek the call of the Hall?

"I think it's a matter of time," Watters said. "It would be a great legacy to leave behind."

Until then, Watters will concentrate on the rest of his legacy.

He and Catherina run the Ricky Watters Family Foundation, which targets underprivileged youths, kids from broken homes, kids from foster homes; Watters himself was adopted. There is a football camp, of course, but one of the more endearing efforts comes at Christmas, when the Watterses invite dozens of kids to their Orlando home for a holiday pool party and festival, complete with face painting.

The charity work, Watters hopes, will impress upon 12-year-old Ricky Jr. and 5-year-old Shane how fortunate they are to have a former athlete as a father and an accomplished lawyer for a mother.

This weekend, Watters hopes, will impress upon his boys how a big mistake can be turned into a loving and respectful relationship.

By the time Watters left Philly for Seattle via free agency after the 1997 season, he had been the No. 1 athlete in town for 3 years. For a kid from Harrisburg, he could ask for little else.

"I enjoyed my time in Philadelphia," Watters insisted. "I can't wait to get back and address the fans. I wanted to finish my career in Philadelphia. It's home to me."

When he hits town Saturday, he will take his kids to South Street, get a cheesesteak, maybe go to his old hangout, Dave & Buster's.

He will not sit too long.

He will not stand for too long.

He cannot. His joints won't let him.

Watters will keep Catherina on his hip, so, when he sees somebody whose name he cannot recall - somebody he might have met an hour before or 17 years before - she can whisper the name in his ear, because he might not remember.

When the Eagles added Watters in 1995, they also signed Kevin Turner to be their fullback.

Turner, who has ALS, is one of the poster children for the concussion issue.

Turner never shied from contact.

Watters did. And, that day, he defended it:

"I'm not going to trip up there and get knocked out. For who? For what? I mean, there's another day."

For who.

For what.

Maybe Ricky was on to something.


Contact Marcus Hayes at hayesm@phillynews.com.

For recent columns, go to www.philly.com/MarcusHayes.

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