"Ricky's a miniature Bo Jackson," says tackle Steve Wallace, who blocked for Jackson during Bo's 1985 Heisman Trophy season at Auburn. "He has more moves than Bo and better lateral movement. He's able to lower his shoulders and run through people like Bo did. You'll hear a thump, then the breath goes out of guys when Ricky runs into them."
Walters still can be as brash as he was on the uptown asphalt. In this season's opener, against the New York Giants, after Watters made his first carry—a 13-yard pickup—he bounded back to the huddle, shouting, "They can't stop me!"
"It was only the third play of the game," says Wallace. "We all laughed at him."
Every time Watters picked up good yardage in that game—he gained 100 yards on 13 carries and 50 yards on five receptions—he drove his fist into the air as if he had scored a touchdown. And after each series he went to the 49er sideline, bragging. "I can do it! I can do it!"
Against the New Orleans Saints on Sept. 27, when the song The Power blared through the Louisiana Superdome speakers during a timeout, Jiggle Joints—one of several nicknames Watters has been given by his teammates—began to dance in the huddle. "Dude, we're in a game we could lose," said guard Guy McIntyre.
"No problem," Watters replied with a smile. "I've got it covered." San Francisco won 16-10, with Watters contributing 76 yards rushing and 52 receiving.
Before the start of the '92 season, however, none of the 49ers could have predicted Watters' success or that he would be popular with his teammates. As a rookie Watters was heralded as the cure for San Francisco's lackluster ground game, but three days after reporting to training camp he broke his right foot while making a cut and was placed on injured reserve. When Walters rejoined the Niners as a member of the practice squad in the fifth week of the season, team veterans thought he was more style than substance. "He had all the moves of O.J. Simpson, Barry Sanders and Marcus Allen, and he used them on every play," recalls Wallace. "Seventy-five moves in one spot."
Two weeks later Watters broke his right hand in practice. For several days he attempted to practice with a splint on the hand, but the pain was too much and San Francisco put him on injured reserve for the remainder of the season. "If you had asked me, I would have told you that the team had made a mistake in drafting him," tackle Harris Barton says. "Most of us thought he was a bust."
Disappointed in Watters' performance on the field, the 49ers were equally irritated by his act off it. Loud, flashy and arrogant, he had the look of a hip-hop music star, with designer sunglasses, a diamond earring, gold chains, a hooded silk jacket that he kept unzipped to reveal his chest, baggy blue jeans and combat boots. He wore a pager on his belt and drove a Mercedes with the vanity plates RICK 32.
Even while injured, Watters talked a good game. When the offensive players met to study game tapes, he would project himself into the action with cries of "He couldn't stop me!" and "I can do that!" He constantly railed about his disappointing career at Notre Dame. According to Watters, Irish coach Lou Holtz told him that he would have a great chance at being the featured tailback for four years and that he would get a shot at winning the Heisman Trophy. Instead Walters was flip-flopped from tailback (freshman year) to flanker (sophomore) to tailback (junior) to wide receiver (spring practice) to tailback (senior), and he was overshadowed first by 1987 Heisman Trophy winner Tim Brown and then by 1990 Heisman runner-up Raghib (Rocket) Ismail.