Watters publicly questioned and privately confronted Holtz about how he was used in the offense. He even phoned the coaches' box during games to ask why he wasn't getting the ball. As it turned out, Watters was just one of several quality backs signed by Notre Dame in the late '80s, and his junior season, 1989, when he rushed for 791 yards and 10 touchdowns, would be his best.
"He's a little Napoleon," Walters says of Holtz. "I could have easily won the Heisman if he had pushed me for it. But I didn't fit the Notre Dame image of a football player, especially a black player. We weren't supposed to be flashy or make waves. Rocket was a perfect candidate because he never said anything. I was articulate and stood up for what I believed."
Holtz, who says he isn't surprised by Watters' success this season, refuses to be drawn into a confrontation. "If his career didn't turn out as well as he expected, I'm sorry," Holtz says. "But I would do nothing different."
Watters' self-promotion grew so annoying to 49er veterans last year that whenever his name was mentioned in meetings, they would sarcastically add, "Should've won the Heisman." By the time Watters went on injured reserve the second time, he felt like an outcast. He moped around the locker room and spent his free time watching rented movies and eating boxes of barbecued potato chips that his family shipped from Harrisburg. He gained 20 pounds. Watters admitted his pain, frustration and loneliness in telephone conversations with his parents, Marie and Jim, and he wondered whether pro football was really for him.
"Anything you want in life doesn't come easy," Marie told him. "If it's handed to you, you won't appreciate it as much as if you earned it. God has his own time and way of doing things. You're being tested for a reason. Maybe you're not ready to be a 49er."
By the time his injuries healed, Walters was determined to make it in the NFL and to gain the respect of his teammates. He devoted himself to the Niners' off-season training program, as well as to a martial arts regimen. Then in late June, when Watters stopped by the home of San Francisco tight end Jamie Williams to buy an Akita puppy that Williams had bred, he received a psychological boost.
Williams had been somewhat of an off-beat personality in the first nine of his 10 years in the league, sporting dreadlocks and reading Spiderman comics. Now he wears his hair short, and he completed his master's in mass communications at San Jose State in the off-season. Williams spoke to Watters not only from experience but also as one of the 49er leaders. "Destiny is in your hands," Williams told Watters. "Don't wait for them to give you anything. You'll get 1,000 yards if you want to. Be the man. And be yourself."
"The problem with sports is that we clone players," Williams said recently. "There's no other Ricky Watters in the NFL. He's like a snowflake. His cockiness frees up his natural abilities. It gives him the courage to do things on the field. It chases away his fears. I've seen a lot of running backs who look like Greek gods, but when the quarterback yells 'Hut, hut,' they won't engage, and they don't make the big plays Ricky Watters makes."
In training camp Watters' new work ethic was noticeable—he was running out plays the length of the field, just as Craig had done—and he toned down his act a bit. The veterans began to accept Watters' need for self-expression. Now the same linemen who a year ago thought Watters was a bust are joining his end zone celebrations, head-butting and duck-walking right along with him. Just the same, they keep his ego in check with gags that have cut him down to size.
Before the game in New Orleans, some 49ers doctored a game program to trick Watters into thinking he had won a Cadillac that was supposed to have gone to a lucky Saint fan. Another time San Francisco sportscaster Wayne Walker played along with a prank, taping an interview in which he asked Watters embarrassing questions and then enticed him into dancing on camera. To the chagrin of Watters, the tape was played on a team flight.