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 33 touchdowns.
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 here?"
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 bal 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 the ball?"
"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.