SI Vault
William Nack
September 11, 1995
Despite a bad start in Philly, ex-49er Ricky Watters is pushing to become the star he always claimed he was
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September 11, 1995

The Man

Despite a bad start in Philly, ex-49er Ricky Watters is pushing to become the star he always claimed he was

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"What did you go and do now, Marie?"

"You wanted a son, didn't you?" she said. "Well, I got you one."

Several months earlier, at a neighborhood party, Marie had told a woman that after years of trying to have a baby, she and Jim had adopted a daughter, Rhonda, and how much the couple also wanted a boy. "My daughter's pregnant again, and she doesn't take care of the children she has," the woman said. "I'm going to make sure she puts it up for adoption. Would you be interested?"

When the baby was born in April, Marie hired a lawyer to arrange for the transfer of custody, and only then did she tell her husband what she had been up to. The hospital where the boy was born asked that the transfer not be done on their grounds, and so the morning after she broke the news about the new member of the family, Marie and Jim drove to the parking lot of the old Trailways bus depot on Chestnut Street and waited there for the lawyer to bring them their child.

This exchange is noted nowhere in the NFL record book, but that bus depot handoff surely ranks among the most memorable in the history of the league. At four days old the child, whom the Watterses would name Richard James, had juked one world and slipped into another.

Now, 26 years later, Ricky has returned to Pennsylvania hungering to be born anew. After four often tempestuous seasons under coach Lou Holtz at Notre Dame, where he played in the darting shadows of Tim Brown and Rocket Ismail, and after those triumphant seasons in San Francisco, where he caught no more than the reflected light of Jerry Rice and Steve Young, Watters is looking for the kind of peace that he can find only in knowing, truly knowing, how good he is and how far he can go when given the ball.

"I've never been the Man before," Watters says. "I never was at Notre Dame. In San Francisco I was one of the men. Now I'm the Man."

The fact is that Watters grew up with a powerful sense of entitlement, with the conviction that the ball belonged to him, that he deserved to be the Man. He was taught to assert himself.

Jim and Marie raised Ricky in the rough-and-tumble uptown section of Harrisburg. Both parents had steady work, he as a postal worker, until he retired with a disability, and she as a licensed practical nurse. Over the protests of the tougher-minded Jim, who had grown up in poverty in rural Alabama and won four Bronze Stars and two Purple Hearts as a demolitions expert in the Korean War, Marie indulged her kids merrily. "I had waited so long for children, and I wanted them to have all the things I didn't have," she says. "We always had a good income. Our house at Christmas was like a department store. Our sofa was filled with nothing but toys. Ricky always had the best basketball, the best football."

He grew up as the kid who had it all. Skinny Rick, as the boys called him, would head off to Our Lady of the Blessed Sacrament looking like he had stepped from the pages of a Macy's catalog. While Jim governed Ricky's upbringing with a booming bass voice, he also did his share of doting on the boy. Until he was 16 and could drive himself, Ricky was taken to and from school every day by his father. "I wanted him concentrating on school work," Jim says. "And sports." Until Ricky left for Notre Dame, Jim rarely missed one of his son's football or basketball games.

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