And in football Ricky always insisted on having the ball. If his quarterback ignored him too long in pickup games, he would pout, then grab the next pass thrown anywhere near him and sail for home with a half dozen boys in howling pursuit.
As he grew, Ricky became enchanted by the televised exploits of NFL running backs Tony Dorsett and Walter Payton. "Dorsett had the vicious spin move," says Watters. "That and his acceleration in the hole were unbelievable. He made people miss at the line of scrimmage. A lot of people tell you not to do that because you might spin into a lick. But Dorsett was so quick and he could turn it so well that he could make people miss in the smallest of areas. The little pony kick and the use of my arms to shield myself from defenders, I got from Payton."
He learned well. Defenses chased him up and down football fields all through an exemplary career at Bishop McDevitt High, and toward the end of his senior season, scouts gathered whenever Ricky played. As Watters remembers it, the Fighting Irish hustled him the hardest, with Holtz coming by to deliver an hour-long speech on the virtues of a Notre Dame education before he finally proclaimed, "Now, Rick, we think you're the finest tailback in the nation." Ricky's eyes widened when Holtz told him, "If you want to win the Heisman, where else would you go but Notre Dame?"
That was all Watters had to hear. He was off to South Bend. And it was there, not long after he arrived, that the whispering began: Watters is not a team player; he is unwilling to subordinate his own ambitions to the greater good.
In the first game of his freshman year, in the fall of 1987, the Irish were beating Michigan at Ann Arbor, and there was Watters, standing on the sideline, his uniform spotless, his helmet in his hand. It had been only eight months since Holtz had told him that he was the best schoolboy tailback in the nation; that he could even start for Notre Dame right away. And now, even in the fourth quarter, with the Irish ground game grinding it out, Watters was doing nothing but watching.
And suddenly he was striding about in a fury. "Rick was running up and down the sideline ranting and raving and complaining that he wasn't playing and wasn't getting any touches," recalls Todd Lyght, then a Notre Dame defensive back, now a member of the St. Louis Rams. "He's yelling, going crazy. He's yelling at Coach Holtz!"
At first Holtz appeared not to notice. Then, all at once, clearly peeved, he decided to let the big Michigan defenders shut Watters up. So he put him in the game. And the third time he ever touched the ball for Notre Dame, Watters slanted like a stag through the Wolverine secondary, 18 yards for a touchdown. Watters was even louder in exultation than he had been in frustration. Surrounded by teammates, within earshot of Holtz, he shouted over and over, "I told you! I told you. Just give me the ball! I want to help this team win. All I want is the ball!"
That afternoon was a harbinger of Watters's career at Notre Dame—one in which he was moved to flanker his sophomore year, a decision he protested. "He was moving a lot of people around, and they all moved," says Watters. "I was the only one who said, 'Wait a minute. You said I'd be a running back for four years.' He didn't like that. He said I had an attitude."
One August night in 1989, the offense was practicing pass patterns when quarterback Tony Rice overthrew Watters on a post pattern. It was Watters's duty, under Holtz's rules, to retrieve the ball and run briskly back to the huddle. Not Watters. When the ball sailed over his head, he showed up Rice by standing for a moment and then lazily walking over to the ball. After picking it up, he jogged slowly back. Livid at the show of disdain, Holtz ordered the Irish to do calisthenics. He did not need to tell the players who was to blame for their being forced to do push-ups in the summer heat.
When practice resumed, Watters was carrying a naked pitch around end when safety Pat Terrell grabbed him around the neck and threw him, karate-style, to the ground. Watters tried to retaliate, but Terrell got in a couple more licks before teammates halfheartedly separated the two. Holtz watched but did nothing as the fight unfolded. Plunging his hands into his pockets, he turned and walked away.