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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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Watters stayed out of Holtz's doghouse long enough to gain 1,652 yards and score 18 touchdowns as a receiver and a tailback in his last two seasons. The 49ers took him in the second round of the 1991 draft, only to see his first season shot after Watters broke his right foot in training camp and his right hand two months later while working with the practice squad. But over the next three seasons, by land and by air, he became one of the most complete offensive backs in football. What he also brought to the game was an energy and exuberance for his work that appeared almost alien to the cool efficiency of the 49er organization. And he again found himself saddled with the reputation that had cloaked him at Notre Dame: He was selfish; he was jealous of the limelight that bathed many of the Niners' other stars.

After Watters left San Francisco, Oakland Tribune columnist Monte Poole wrote: "Rick is, in short, all about Rick and Rick's pursuit of glory for Rick, by Rick. In Rick's world, there is Rick and 4 billion others taking up space that could belong to Rick."

Rhodes has heard it all before. "A lot of people think he's arrogant and selfish," says Rhodes, "but it's all about winning with Ricky." Then he adds, in apparent contradiction, "In San Francisco, with the system they had and all the players around him, a whole lot of his talents weren't exploited. He just wants an opportunity to show what he can do."

Days after Watters had signed the Eagles' offer sheet, but before the 49ers announced that they had decided not to match it, Niner coach George Seifert returned from a fishing trip in Mexico. Rattled by the news that his star back might not be returning, Seifert took him to lunch.

To Watters, Seifert seemed genuinely pained. "The one getting screwed in this whole thing is me," Watters says that Seifert told him. "They expect me to win here, and then they take away one of my best players." Seifert acknowledges taking Watters to lunch but denies criticizing the front office.

Watters liked Seifert well enough, but the 49er organization had a smug, superior air that he found hard to breathe. And he was growing weary hearing about how the Niner system had created him. "It's a great system, and I never want to forget the years I played with those guys," Watters says, "but don't try to say that they made me. The year I was hurt, they didn't even make the playoffs. Same quarterback. Same wide receivers. Same tight end. Same offense. But no brand-name running back to take the pressure off Steve. I came in and made the offense work again."

Obviously, Policy does not think so. He could have matched the Eagles' deal, could have manipulated the figures, as he is so adept at doing, to fit Watters under the salary cap. But he chose not to do so.

Instead, he decided to make an issue of Watters's desire to carry the ball more, raising the old selfishness issue again. From his vacation retreat in Costa Rica, Policy said, "We're not comfortable allocating millions of dollars to a player not 100 percent committed to our long-range goals, our game plan and our offensive system."

Which is to say, the ingrate can take a hike. With a wistful glance back, Watters says, "I learned I didn't mean as much to them as I thought."

He has waited years for the chance that awaits him in Philadelphia. At last, the bus depot handoff will learn just how fast and far and high he can go. "I just want to show I'm as good as those other backs," he says. "I will be at peace to know."

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