Bob Waters has reasons good and bad to recall his years as a San Francisco 49er quarterback, and so at lunch one day with his football staff at Western Carolina University in Cullowhee, N.C., he started telling some stories. "You fellows may remember Leo Nomellini," he began. "He was a great football player. But there was one thing old Leo was really sensitive about, and that was his wrestling." Waters leaned back in his chair, smiling at recollections of the Hall of Fame lineman. "He wrestled professionally in the offseason, and he couldn't stand for anyone to make fun of that sport. The rest of us, we had sense enough to keep our mouths shut, but there was this rookie offensive lineman in camp one year—I can't even remember his name—who walked right up to Leo and said, 'Hey, Leo, that rasslin' is all a big fake, isn't it?' I guess you can imagine what kind of practice that kid had playing opposite Leo Nomellini that afternoon. I don't believe we ever saw him again."
Waters leaned forward to sip a soft drink through a straw. "You know, I played one year with Y.A. Tittle, my rookie season in 1960, before they traded him to the Giants. He and John Brodie and I were the quarterbacks. Well, we had this halfback, Ray Norton, who'd been a world class sprinter at San Jose State, and I mean he could really fly. The bet in practice was who could throw a ball so far that Norton couldn't run under it. I don't think any of us threw one far enough, but Y.A. liked to say I came closest. Old Y.A. was out here last year visiting from California, and he told my players, 'That's right, old Bobby could throw that ball 80 yards or more. Trouble is, he threw it 80 yards on every pass play. Made no difference if it was a simple out pattern, a screen, a swing or what, Bobby'd crank up and throw it 80 yards.' " Waters was laughing now. "That, of course, is a slight exaggeration."
He is Bob Waters now, head coach for the past 18 seasons at Western Carolina, but back in the early '60s he was "Bobby" Waters, a lanky youngster from Presbyterian College in Clinton, S.C. He had a strong arm, and he could run a little, so when 49er coach Howard (Red) Hickey decided after the second game of the 1961 season to junk the conventional T and operate exclusively from a shotgun formation triggered by alternating quarterbacks, the kid backup got his first heady taste of stardom in the big time. Tittle was gone by then, the victim of Hickey's irrational faith in the new offense, and the other two quarterbacks, Brodie and rookie Bill Kilmer, were pretty much one-dimensional players in the shotgun: Brodie would always pass and Kilmer would usually run. It was the more versatile Waters who kept the defenses guessing.
On successive weekends that year the Niners beat the Lions 49-0, the Rams 35-0 and the Vikings 38-24. The team was 4-1 going into the Oct. 22 game with the Bears in Chicago, and it was leading the league in points scored (an average of 33.4 per game) and in both rushing and passing yardage. But Clark Shaughnessy, who had been scouting the 49ers for Chicago, had recognized that by plugging the middle with a linebacker, the shotgun could be defused. The Bears won 31-0, holding San Francisco to six first downs and 132 yards of total offense. The shotgun was finished, except as a diversion, and so, essentially, was Waters.
He held on until the '64 season, when a severe fracture of the right arm, the last of a series of injuries, hastened him into coaching. But Waters has few regrets about his playing days. They were good times. He made lasting friendships, and on one warm summer night during training camp he met Sheri Gidley of Lafayette, Calif., who has been his wife for 25 years. Like many another former pro, the 49-year-old Waters looks back on his playing years with a mixture of amusement and pride. The memories are good. They are also haunted.
When Waters began having trouble with his right arm about five years ago, he was certain it was just the old football injury acting up. He had a plate and a screw in that arm, and he often felt pain there. But this was different. He was getting severe cramps, and there were days when the arm would twitch uncontrollably. His fingers got so clumsy he couldn't even handle a screwdriver while doing a household chore. His team physician, Dr. Walter Durr, suggested he consult a neurologist. The initial diagnosis was that he was suffering from a form of neuropathy, a malfunctioning of the nervous system. His condition worsened. In February 1985 he was referred to Dr. Walter G. Bradley, a prominent neurologist at the University of Vermont. Bradley's diagnosis was ominous. Waters had amyotrophic lateral sclerosis (ALS), the paralyzing and usually fatal neuromuscular disorder commonly known as Lou Gehrig's disease, so named because on June 2, 1941, it killed the Yankee first baseman. It is a disease for which no cure has been discovered and no cause determined, a mysterious and relentless killer. It is also an especially cruel affliction because, in the vast majority of cases, the victim's mind is unaffected and he remains conscious and aware to the very end of his own suffering. He becomes, in effect, a prisoner in his own deteriorating body. Bradley told Waters he may have only two years to live.
Waters accepted the diagnosis, but not the prognosis. One of his staff assistants at Western Carolina had seen a television program that very week about new discoveries in the treatment of ALS that had been made at Baylor College of Medicine by Dr. Stanley H. Appel, chairman of the neurology department.
Waters applied for and was accepted into Appel's program, which initially involves treatment with the drug Cyclosporine, an immune system suppressant first used successfully with organ transplant patients. "We think ALS is an autoimmune disease," says Appel. "It's the body attacking itself and its motor neurons." An autoimmune disease may be defined as one in which the body's own immune system (white blood cells, phagocytes, etc.) attacks healthy cells. The autoimmune theory is but one of many put forward in continuing ALS research, but Cyclosporine treats only the immune component of the disease. "It's a little like taking an aspirin or maybe a shot of Scotch to cure a stubbed toe," says another ALS specialist, Dr. Forbes H. Norris of San Francisco's Pacific Presbyterian Medical Center. "You feel better, but you've still got the problem."
The disease can kill within a year, although some patients have lived as long as 20 years with ALS. Death within 3 to 10 years is, however, considered typical. Waters's condition has not markedly deteriorated in nearly a year, and his morale is high. He is encouraged by this apparent stabilization and buoyed further by a determination to fight the killer rather than sit back, as many ALS victims have done, and wait for it to take him. "I'm approaching this from the aggressor's side," he says. "Not to be too dramatic about it, but I want to get it before it gets me."
Although he has lost the use of both arms in the two years since his disease was diagnosed, Waters continues to coach at Western Carolina. He was on the field with his players at spring practice, and he will be with them again this fall. His 110-78-6 record is the best in the university's history. During the 1986 spring practice, he called his players together to tell them he had a disease "that not a whole lot is known about." Then, in his firm coach's voice, he said, "I'm going to beat it."