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Barking Back

This season 49er Ricky Watters plays as good a game as he talks

Skinny Rick Watters and the older boyz'n the 'hood, homeys like Fat Kenny Robinson, Turk Alderman and Rodney (Bert Jones) Baltimore, played football wherever they could find open space in the uptown section of Harrisburg, Pa. The games tended to be hazardous to their health, ruinous to their clothes and hard on their egos. And for a runt like Skinny Rick, at least four years younger than the others, it was a struggle to keep up.

"They always made me cry," Skinny Rick says. "I'd want to stop or go home, but they wouldn't let me. Afterward I'd be all skinned up and my dad would say, 'I told you so.' My mom would say, 'Don't play with those big boys anymore.' But I wouldn't give up."

They would play two-hand touch on Jefferson Street in front of the Watters family's brick row house, where Skinny Rick once ran a pass pattern between two parked cars and sliced open his right shin on a mangled fender. For a game of tackle the boys used a sloping patch of grass next to the Bodwill plumbing and heating supply company, around the corner on Seventh Street, where Skinny Rick stepped in gopher holes and ran over rusty nails.

But the games played on the long, wide asphalt parking lot at the Harrisburg News Company, just behind the Watterses' backyard, were the ones that separated the men from the boys. The combatants returned home from the one-hand-touch battles in torn T-shirts, blood-stained sweatshirts and tattered blue jeans. The older boys liked to play tricks on Skinny Rick, like handing him the ball and then dropping to the asphalt and leaving him to elude the defenders on his own. But he would take a deep breath and yell, "They can't stop me! They can't stop me!" and then try to dance his way to a touchdown. Other times the big boys purposely wouldn't throw to Skinny Rick, and he would run elaborate patterns to get their attention. "Just throw me the ball!" he would shout. "I can do it!"

"I couldn't have beaten anybody if I had only hoped to do it," says Skinny Rick now. "I had to hear myself say, 'I can do it!' to feel invincible. The older boys liked my cockiness. The rougher the games got, and the tougher they were on me, the tougher I got."

Look where his they-can't-stop-me attitude has taken him: No longer skinny, at 6'1", 212 pounds, the 23-year-old Watters is the starting halfback for the 10-2 San Francisco 49ers and one of the few fresh talents to burst onto the NFL scene this season. By filling a void in the Niner offense, the all-purpose back role in which Roger Craig excelled in the championship years of the late 1980s, Watters has helped restore San Francisco's offense to No. 1 in the NFL. With the strength and explosiveness needed to run between the tackles, the quickness and speed necessary to get outside on sweeps and an excellent pair of hands that make him a receiving threat, Watters is fourth in the league in total yards from scrimmage, with 1,380, including 985 yards and nine touchdowns on 196 carries and 395 yards and two TDs on 42 catches.

His best performance came on Oct. 11, against the New England Patriots, when his fourth-quarter heroics—six carries for 47 yards and one touchdown, plus four catches for 25 yards and another score—brought the 49ers from behind for a 24-12 road win. Watters finished with 188 rushing and receiving yards in the game.

On a recent trip to Harrisburg, when one of Watters' uptown homeboys asked him when the 49ers would play the Detroit Lions this season. Walters told him Dec. 28 and said, "I'll show Barry Sanders how it's done." But, someone replied, Sanders may be the best running back in the NFL. "Not by the time I'm finished this season," Watters shot back.

If Watters can back up his big talk, he stands to clean up financially. A second-round draft pick out of Notre Dame in 1991, he signed an unusual two-year, no-option deal that is loaded with 45 paragraphs of incentives. Although his base salary averages out to $403,000 per year for '91 and '92, Watters can make as much as $750,000 more this year with the addons. His agent, Tom Condon of IMG, estimates Watters will earn at least $300,000 in incentives in '92, and with the Niners holding no option on his services after this season, he could land a big contract if unrestricted free agency becomes a reality.

"In my 10 years here, Ricky's the most-talented running back we've had." says center Jesse Sapolu. "Roger Craig ran on heart; his high knee action made him special. But if you talk about cutting and reading holes, Ricky is special. With Craig's work habits, he'll be great."

"Ricky's a miniature Bo Jackson," says tackle Steve Wallace, who blocked for Jackson during Bo's 1985 Heisman Trophy season at Auburn. "He has more moves than Bo and better lateral movement. He's able to lower his shoulders and run through people like Bo did. You'll hear a thump, then the breath goes out of guys when Ricky runs into them."

Walters still can be as brash as he was on the uptown asphalt. In this season's opener, against the New York Giants, after Watters made his first carry—a 13-yard pickup—he bounded back to the huddle, shouting, "They can't stop me!"

"It was only the third play of the game," says Wallace. "We all laughed at him."

Every time Watters picked up good yardage in that game—he gained 100 yards on 13 carries and 50 yards on five receptions—he drove his fist into the air as if he had scored a touchdown. And after each series he went to the 49er sideline, bragging. "I can do it! I can do it!"

Against the New Orleans Saints on Sept. 27, when the song The Power blared through the Louisiana Superdome speakers during a timeout, Jiggle Joints—one of several nicknames Watters has been given by his teammates—began to dance in the huddle. "Dude, we're in a game we could lose," said guard Guy McIntyre.

"No problem," Watters replied with a smile. "I've got it covered." San Francisco won 16-10, with Watters contributing 76 yards rushing and 52 receiving.

Before the start of the '92 season, however, none of the 49ers could have predicted Watters' success or that he would be popular with his teammates. As a rookie Watters was heralded as the cure for San Francisco's lackluster ground game, but three days after reporting to training camp he broke his right foot while making a cut and was placed on injured reserve. When Walters rejoined the Niners as a member of the practice squad in the fifth week of the season, team veterans thought he was more style than substance. "He had all the moves of O.J. Simpson, Barry Sanders and Marcus Allen, and he used them on every play," recalls Wallace. "Seventy-five moves in one spot."

Two weeks later Watters broke his right hand in practice. For several days he attempted to practice with a splint on the hand, but the pain was too much and San Francisco put him on injured reserve for the remainder of the season. "If you had asked me, I would have told you that the team had made a mistake in drafting him," tackle Harris Barton says. "Most of us thought he was a bust."

Disappointed in Watters' performance on the field, the 49ers were equally irritated by his act off it. Loud, flashy and arrogant, he had the look of a hip-hop music star, with designer sunglasses, a diamond earring, gold chains, a hooded silk jacket that he kept unzipped to reveal his chest, baggy blue jeans and combat boots. He wore a pager on his belt and drove a Mercedes with the vanity plates RICK 32.

Even while injured, Watters talked a good game. When the offensive players met to study game tapes, he would project himself into the action with cries of "He couldn't stop me!" and "I can do that!" He constantly railed about his disappointing career at Notre Dame. According to Watters, Irish coach Lou Holtz told him that he would have a great chance at being the featured tailback for four years and that he would get a shot at winning the Heisman Trophy. Instead Walters was flip-flopped from tailback (freshman year) to flanker (sophomore) to tailback (junior) to wide receiver (spring practice) to tailback (senior), and he was overshadowed first by 1987 Heisman Trophy winner Tim Brown and then by 1990 Heisman runner-up Raghib (Rocket) Ismail.

Watters publicly questioned and privately confronted Holtz about how he was used in the offense. He even phoned the coaches' box during games to ask why he wasn't getting the ball. As it turned out, Watters was just one of several quality backs signed by Notre Dame in the late '80s, and his junior season, 1989, when he rushed for 791 yards and 10 touchdowns, would be his best.

"He's a little Napoleon," Walters says of Holtz. "I could have easily won the Heisman if he had pushed me for it. But I didn't fit the Notre Dame image of a football player, especially a black player. We weren't supposed to be flashy or make waves. Rocket was a perfect candidate because he never said anything. I was articulate and stood up for what I believed."

Holtz, who says he isn't surprised by Watters' success this season, refuses to be drawn into a confrontation. "If his career didn't turn out as well as he expected, I'm sorry," Holtz says. "But I would do nothing different."

Watters' self-promotion grew so annoying to 49er veterans last year that whenever his name was mentioned in meetings, they would sarcastically add, "Should've won the Heisman." By the time Watters went on injured reserve the second time, he felt like an outcast. He moped around the locker room and spent his free time watching rented movies and eating boxes of barbecued potato chips that his family shipped from Harrisburg. He gained 20 pounds. Watters admitted his pain, frustration and loneliness in telephone conversations with his parents, Marie and Jim, and he wondered whether pro football was really for him.

"Anything you want in life doesn't come easy," Marie told him. "If it's handed to you, you won't appreciate it as much as if you earned it. God has his own time and way of doing things. You're being tested for a reason. Maybe you're not ready to be a 49er."

By the time his injuries healed, Walters was determined to make it in the NFL and to gain the respect of his teammates. He devoted himself to the Niners' off-season training program, as well as to a martial arts regimen. Then in late June, when Watters stopped by the home of San Francisco tight end Jamie Williams to buy an Akita puppy that Williams had bred, he received a psychological boost.

Williams had been somewhat of an off-beat personality in the first nine of his 10 years in the league, sporting dreadlocks and reading Spiderman comics. Now he wears his hair short, and he completed his master's in mass communications at San Jose State in the off-season. Williams spoke to Watters not only from experience but also as one of the 49er leaders. "Destiny is in your hands," Williams told Watters. "Don't wait for them to give you anything. You'll get 1,000 yards if you want to. Be the man. And be yourself."

"The problem with sports is that we clone players," Williams said recently. "There's no other Ricky Watters in the NFL. He's like a snowflake. His cockiness frees up his natural abilities. It gives him the courage to do things on the field. It chases away his fears. I've seen a lot of running backs who look like Greek gods, but when the quarterback yells 'Hut, hut,' they won't engage, and they don't make the big plays Ricky Watters makes."

In training camp Watters' new work ethic was noticeable—he was running out plays the length of the field, just as Craig had done—and he toned down his act a bit. The veterans began to accept Watters' need for self-expression. Now the same linemen who a year ago thought Watters was a bust are joining his end zone celebrations, head-butting and duck-walking right along with him. Just the same, they keep his ego in check with gags that have cut him down to size.

Before the game in New Orleans, some 49ers doctored a game program to trick Watters into thinking he had won a Cadillac that was supposed to have gone to a lucky Saint fan. Another time San Francisco sportscaster Wayne Walker played along with a prank, taping an interview in which he asked Watters embarrassing questions and then enticed him into dancing on camera. To the chagrin of Watters, the tape was played on a team flight.

Watters can take the hint, and now he even enjoys the ribbing, but it appears that nothing is going to shut him up. "I'll fire myself up to feel confident, and I'll try to instill that feeling of invincibility in my teammates," he says. "I'll tell Tom Rathman that he's the man or Jerry Rice that he can't be stopped. I try not to step on anybody's toes; I just want to have something to do with our success. We can all do things that we've never imagined. Whoever thought the great players would do what they have? They pursued a dream, and then they went beyond it. Someday I'd love to be one of the best who has ever played. I don't know if that will happen, but I can't be faulted for trying."





Recalling his all-purpose predecessor, Watters ranks fourth in yards from scrimmage.



The homeys welcomed Skinny Rick to Harrisburg, where he honed his moves on asphalt.