Ricky Watters makes good on plan to finish degree at Notre Dame
SOUTH BEND — A smile envelops Ricky Watters’ face as talk turns to the man cave in his Orlando, Fla., home.
There are plaques and trophies and memorabilia celebrating the former Notre Dame star’s 11-year NFL career, one that saw him run for 10,643 yards for the San Francisco 49ers, Philadelphia Eagles and Seattle Seahawks.
But as the man cave has evolved, so has the decor. Jockeying for space are diplomas signifying the academic and professional achievements of Watters’ wife, Catherina, a member of the Florida and California Bar Associations.
“There’s all these plaques up and it’s just athletic achievements for me for the most part,” Watters said. “I would love to be able to put something up there that academically I was sound too, because I was a sound student, and I was a top-notch student.”
Watters, now 45 years old and 13 seasons removed from last NFL game, left Notre Dame short of his undergraduate degree. It wasn’t one of those drop-everything-for-the-pros departures, but an inability to complete his course work in Architecture, which is typically a five-year process at Notre Dame.
The window on an NFL career closes quickly. Watters, a second-round pick in 1991, made sure to maximize his pro playing potential.
Only 20 backs in league history have run for more yards.
During his playing career, though, Watters never closed the door on obtaining his degree. But there were obstacles. He wanted to do the work at Notre Dame so the diploma would come from the school he holds in such high regard.
When he became a father, Watters and his wife didn’t want to uproot the family during the school year. He had to wait longer than he would have liked, but he always knew — he would go back.
That’s because not having his degree gnawed at Watters, and never more so than when he would be introduced at speeches as a Notre Dame graduate.
“Deep down inside I know I didn’t graduate,” Watters said, “so I had that feeling that I have to finish this, I have to graduate so that when they say that, it really means something to me. And it will mean something to my kids in the future. I know it’ll be a legacy that’ll be just as important as anything I did on the playing field.”
So when the opportunity presented itself recently, Watters went back to school.
It’s a gorgeous summer afternoon at Notre Dame. With 13-year-old son Ricky across campus at a music lesson, Watters, Catherina and their 7-year-old son Shane are camped about 50 yards from the Guglielmino Athletics Complex, the football facility that didn’t exist when Watters played at the school from 1987-90. He’s about 100 yards — a good rushing day — from Notre Dame Stadium, where Watters helped the Lou Holtz-led Irish create so many memorable moments.
As Watters stands talking on a sidewalk, a student a maybe a quarter-century his junior walks past. The two greet each other by name. In fact, there’s a good chance that many of the students in Watters’ three summer classes know him by name, and not because of his playing days.
In class, Watters is the guy in the front row, the one with his arm always raised, the school of hard knocks a Cliffs notes of sorts for the answers he always seems to have.
“I’m sitting in the very front and I know and totally remember when I was in the back,” he says, recalling the days in the late 1980s and early ‘90s when he would populate the rear rows of classrooms, something he notices the handful of current Irish he shares classes with doing now. “It’s not even like I’m looking at them and thinking I can’t believe they’re in the back. It’s like, that was me. I can clearly see it, even why they’re in the back, everything. It’s kind of amazing.”
Amazing too has been Watters’ success in picking up where he left off. He had to receive special permission to take three summer classes, one more than the usual class load. Catherina pointed out that prior to school starting, Watters was worried about just passing those courses - — theology, liberal studies and ceramics.
He’s carrying an A, an A- and a B+.
“I can tell you one thing, there’s been some surprises; very positive surprises,” Watters said. “One thing that I didn’t see coming is the fact that I would actually love it so much, that I would actually appreciate it so much, that I would learn so much.”
Catherina pointed out that her husband turned in a paper a week early so it wouldn’t interfere with the family’s plans to spend time with former teammate Pat Terrell’s family over the Fourth of July. Watters rattles off the list of books required for his liberal studies class, and the deep, thought-provoking conversations that he immerses himself.
And ceramics? He’s made some steins. He’s made some sake cups. He’s made pouring vessels. His current project is a tank that will serve as a teapot.
“I think it’ll be cool,” Watters says confidently.
Cool too has been Watters’ willingness to shoulder the responsibility that comes with being Ricky Watters.
When Irish running backs coach Tony Alford asked him to speak to his players, Watters was impressed by how they soaked up his message.
He also has learned from the classmates old enough to be his children. Being on time is one way to show respect to his professors.
And yes, sitting in the front row is important, because of what he has to learn, and because of what he has to offer.
“It’s also amazing why I’m in the front now,” Watters said, “because I know what life has in store for you.”
The past, pain
On this particular day, Watters awoke with a creaky shoulder. There are other days when it’s his hip. The next it might be a foot or a knee. As he spoke of his love for drawing, a not-normal-looking right knuckle illustrated why it’s difficult to feed that passion.
In addition to those physical reminders from the game, Watters also has experienced some memory problems.
“That’s the hard part, that you always will love the game, but then you understand the stakes,” he said. “The stakes are high. They really are.”
In 2012, Watters became one of the many former players to sue the NFL over concussions.
“The bad part is we didn’t understand what it was,” Watters says. “We actually thought it was a cool thing, like, ‘Whoa, I’m ready to go now. Can’t really see anything, it’s kind of crazy spinning around, but that must mean I’m in the game now.’
“But when you learn what that does to your body and what it does to your head, now you’re looking at it and you’re saying, ‘Whoa.’
“That’s why we’re in the situation we’re in.”
Catherina began to notice issues with her husband’s memory, and his boys also have seen it.
“What I’ve noticed the most is just the difference in the memory,” Catherina said. “It’s hard. If you don’t live with that person, you wouldn’t notice. You probably find that he speaks intelligently and speaks well. He remembers the questions that you’re asking. But it’s something that I definitely can tell.”
So can Watters.
“You need somebody that really cares about you to tell you you’re not remembering like you were,” he said. “You’re a little more frustrated when you’re doing certain things that you didn’t used to be. Because it’ll start out real subtle, but then I think it gets worse from what I’ve heard.
“Hopefully I’m not anywhere close to being that bad off.”
The two operate the Chang Watters group in Central Florida, offering services that include NFL disability claims. Catherina is not a direct party to the NFL lawsuit but offers services on matters such as what benefits are available and when paperwork is due. Watters’ title is director of sports and athlete relations.
Catherina also been a sounding board for former players.
“I think that’s what a lot of guys just need,” Catherina said. “Once you retire, a lot of guys are just in this black hole, trying to make it on their own.”
Watters does not fall in that “on your own” or “black hole” category. Far from it.
He and Catherina have been together since 1993 and married for 15 years. Shane, their younger son, has kept busy this summer, including taking guitar lessons. Ricky Jr. is a scratch golfer and likes to sing and play the guitar. He’ll perform July 23 at Fiddler’s Hearth in South Bend.
Young Ricky is so involved in other activities that he doesn’t plan to play football, something he asked if his father would be OK with.
“I’m like, ‘That’s fine. Do you,’” Watters said.
While not forcing his past on his sons, Watters has embraced part of it. Watters, who was adopted, sought out his biological mother 13 years ago.
He found a woman who loved poetry — like him — and a woman who loved drawing — like him. His biological mother’s brother, in fact, taught poetry at the University of Pennsylvania.
“So those helped me and it was good for me, because it’s not the coolest thing to be a poet and a football player,” Watters said. “All those things help you. It just helps you along the way to just know and just understand and get some truth. I came full circle with that and I feel that this is coming full circle with me coming back here.”
A couple weeks of classes are all that remain for Watters. On a recent gorgeous Friday afternoon, Watters is initially excited about the weekend.
“I think I’m done for the ...,” he started, before catching himself. “Well, actually, I’m not, because I have a lot of homework.”
Work remains before Watters has his degree in graphic design, but he’s already allowed his mind to wander to where exactly his diploma will be displayed. Watters, who wears the 1994 Super Bowl ring he won with the 49ers on his left hand and his 1988 Notre Dame national championship on his right, has a spot picked out.
It’s a special spot in the man-cave real estate where jerseys from those two magical seasons hang. Soon, a degree from the University of Notre Dame will make that wall a little more crowded, but a lot more complete.
“So I’m going to put it right there,” he said, the smile again enveloping his face, his hands framing the spot where he sees it hanging near the jerseys. “It’s just as important as those, if not more.”