Ricky Watters has few regrets with settling into retirement on his terms
By Trent Modglin (email@example.com) Aug. 21, 2003
I remember Junior Seau telling me last year that you don’t just walk away from the game. It doesn’t happen. You’re either forced out because your body fails you, he believes, or because management seeks someone else at a lesser price or younger age. You just don’t leave on your own will.
“When things happen in the course of your career, you have to sit back and remind yourself that this is the best job in the world, and you have to embrace it and love it every day you have it,” Seau said then. “Because when it’s gone, it’s gone forever, and it wasn’t your choice.”
I had reason to believe Seau, because he generally speaks from the heart and speaks the truth. And what he said made sense. When you look around the league, it seems that most players are bluntly forced out the door, forced to move on in their lives whether they’re ready or not.
But there are exceptions to every rule, and I was reacquainted with that old adage after tracking down Ricky Watters recently for a feature in the current print edition (Issue 7, dated Aug. 25, 2003) of Pro Football Weekly.
Watters decided to buck that disappointing trend and quietly slip into retirement on his own terms, his decision, not theirs.
But that doesn’t mean that first Sunday, nearly a year ago, was any easier for him. It’s assumed that it’s always difficult for players on that first Sunday when they’re watching from home.
“It was crazy,” he said. “Watching Seattle was really hard because obviously there are guys out there I care about and the wanting to be out there. It was tough, especially right in the beginning. But I just started getting used to it. And that’s the thing. If I didn’t have anything else to fall back on, I’m sure I would have been glued to the TV and so into it that it probably would have gotten to me.”
Watters had a number of reasons to retire at age 33. He had a lot of things to fall back on, to occupy his time, to enjoy. His passion for the game was really the only reason to stay.
He was coming off shoulder and ankle injuries that cut his 2001 season short. He thought it might be a sign, because he entered the league the same way, nursing hand and foot injuries coming out of Notre Dame. He had a Super Bowl ring and had lasted about four times longer than the average NFL player. He found it more and more difficult to pull himself away from his young son. He had other projects that were occupying his thoughts and time — like his budding career as a music producer, a book that came out of nowhere, and, most importantly, the search to locate his birth family.
This was a year and a half ago, and yet there are still curious fans out there. When I told a friend of mine that I was supposed to be talking to Watters last week, he asked, “Oh, yeah? Who’s he playing for now?”
Watters gets the same thing all the time. Because there was no pomp and circumstance, no speeches, no retired jerseys, a lot of people assume he’s still on a roster adding to his nearly 15,000 career all-purpose yards. But, I am here to report he is indeed officially retired. Done with football. Regrets, I should add, seem scarce.
“I just felt like I have other things I can do,” Watters said by phone last week. “I’d taken care of myself, I’d done the right things in putting my money away, so I felt like it might be time to move on. I didn’t make it a big deal because no one else made it a big deal.”
Watters admits it wasn’t easy, giving up the game he loved so much. In his mind and on paper, he constantly found himself breaking down the pros and cons of continuing his career. It didn’t make it any easier when Dwight Clark called from Cleveland to request his services for the 2002 season. Jon Gruden, yeah, he too gave Watters a jingle from Tampa.
“That helped me more because those are people that I respect,” Watters said. “It was really a good feeling knowing that I was still wanted out there and that people that I had history with still thought of me the same way they did when I played for them the first time around. That helped me to actually move on, as well.”
A lot of the soul searching that made Watters realize it was time to move on dealt with his 2-year-old son, Ricky, and his desire to focus on and enjoy fatherhood. Watters and his wife had lost their first son, Tigero, during the middle of the 1999 season. He was born prematurely and lived just 17 days.
“That was a very hard time for me,” Watters said. “All of those things helped me in coming to the realization and understanding that retirement might not be such a bad thing. It didn’t matter how good I was in football or how much money I had or anything. I never felt so helpless in my whole life, but then I never felt so blessed a year later when a son came back to me. I know I’m a better father than I would have been had that not happened.”
Watters says he misses hanging and clowning with his teammates. But working with the bunch of musicians that make up his group “Tiger Brigade” helps ease the transition.
Together, with Watters working as the executive producer from his studio in Los Angeles, the group is putting the finishing touches on an as-of-now-unnamed album that is due out in a month or two.
The music, Watters said, crosses over several genres and is pretty diverse.
“I feel like everybody can relate to me, so I have a little bit of everything fused in there,” Watters said. “I’ve got the rock guitar and other instruments, like an orchestra. I just don’t want to do it just to prove I can do it. I really love making music.”
Watters was adopted, and another primary reason for calling it a career was his search for his birth family. He loves and appreciates his adopted family, the only family he’d known, but locating those with whom he shared bloodlines was a yearning he couldn’t shake.
After a taxing but ultimately rewarding search, Watters met his birth mother and two brothers for the first time just over a month ago.
“That’s one of the things I kind of want to get out there (in his book and music) because I know that there are probably a lot of other people dealing with that situation and don’t understand it. I started telling myself, ‘You’ll probably never find ’em, and even if you did, you’ll probably never like ’em. They’re probably not even good people.’ You just tell yourself stuff like that because it’s like a denial situation. … But my wife was the one that was like, ‘I’m watching you and I know that you care, and there are things that are going on that you don’t understand because you don’t know where you come from.’ ”
“That’s what I want to let people know, that if they’re in the position or that phase of it, it’s not a situation where it’s ‘Do you want to know or not?’ It’s like you have to know where you come from, you have to know why you look the way you do, why you have the mannerisms you have. So many things make sense now.”
Watters always wondered why he was probably the only football player who’d admit to a love — and gift — for writing poetry. Come to find out, his birth mother is a poet. And an uncle was a poet who taught at Penn State. His book, which started with him venting his confusion about which path to take on life’s winding road, helped him realize that his hardships ultimately have made him a better person. It was finished some time ago, but after connecting three “new” family members, it’s a safe assumption that he’s going to be adding another chapter.
He feels good when he looks back on his career, both what he was able to accomplish on and off the field. He’s proud of himself, even though he knows how weird that sounds to say.
And after not quite a year and a half since his decision to walk away from the game on his own free will, he has carved a comfortable niche for himself in retirement.
“Yeah, definitely,” he says with a chuckle, knowing he’s too busy to be thought of as a typical retiree. “I can’t say that I’m struggling with this retirement thing or anything. But at the same time, I mean, I love the sport. I miss my teammates and all that, but I’ve got new teammates now.”
Teammates who have helped him through tough times before and are there to fall back on should he need them again.