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."