Watters, 49ers wild man, is as good as his many words vs. Giants

January 17, 1994|By Joe Gergen | Joe Gergen,Newsday

SAN FRANCISCO -- The story is unattributed but nevertheless accepted as gospel.

On the occasion of Ricky Watters' very first carry in the NFL, against the New York Giants no less, the San Francisco running back untangled himself from a pile of bodies at The Meadowlands, high-stepped back to the huddle and told his 49ers teammates, "They can't stop me." While that may have been a slight exaggeration, it was no lie.

As a rookie, Watters ran all the way to the Pro Bowl. Sidelined for three weeks by a knee injury this season, he nevertheless rushed for 950 yards and Saturday tore the Giants defense to shreds with an effort that established several postseason records. Outgaining the redoubtable Rodney Hampton by a ratio of almost 10 to 1, he accounted for five of the 49ers' six touchdowns in a crushing 44-3 victory that boosted them into the NFC championship game next Sunday against Dallas.

And he did so with the uninhibited style that seems at odds with his team's high-tech, professional image. "We're a veteran offense," quarterback Steve Young said. "We've been together a while and we're low-key. Ricky is the only wild man."

Indeed, the man is positively manic once he slips into uniform. Wearing a headband more suitable to Deion Sanders or to the Raiders under his helmet, Watters high-fived fans hanging over the rail at Candlestick Park before the start of the game, stiff-armed the late, great Lawrence Taylor (who later announced his retirement) on one particularly nifty move and made the Giants pay for their soft zone defense designed to keep wide receivers Jerry Rice and John Taylor in check.

The third-year player from Notre Dame gained 118 yards on the ground, added 46 yards on five receptions and set NFL postseason standards for touchdowns (five), rushing TDs (five) and points scored (30) in a game.

He might have added a sixth had not George Seifert cringed at the sight of Watters being dragged down by the facemask by Keith Hamilton on the first possession of the fourth quarter. "We realized we had another game coming up," the head coach said. He replaced Watters with Marc Logan, who carried on the next three plays, scoring the 49ers' final TD.

Watters said the records were nice, but what he would remember just as long was the compliment from Taylor as the teams walked to the other end of the field at the conclusion of the third quarter. "[Taylor] said, 'You're running your butt off. Keep it up,' " the back recalled after the game. "I consider him the greatest linebacker of all time. That gave me even more confidence."

There are teammates who consider such a development impossible, who believe Watters has been so full of himself since the day he reported to his first training camp that there was no room for such an addition.

"I'm not cocky," Watters said. "But I have a lot of self-assurance. I got it from my father and mother."

He conceded, however, that his hyper personality has contributed to some misunderstanding. It was said Watters was something less than the most popular player at the Pro Bowl, where he took the occasion to compare himself to the likes of Emmitt Smith, Barry Sanders and Thurman Thomas. "I meet people," Watters said, "and they tell me, 'Wow, I thought you were a jerk. But you're just you.' I'd like to be loved, too."

As Dizzy Dean was wont to say, "It ain't braggin if you can do it." And Watters can do it, although sometimes he tries to do too much. In the words of tight end Jamie Williams, "He puts on the cape and tries to play Superman."

The Niners have attempted to lower Watters' decibel level.

"This year he has worked to fit in," Young said. "We've all found a way to bring Ricky into the fold and still play 49ers football. We've all found a way to make it work. He creates a lot of positive energy."

Watters still goes off occasionally. In fact, in the season opener at Pittsburgh, he objected so vociferously to what he thought was a late hit along the sideline that he tried to slug a Steeler and was ejected in the third quarter of a Niners' win. "That was a one-time thing," he said. "I assure you it's not going to happen again."

Not that he wasn't tempted. The frustrated Giants defenders, he said, did a lot of talking but he didn't fall for the bait. Watters set the tone for the game in the very first series when he touched the ball six times in an 80-yard, eight-play drive that culminated in his 1-yard TD.

More than the touchdowns, however, the play that got a rise from the 67,143 fans in Candlestick, as well as his teammates, was a 19-yard sweep around left arm in which Watters drove Taylor into the turf with a stiff arm right off the mold of the Heisman Trophy. He said he didn't even realize who the Giants player was at the time, but seeing the linebacker getting up as he trotted back to the huddle, he patted his elder on the back.

"I told him basically how much I respected him," Watters said. "He's the best linebacker since I was born, the baddest of all time. I still can't believe we did what we did against LT and that great defense."

This was almost an hour after the game and Watters still was wearing the bandanna that said, "Big Headed Sportswear," a company started by a friend. "It doesn't mean what you think," he said. "It's all about confidence, about self-assurance. I work hard and I deserve what I get."

That was fair enough with Guy McIntyre.

"Ricky's a character," the offensive guard said. "I wouldn't change him for anything in the world. He's a confident person and you have to be. A running back has to believe he can't be stopped. I've seen him go in there with that mindset. He tells himself, 'I won't go down,' and he breaks tackle after tackle."

"Whatever motivates him," said Young, the mellow quarterback, "they ought to bottle. But I don't know if the rest of us could handle it."

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