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Press Box

Treading Watters

The first announcement came in February 2007, and Ricky Watters – in his first year on the ballot – was not selected to the Pro Football Hall of Fame.

No worries then, because so many great football players are not picked in their first year of eligibility.

Another announcement came the next year, and still no Ricky Watters among the elected. Same with 2009, 2010, 2011, 2012 and so on.

Fast forward to 2017. This February – on the eve of the Super Bowl – the Hall of Fame will announce its class of 2017. Now for the spoiler alert, Ricky Watters will not be elected. He will have no special fitting for one of those snazzy gold blazers the Hall presents to its inductees.

Once again, Watters unwittingly is starring in  football’s version of the movie Groundhog Day.  Only the recurring song here is not Sonny and Cher’s cheesy, ear-worming I Got You Babe. For Watters, this time of year is more like Otis Redding’s classic (Sittin’ on) the Dock of the Bay.

Now in the 10th anniversary of his first appearance on the ballot, Watters is no closer to being enshrined in Canton than he was 30 years ago.

Back then, the 17-year-old Watters was playing atop Allison Hill at Bishop McDevitt High School, where his fall days were played out on a lumpy, sad-looking field aptly named the “Rock Pile.”

McDevitt was where the glory started for Watters. The University of Notre Dame is where it continued.

Even more glory followed in the NFL where, for 10 years, Watters was a workhorse of a running back for the San Francisco 49ers, Philadelphia Eagles and Seattle Seahawks. The records show Watters ran for 10,643 yards and caught 467 passes out of the backfield for another 4,248 yards.

Five times, he was selected to the Pro Bowl. Three times, he was selected to an All-Pro team. Never once, though, has he been a finalist on the Hall of Fame ballot.

Perhaps the selection panel of 40-plus sports writers, columnists and broadcasters were not enamored with how the sometimes-brash Watters did not kowtow to their questions during his playing career. Not like some in the media never held a grudge.

Distinguishing between being great and being grating, of separating confidence from arrogance, is a line often blurred in pro sports.

Who knows? Maybe they were tone deaf to Watters’ Quixotic effort of finding additional fame and fortune as a rap artist.

Then, too, maybe Watters still is serving penance for his ill-timed, seemingly self-serving quote of “For Who? For What?” from his first game with Philadelphia in 1995 – a 21-6 home loss to Tampa Bay after which he was asked about alligator-arming a pass for him to avoid taking a hit from the Buccaneers’ defense.

“He doesn’t know anything about Philadelphia,” Eagles running back Keith Byars said then of Watters’ post-game comment. “He just made himself a living hell for a long time.”

One newspaper in Philadelphia’s ever-critical sports media quickly referred to the situation as “Wattersgate.”

Of course, for Philadelphia’s sports fans, forgetting is hard and forgiving, well, sometimes that never comes.

Yet, if you look at Watters’ career by the numbers and without judging him through the prism of public perception, you find a player who was among the best running backs of his generation. For that matter, he was one of the all-time best tailbacks in a league where bruising runners were king long before the don’t-dare-touch-them quarterbacks of today’s NFL.

Consider this, when Watters retired from the NFL after the 2001 season, he ranked: 11th all-time in rushing yards with 10,643; 11th all-time in rushing touchdowns at 78; 11th all-time in rushing average at 73.9 yards per game; and 12th all-time in rushing attempts with 2,622.

Not bad, considering only 30 pure running backs have been inducted into football’s Hall of Fame.

Watters’ 10,643 rushing yards over 10 seasons outdistanced the totals of more than a dozen running backs already in the Hall of Fame, including Larry Csonka, Leroy Kelly, John Henry Johnson and Floyd Little.

In fact, those 10,643 yards were more than 300 yards ahead of Hall of Famers Lenny Moore and Ollie Matson. Combined. In 26 seasons.

Watters’ 78 rushing touchdowns surpassed the totals of more than 12 Hall of Famers whose careers lasted as long as, if not longer than, Watters’ decade in the NFL.

His average of 73.9 yards rushing per game exceeded the production of nearly 20 Hall of Fame backs, including Tony Dorsett, Gale Sayers, Jerome Bettis, Franco Harris, Marshall Faulk, Thurman Thomas and Marcus Allen.

Those workmanlike 2,622 rushing attempts? More than 15 backs in the Hall, a group that includes O.J. Simpson, Jim Brown, Earl Campbell, Joe Perry, Paul Hornung and a bunch of the aforementioned greats.

Watters also has a number that no one can match: One.

As in the one and only running back in the NFL’s 95-year history to score five touchdowns in a playoff game. And as in the first back to rush for 1,000 yards with three different teams, a feat since matched by Willis McGahee with Buffalo, Baltimore and Denver.

Alas, there is a final, nagging number attached to Watters.

Zero.

As in the number of times he has survived just the first round of cuts in the Hall’s voting process, let alone reached the semifinal round of 15.

One year that may change, just not this year.  Again.

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