WILKES-BARRE - When he arrived in the NFL, brash and fresh off an All-America college career, Ricky Watters thought he could conquer the world.
First, though, he had to take on “The Hill.”
That’s the challenge his new, star-studded San Francisco teammates laid out to Watters in the early days of his first training camp with the 49ers.
“I found out right away when I came into the league and started training with Jerry Rice and Roger Craig and Ronnie Lott,” said Watters, who signed autographs along with Lawrence Taylor at The Sports Scene in the Wy0ming Valley Mall as part of a promotion Saturday. “I thought I could just blaze up this hill and I could run with them. First of all, it wasn’t a hill, it was a mountain. And when we got to about the middle of the hill, and they took off and I was struggling. They left me.
“I realized I needed to step up my game.”
It was a lesson Watters never forgot through 11 NFL seasons with the 49ers, Philadelphia Eagles and Seattle Seahawks.
And it spurred him through an illustrious career that included a Super Bowl championship, 10,643 rushing yards, 78 total touchdowns and nearly 15,000 rushing/receiving yards.
“It was the practice we put in, the training,” Watters said. “We really worked hard. Being on a team with Jerry Rice, Roger Craig, Ronnie Lott, I learned how to be a professional right away, to be able to play hurt. Because you’re always hurt. But can you get in there and can you still play?”
From his high school days at Bishop McDevitt in Harrisburg, Watters proved he could play with the best of them.
He was named as the Associated Press Pennsylvania Player of the Year in 1986, then went on to an All-American career at Notre Dame — where he teamed with former Wilkes-Barre hero Raghib “Rocket” Ismail to win a college football national championship in 1988.
“We’re still good friends to this day,” Watters said when reminded he was standing in the same mall Ismail visited while growing up as a football star at Meyers High School. “I just stayed at his house a month ago.”
Selected in the second round of the 1991 NFL Draft by the 49ers as the 45th pick overall, Watters quickly paid dividends for the 49ers. After battling through an injury-plagued rookie season, he helped the 49ers offense lead the NFL in total yardage and scoring from 1992 through 1994.
And in the 1994 postseason, Watters set an NFL record by rushing for five touchdowns during a 44-3 rout against the vaunted New York Giants defense led by Taylor — who declined an interview request Saturday. Watters lists that achievement as his greatest game on his official website.
“The reason why I have that up there is not just because of the fact I scored five touchchdowns,” Watters said, “but even moreso because of who we did it against. The Giants defense was the most formidable defense you could do it against.”
But the biggest moment for Watters came a year later, when he ran for three touchdowns during a 49-26 shellacking of San Diego in Super Bowl XXIX.
“That’s the pinnacle,” Watters said. “The Super Bowl is it, there’s no better. Winning the national championship was the biggest thing up to that point. But the Super Bowl, there are movie stars there, there are singers there, there are models there and they’re all there to see you. The Super Bowl was like a dream. When we were up 21-0, I thought somebody was going to wake me up, that I was dreaming.
“There’s nothing like that.”
Interestingly, both those teams haven’t experienced any success like that since Watters left. Notre Dame’s 1988 national championship and San Francisco’s 1994 Super Bowl championship season were the last times those teams won it all.
“When you look at those kinds of achievements, those are just so much (because of) my teammates,” Watters said. “I had great teammates, great coaches, I was on great teams with great organizations. Just being a part of that was amazing. You feel it at the time, but you appreciate them more as you get older — ‘I did that. I was a part of that.’”
Watters didn’t quite get back to the top of the mountain during the latter half of his NFL career, but he is proud of his accomplishments with the Eagles and Seattle Seahawks.
He’s especially fond of his production in Philadelphia, where he rushed for more than 1,000 yards in each of his three seasons from 1995-97, and spearheaded the Eagles’ charge to NFC playoff appearances during his last two years with the team.
“It definitely was like a homecoming,” Watters said. “Just playing in the NFC East, that was no joke. All the teams are tough as nails. To go to the playoffs two of the three years I was there was pretty good, especially when nobody thought we’d do much. And beating Dallas, when Dallas had that tremendous team, for us to be able to win against them every year was really good and really fun.
“But it was more like, ‘Now I’m the leader,’ ” Watters continued. “With the 49ers, those guys were older than me, you kind of followed their example. With the Eagles, that was the start of me paving the way for younger players — Duce Staley, Charlie Garner. Now I was the elder statesman.”
Wherever he went, Watters showed an uncanny penchant for putting defenses in a state of panic, by running through defenders, catching passes and blocking blitzers in a do-it-all effort to put his team over the top.
“I think it was the all-round game, that’s what I took pride in,” Watters said. “I could run, I could block, I could catch.”
And somewhere along the way, his mountainous climb to NFL stardom turned into a mole hill.
“I understood the game,” Watters said. “I learned from some great players and great coaches. I listened to guys and learned what it takes to be successful and what to do.”