Road to the Pros.
I wouldn’t be here today without my parents Ulysses "Big Jim" Watters and Frances Marie Watters. My father was a military veteran and was awarded a Purple Heart in the Korean War and my mother was a nurse who provided comfort and care to elderly patients. My dad was as tough as they come and he taught me how to survive in the inner city of Harrisburg, PA.
Growing up, I felt I had to prove myself because I was the youngest and skinniest one on the block. They used to call me “Skinny Rick”. Also, I was adopted which came with a stigma where I grew up and I felt like the black sheep. That was the motivation I used to excel in sports. I played all of them, basketball, baseball and football. However, football became my passion, and everyone noticed, including every major college program in the NCAA.
I decided to sign with the University of Notre Dame because my parents felt that’s where I’d receive the best of both worlds (education and football). Plus, my mom had always dreamed of me going there someday. When Coach Holtz came to our house and sat in our living room, that sealed the deal. I became a wide receiver and running back and was a starter on the 1988 National Championship team.
Something most people don’t know is that I studied architecture at Notre Dame because I loved to draw and was good at math and engineering. I remember staying up all night building models with my friend who was also an architecture major (but didn’t play football), Keith Sallis. However, I was pressured to switch to graphic design because it took too much time away from football.
In the Spring of 1991, I was drafted by the San Francisco 49ers. Went on to win a Super Bowl and play for two other teams (Eagles and Seahawks).
I am grateful and thank God that I was blessed with the talent to play at this level and that my parents, teachers, coaches and others believed in me.
Masking the Pain.
An athlete’s ability to tolerate pain is essential to success.
The day I started playing football is when I started to deal with pain. As I moved up from pop warner to high school, then college, and on to the pro level, it increased in severity. I learned how to mask my pain and how to play through it. However, at the twilight of my career, I had to wonder how much damage had been done to my body and how would it affect my future. In the NFL, at age 30 you’re old goods, especially for a running back.
Many people know me as wearing my emotions on my sleeve. If you saw me cry on tv, it was either during the game we played after 9-11 or if it was a tough loss during the playoffs. The tears were never due to feeling physical pain. No one cries in football. And, if you can’t take it, there’s always someone else right behind you who will gladly take your spot.
You cannot perform at a high level and not experience pain or injury.
We learned to be like ‘Supermen’. From the first practice on, you'll be playing with pain. And from the first practice on, you’ll be playing with injury.
During the same game, I continued to play after sustaining a concussion and hurting my ankle. The trainers taped my ankle tight and sent me right back on the field. After the game, I discovered the worst-case scenario, that I fractured my ankle and required surgery.
Getting hit in the NFL is like being in a car accident.
When I played, it was a different game. On kick offs, there were wedges and wedge busters. We were taught to lead with our helmet (really face mask) when blocking and running backs were a prime choice on special teams to “break the wedge” because of their toughness, speed and agility. They had to avoid land mines (people who could clip them off) as they ran up the field to face the wedge for a chance to tackle the kick returner. Now of course this play is prohibited by the league because it led to too many career ending injuries. My fullback at the Eagles was a wedge buster and played on the wedge as well.
Also keep in mind, many players like me played on turf which is a layer fake grass over concrete which is no longer considered safe by the NFL. I can’t tell you the number of times I was running full speed with a linebacker or safety from the opposing team bearing down on me at full speed, at an angle (so not visible), targeting me and it ending in head to head contact. Or the times I was tackled while running full speed and my head hit another helmet, a knee or the ground. This impact and whiplash would leave me seeing stars. Just like a car crash. But in football, there are no neck braces. There’s no time off work. You’re back in the next play. Even when players break their necks (fracture their cervical spines) they get surgery and are “miraculously” healed and back on the field playing again, sometimes in the same season, as if nothing happened. How is that even possible?
PTSD, Depression, Panic attacks, and Anxiety.
There’s no protocol when you retire or leave the game. Most players don't have the luxury of deciding when to hang up their cleats as I did. For most, the decision is made very clearly. Either they’re cut and can’t make another team or they have a career ending injury. And once you're out, there’s no coming back. You're on your own. No one seeks you out to give you any resources or make sure you continue your rehab or get the surgeries or treatment you need. There’s no final physical to make sure you follow up with your own doctor to necessary medical treatment. There’s no exit program to get information on how to deal with your pain, getting off prescription meds or dealing with your symptoms of PTSD. Your agent who did everything to recruit you is no longer jumping to return your calls.
When your journey has ended as a pro player, it becomes difficult to get back into mainstream society. In addition to pain, you are dealing with a storm of feelings of alienation, depression, flashbacks of physical impact on the field, and severe panic attacks mixed with anxiety.
We have conditioned ourselves to hide our pain and deny that we are human and hurting just like everybody else. I don't enjoy talking about it, but I think it's necessary.
As the stigma of mental health has started to ease up, there are more players from all sorts of sports backgrounds coming forward and expressing the amount of pressure to perform while dealing with physical and mental injury. This crisis amongst athletes is finally getting the attention it deserves.
Opioids are not the answer to pain management.
Both the trainers and doctors gave us opioids to manage our pain. I remember when we used to try to get massage therapists and chiropractors in the training room, we got push back, so we had to seek those services on our own. The teams did not support holistic alternatives.
I have learned that using opioids and other prescription meds only mask the sensation of pain for temporary relief, and if you continue to take opioids for chronic pain, the pills become less and less effective causing severe damage to your body and mind.
Waking up from the fog.
With the help of my wife Cat, I was able to come out of the fog. She has helped me to keep a positive outlook and be proactive in preserving my health, yet face the reality of the severity of my injuries. Because of the culture, I would constantly deny that I was having issues, physically and mentally. I wouldn’t tell anyone when I was feeling depressed or frustrated or about to have a panic attack. We’re all used to sucking it up and putting on a smile in front of others. We have too much pride and we also don’t understand what’s happening to us so don’t know how to begin talking about it. She’s helped many of my teammates start this conversation and identify the challenges, and most importantly realize they’re not alone.
Education is the key. If I knew about the effects of my bodily injuries and my neurological symptoms from concussions, I would have managed them differently. At the very least, if I knew everyone time I sustained a concussion, I would have had the chance to make a decision based on having a concussion. Maybe I would have retired a bit earlier. Maybe I wouldn’t have been so eager to jump back in the game. Who knows? Lack of knowledge kept me in the dark and promoted denial. We were young athletes in our early twenties. We relied on the team medical staff to manage our health. We were too young and naïve to realize it was only for the short term.
I lost my teammate and good friend, Kevin Turner to ALS just a few years ago when he was only 46 years old. He took many of the hits that were meant for me at the Eagles as my blocking fullback. One of my wife’s clients is Steve Smith, the blocking fullback for Marcus Allen and Bo Jackson at the Raiders back in the day. He was diagnosed with ALS at age 37 and is still living, although he is dependent on a respirator and is completely paralyzed from the eyes down. I have other teammates who have died from heart attacks and aneurysms by the time they were 40 and others who have taken their own lives. All a result of brain injury from concussions.
I realize how important it is for me to spread the word and promote awareness of the impact of concussions. I advocate for all players who have risked their lives playing football.
Taking back control of my mind, body, and soul.
I have learned to take a more holistic approach to pain management and have found relief in natural plant-based products, many of which contain CBD.
CBD has changed the path of my life. I’ve experienced its healing benefits for pain and anxiety and it has been shown to treat cancer symptoms and epilepsy symptoms.
I am now able to get a more restful sleep so I have the energy to get up in the morning. I can motivate my mind and body for my daily rehab which used to always be a very painful and frustrating process.
I can tell I am a happier person. It has helped me manage stress and anxiety during the day. I have gained more patience with myself and my family and have a more positive outlook on life.
CBD has made a huge impact in my life and I want it to impact others the way it has done for me.