A Bridge Over Troubled Watters: The Catherina and Ricky Watters Story

October 26, 2014

           As a member of the NFL family, there is endless opportunity for personal and professional growth through numerous league outreach programs, as well as fantastic networking opportunities at a national level. This is the time to define who you are, to hone your own talents, to create your own identity. This is the time to take advantage of the resources available to you. This is no time to be passive. The NFL window opens wide, but closes quickly. 

            Where the player is concerned, the goal is to establish 'parallel lines' early on in your NFL career. As a player spouse, your goal should be to stand tall on your own and carry the dignity of knowing that you were not lost in a number, not hidden in the shadows, but an integral part of a partnership and celebrated for your own contributions to its success. In the end, you will have established yourselves as an NFL Power Couple and become future ambassadors of the league.

            In reaching out to NFL couples who emulate the NFLPC status, I had the pleasure of sitting down with Catherina and Ricky Watters. Catherina is an attorney and former NFLPA contract advisor  who specializes in assisting current and former players navigate through transition. Catherina runs her own law practice, Chang Watters Group, where Ricky is able to add his “expertise” on what a player goes through in the locker room, on the field and behind closed doors. Ricky is often asked to speak at educational and corporate events where Catherina is quick to offer her assistance in preparing his speeches. This NFL Power couple also spearhead numerous charitable events, camps and mentor countless youth through Ricky Watters Family Foundation and Watters Warriors.

 

A BRIDGE OVER TROUBLED WATTERS: THE CATHERINA AND RICKY WATTERS STORY

            Marriage is a bridge. In marriage, we generally speak in terms of foundations, pillars, unions, solid ground. But a true partnership is a bridge. A bridge helps you to the other side. It supports you. It offers a unique perspective and a higher view. A bridge waits patiently for you to cross and when you are ready, carries the weight- no matter the speed or the condition of the crosser.

           The weight was extraordinarily heavy during Ricky’s first season as a Seattle Seahawk. Ricky and Catherina Watters had just given birth to their first child, a boy. Tigero Watters was born on October 4, 1999 at the University of Washington Medical Center. For seventeen days he fought, until his young lungs could fight no more. The Watters will never forget the feeling of holding him in their arms as he took his last breath.

            New in the city of Seattle, new to marriage, new to motherhood, and now aching from loss, Catherina Watters turned off.  In her own words, she "walked dispassionately amongst strangers pretending to be alive." The young mother to be had come to Seattle in time to settle in for the season and prepare for the November birth. The baby came early. She hadn't had the opportunity to bond with the other wives. Not many even knew that she was expecting.

            "We kept the loss quiet," Catherina remembers. "Even the media kept it quiet. It was good in one way, but it was also like nothing had ever happened. Like everything was normal." This illusion of normalcy worked for her. She preferred the white noise to the psychological counseling her doctors were pushing. As Catherina pulled the drawbridge up, Ricky waited patiently for his young wife to return. "Ricky just let me mourn. He knew it wasn't me walking around so aloof, yet he let me be that person for a while. He didn't pry. He didn't push. He just waited." And the reality was that he was extremely busy. He was right in the middle of a football season with a new team and much to prove.

            A few months and a season passed before Catherina emerged with a plan. They would have a second child. While her circle of medical professionals opposed her decision, Ricky trusted her. And although it would mean that miles would separate them through the duration of the pregnancy, she trusted him, as well. "That's when it became us," notes Catherina. During OTAs,  mini camps, training camp and the first few months of the regular season, Ricky commuted back and forth from Seattle to San Francisco. Sometimes, his visits would be for a single day, but more important than the amount of time spent, was the gesture. "Our focus at that time was on our family," shares Ricky. "Our goal was to have a healthy child.

            "Other women might have gone to be with him," Catherina adds. "I was on bed rest. I couldn't risk it. Plus, from the start of our relationship, we were never like that. We always encouraged independence, the freedom to work, to get our own things on track. We never once considered that we would be too frail to overcome this obstacle. It was only physical space. There are always times in a marriage when one of you needs to go and grow, independently. This was one of those times, only this time, it wasn't for either of us. It was for the sake and well being of our child."

            A second son, also premature,  would be born on October 4, 2000, exactly one year and sharing the same birth date as his older brother. However, this time there were no complications. The Watters saw this as a gift, a godsend. They would name him Ricky Watters, Jr.

          In reflecting back, Ricky considers that without losing Tigero, he may not have grown to become the father and husband that he is today.  "Losing Tigero changed everything. I went from worrying about yards and records, a place in history, cars and big houses to questioning what kind of father I wanted to be. Because of him, it clicked! You don't just have a wife and kids, YOU HAVE A LIFE WITH YOUR WIFE AND KIDS!" Catherina agrees, "Ricky and I always talk about that. We'd like to think we would have been great parents, and I'd like to think that I would have been a good wife, a supportive wife. But this event, I think, made us think about the kind of parents we wanted to be."

            Catherina Chang was born the eldest daughter of a high ranked executive with a global electronics manufacturing firm (father) and an entrepreneur (mother). Her childhood was an array of International Schools spread across several continents: Taiwan, Hong Kong, Singapore, Europe and the US. Moving every 2-3 years, and raised by a long list of nannies, she never forged any real childhood friendships. With parents who were deeply devoted to career, Catherina quickly learned self-reliance, independence and adaptability. She also learned not to get too emotionally involved about things or people.

            It was a simple shift change at a local eatery in San Francisco. An undergrad at Santa Clara University, Catherina was filling in for a friend when she caught the eye of the third-year, All-Pro running back. Ricky was sitting with a teammate and couldn't help but notice that they were pretty much unnoticed by the ambivalent young waitress. Always ready for a challenge, Ricky pulled out all the stops to engage Catherina. Although polite, she was patronizingly disinterested. This was interesting. When the players got up to leave, Ricky walked over to Catherina. He had written his phone number on a napkin asserting that she would never call. So, it was a bet. Catherina tucked the number into her apron. After a few days, she dialed. It would be a quick call. Just long enough to call in her chips. Yet, this call would last for hours and the conversation would linger on for decades.

            Ricky had never met anyone like Cat. She was a reserved academic preparing for law school. He was a charismatic athlete with the world at his fingertips. He spoke without reservation. She assessed all situations, and shared her thoughts conservatively. To charm her, Ricky would order the finest champagnes in the most lavish restaurants on the bay. She would chide him for it. Ricky remembers ordering a bottle of Cristal Rose and being upset because she refused to drink it. Ricky mocks her, "You shouldn't order that here. You know they mark that stuff up." He laughs, "Man, I wasn't used to that! I was used to the other way!"  As he traveled during season play, she never called. There was no checking up on him, no gate  number  confirmation, no message light beeping at the hotel. It was a relationship without the usual suffocating accountability.

            "I don't know how couples survive with that kind of accountability," says Catherina, "where you are questioned, quizzed. I know I wouldn't like that. Ricky was busy and so was I." Ricky adds, "Catherina was always doing her own thing. The first thing that stood out was that she didn't even care that I played. She was getting ready for law school. She wanted to go to New York."

            Confirmation of this independence came when after months of serious dating, Catherina found herself accepted to both Hastings and New York Law School. She could have stayed on the West Coast to be closer to her new boyfriend, others would have. Instead she chose the Big Apple, her dream. Perhaps, you say, she wasn't committed to the relationship. Well, let's talk about that.

            "My Chinese heritage frowns upon mixed ethnicity," Catherina shares." They prefer we stay within our race. It is how my parents were raised. It was a clear-cut decision on their part and a choice on mine. I knew the consequences."  That decision would mean  disowning Catherina and with it came complete financial independence. When she arrived in New York, she was underdressed and poor, but driven and proud. She would accept nothing from Ricky. "On my visits, I would sneak a few twenties in her book bag," laughs Ricky, "and hope she wouldn't find them before I left."

            I asked Catherina if she was hurt by her parents' harsh decision. "A little hurt emotionally, but I knew that was their culture. she replies. "I didn’t let it affect my goals moving forward, both personal and career. They raised me to be independent. To make my own choices and make my own life. They knew I wouldn't care about the money. They knew I wouldn't be afraid to be on my own. My parents owed me nothing. Their choice. My choice. Nothing more."

            Love shows its face in many ways and with that single gesture, Ricky soon realized the meaning of commitment through her strength and loyalty. Cat proved she was in- no matter how far the distance or how harsh the distancing. As luck and free agency would have it, that cross country commute would be cut to an hour train ride when Ricky became the 49ers transition player in 1995. With the Philadelphia Eagles making an offer that few could match, Ricky soon found himself in the City of Brotherly Love. Yet, something inside was unsettling and instead of feeling love, he was feeling abandonment. "You have to remember that this was the ‘90s,” explains Catherina. “Back then players were loyal to their teams, to their cities. When the 49ers didn't match, I think he was genuinely hurt. He loved that team. He loved Mr. D (Eddie DeBartolo Jr.) and Coach Seifert , and he thought they shared that love and that loyalty. Today's generations look at it differently. Today, it's more of a business. Back then it felt more like a brotherhood." For Ricky, that feeling of abandonment would drudge up familiar pains. He had considered the 49ers family and now he had been given up... for the second time.

            It was a typical day on the basketball court at the YMCA on 6th Street in Uptown Harrisburg, Pennsylvania. An older kid Ricky had never seen before came up to him starting trouble. He asked Ricky his name and if he had a sister named Rhonda. Ricky said yes falling into his trap and he replied brashly “That’s my sister, not yours. Look at me. Who does she look like, you or me? They ain't even your real parents!" the boy screamed at Ricky. Only about 10 years old at the time, Ricky ran home crying. Crying mostly because he knew it might be true. He didn't look like anyone else in his family. They were light skinned - he was dark. He had different features. It was a feeling he always had. The feeling he didn't fit. Oddly enough, that feeling probably made him what he is today.

            "As a child I was always trying to prove I was worthy, that I belonged, even before I found out it was true- that I was adopted,” Ricky confides. "I always made sure I excelled at everything." This need to prove worthiness would continue into his adult life.  After the move from San Francisco to Philadelphia, Catherina took note. She could see through the flamboyance, the brash talk, the chest beating, and the for-who-for-whats. What Catherina saw was a boy trying to prove, once again, that he belonged, that he was better, that he was worthy.

            "Not knowing where he came from was affecting him." Philadelphia would be her first attempt to convince him to find his natural parents- but Ricky wasn't ready. The battle between the bully and the new kid would continue with the Philadelphia media. It's a tough town, but they're smart enough to know a good player when they get one. Ricky prospered on the field. In ‘96 alone he rushed for over 1400 yards and had twelve  touchdowns. He would finish with two trips to the Pro Bowl, 3800 yards and 32 touchdowns and would help Philadelphia get to the playoffs in '95 and '96. Equally important to him, he would earn the respect of the team and the town.

            While he was racking up yards, Catherina covered milestones. She graduated from New York Law School earning her Juris Doctor and receiving the prestigious New York City Bar Association's Minority Fellowship Award.  Even with the commute, Catherina was becoming a familiar fixture in Philadelphia. Together, they dove into Ricky’s numerous off the field charity commitments: Eagles Fly for Leukemia, Eagles Youth Partnership, and the Cystic Fibrosis Foundation. Together, they were generous with their time and commitment to cause.

            "The charitable work was probably his favorite part of his profession and still is” shares Catherina. "He loves making kids smile, mentoring young athletes. In the Eagles circles, Catherina was known as a strong-willed, no-fuss girl that the other wives and girlfriends came to admire and respect. Not solely because of her academic accomplishments, but for her confidence and her forward, independent thinking.

            Playing out his contract in Philadelphia, Ricky was free and he was marketable. Catching on to the business aspect of the game, this time there weren't hurt feelings when he accepted Mike Holmgren's generous offer to don the blue and green. Ricky would quickly prove to be an impact acquisition. In his first two seasons in Seattle, he would run for over 2400 yards and score 16 TDs. He would match those stats his third season with over 1200 yards and nine TDs. These numbers would be a highlight in any record book, but what signifies these on-the-field accomplishments as extraordinary, lay in the darkness behind the Seattle clouds- a darkness that weighed heavy on the Watters’ hearts, but not their will.

            In their four years in Seattle, their first four years of marriage, the Watters would endure the loss of a child, depression, separation, bed rest, injury, retirement and transition. While other couples may not have survived, Catherina and Ricky thrived emotionally and spiritually. "What I learned," says Ricky, "is that Cat is someone I can trust. There is no facade. There is no protective shield. This is me. This is you. Here are my faults. Here are your faults. Here are the things you do well. Here are the things I do well. Let's move together with these things and get to the other side."

            For many players, "getting to the other side" isn't that simple. It's called transition and for many, it's more like running into a brick wall. With a nagging shoulder injury, followed by a broken ankle, topped with a new baby boy pulling at his hearts strings, Ricky decided that it was time to hang up his cleats. "He saw it as a sign. A second chance with his son- a healthy boy. A chance to have time with him," shares Catherina. Although he was sure, she had her doubts.  Although he was cleared to play by the doctors, and teams were calling with a place on their roster- even with John Gruden calling from Tampa Bay- Ricky had made up his mind. "I remember wishing he had called John Gruden back. To hear him out,” Catherina reflects. “Communication is important to me. But, he did not want to play anymore and I respected that."

            Next came Catherina's turn to let Ricky shut down. They had a new baby, it would be a new life with more time together and while that sounds cozy, the space between them was never greater. "Ricky didn't want to leave the house. I had a new baby and was eager to live a traditional life with him. Like going to the park or the playground as a family. Instead, he didn't want to get off the couch. He didn't want to talk to anyone,” Catherina remembers. “It was a drastic change from when he played. Instead of commanding a room, he was shutting off the world. Unlike his playing days, when he woke up early, worked out passionately, talked to the media endlessly, watched what he said, how he dressed, he was totally unaccountable, a hermit."

           In reflecting back, Ricky felt that the extra time was poison to him. It gave him too much time to think and in the end he concluded that he had been unappreciated, misunderstood and used. "I am rare in that I made my decision to leave the NFL,” Ricky concludes, "and that may have made it more difficult to live with." In his first season out, it was hard not to compare his skills to players in the league. He imagined what he could do on different teams and had second thoughts when Tampa Bay went on to win the Super Bowl.

            "And then suddenly it hits you," he shares, "that you're whole body is aching. Jim Brown once told me your body feels all those hits all over again. Your injuries come back and haunt you as you get older. That's when you're lucky to have someone who understands you. Who understands you're not the same person physically or emotionally.” I ask him what his transition might have been like without Catherina. "Ah man," he says and shakes his head, “Not good. It's what I see when I run into some of my former teammates, the guys that didn't have that back up... You have to have someone in your corner who will stand up to you and tell you the truth.  To look at yourself and admit that you're not doing so hot and make you feel okay with not being invincible.

            “Every player thinks when it's over, 'I should have given it one more shot.' We're so busy thinking about getting back in, we don't take advantage of the opportunities and benefits we have as former players, as a part of an elite group. That's when the partner in your life, the one that knows you better than you know yourself, that's when she steps in and helps you find your way across. And in the long run that helps her too- because what good are we if we are stuck in a past that can't exist for us anymore?"

            It was Catherina who realized that Ricky was slower to get up, that his gait was off, so she scheduled the appointments with the specialists. When time off from working out became weeks, then months, then a year, Catherina knew that he saw no purpose for it and set up a "chance" meeting with a local martial arts instructor. "Catherina knew that I needed it for my mind, my body. That I needed to embrace something," Ricky says. To keep his mind strong, she filled the house with books, chess boards, martial arts movies, music, and encouraged him to write his own music, story, poems.

            "I remember diving into the parenting books most. That's what was first on my list- being a good dad. I read more childcare books than you would know existed and found they actually work! Think about it- how would we ever know if we weren’t parents before? I came to understand how to react to kids, how to discipline, what to expect at what ages, how to control my temper, how to answer questions. It was all so new and interesting to me." Catherina also saw that familiar lost look in his eyes and knew the time would come when they would have to find his real parents- but not just yet.

            Moving on to the post NFL phase of their journey, the Watters family settled in Orlando, Florida. There, the family would grow to four with the adoption of their son, Shane. They had always known they would adopt- a desire that stemmed from Ricky's own history and their shared compassion to mentor children in need. The child was half Nigerian, half Korean. Catherina knew immediately that this child belonged in their family. For him and for them.

            "The Korean culture is very homogeneous, too," explains Catherina, "when we arrived in Korea to pick up Shane, he was on a separate floor from the other children. The administrators in Korea knew that he would not have had a prosperous life there. He would have been frowned upon." Today, strangers will tell the Watters that Shane “has Catherina's eyes" or "he looks just like Ricky,” and they think that is perfect.  Together, the young Watters boys, Ricky and Shane, benefit from the lessons taught by their big brother Tigero, who shaped a family and gifted his young parents with perspective and appreciation for family. It was Tigero who showed them the way. 

            "Everywhere we go, we go as a family," shares Catherina. "We plan our lives around each other. As parents, we want to be there. I know how easy it is to go after your career and not look back. That's what my mom did. I have that focus on my career too, but because of my experience with my first son, I can't do that. I have the drive, but what is most important to me is our kids, our family."

            Catherina is proud of her work helping retired players and their families navigate the transition and attaining disability benefits. It is extremely rewarding to hear comments like “I don’t know what I would have done without you. You have a friend for life!” or “It’s nice to have someone to talk to who actually understands.”

            Proud of Catherina's accomplishments, but always the competitor, it did not sit well that he had no academic accolades hanging next to her university and law school diplomas and California and Florida State Bar certificates. In June of 2014, Ricky returned to his Alma Mater, Notre Dame, to finish what he had started more than two decades before. "It is something that I always wanted to do. When I first started college, I wasn't thinking I was going to the Pros. Obviously I had hopes and aspirations, but I was looking at it like my parents were looking at it: This is a great opportunity to get an education at a great institution like Notre Dame and from there you can do anything you like. That is why I chose a five-year course of architecture, because at that time, that's what I wanted to be- an architect. But playing ball was, of course, what got me there and what got me the scholarship, so I had a job to fulfill first and a responsibility to fulfill my end of the partnership by committing myself fully to the game. With that, architecture was too heavy of a load for me at that time. I switched to a four-year course in graphic design and in the process, lost credits. I tried to catch up in the summers, but I ran out of time before the combine.” This time, he wouldn't be packing up posters and his best CD collection, he would be packing up his entire family, which included a promising young musician in Ricky Watters Jr., aka Lil Ricky.

            Music. Poetry. Rap. While you may have expected the threads of a Wilson football, these are the common threads that join the father and son. A passion they share to write, to record, to perform, to produce. Lil Ricky Watters has performed in Beijing, Las Vegas and Honolulu at major sporting events and entertainment venues.

            For Ricky and Catherina, letting their boys pursue their own interests is important. Nurturing Lil Ricky's talents has been rewarding for the entire family. What they found was a connection in the written word and a passion for song. For the father, it untapped a passion for poetry that he had kept shielded before. "I always liked to write, even as a child," he admits, "but I was embarrassed about it. I think it was one of those things where it made me different again. That black sheep thing."

            Circling around, Catherina, on a whim, started to search for Ricky's birth mom. She would find her in three days. What Ricky would find is his nature. He would find that he did fit in. That his mother wrote poetry in her spare time and his great uncle was an professor of poetry at the University of Penn. He would learn that his adoption was an act of kindness. That his maternal grandmother, a nurse, knew her 14 year old daughter couldn't give him the life he deserved and searched for a loving woman to care for him, a woman she already knew and trusted- a fellow nurse who could not bear children, but who promised to love this child as her own.

            "Even when you are raised by loving adoptive parents, and I was," explains Ricky. "Finding out who you are helps define you. It opens up an understanding of why you do certain things. Why you write, why you are hard working. Turns out, my people are fighters. Even my mom, she's tough. So it makes me see that it wasn't because I was trying to fit in, it was just my nature."

           Just this fall, the Watters have come full circle and returned to San Francisco. Ricky is now working as an analyst for a local Fox affiliate covering 49ers games. Catherina has joined the legal team of a tech start up in Silicon Valley. Ricky smiles as he contemplates the idea. "Back to where we got our first start, where we first met, where I won a Super Bowl and the heart of an amazing woman. The timing is right and it's going to be a heck of a transition. But if we've learned anything, it's that we can't ever be afraid to get to the other side. Because no matter what we look like when we get there- we'll get there, as a family.”

            Yes, marriage is a bridge. A never-ending variation of crossings and crossers. We all take our turns. Sometimes, we are the gatekeepers, sometimes, we are the wind. From the Watters, we learn that while the tides roll in and roll out, the bridge is steady, the bridge is strong, and human nature is empowering.

NFL Insider Cynthia Zordich is married to former NFL Safety Michael Zordich. Her son Michael is a Free Agent Fullback recently with the Carolina Panthers, son Alex just completed his career at the State University of New York (UB) and daughter Aidan is a Senior at Penn State majoring in Advertising.

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RICKY WATTERS http://rickywatters.com/

CATHERINA WATTERS  http://changwatters.com/