Monday, November 27, 2006

Suicide of ex-Eagle Andre Waters hits hard

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There was real pain in Andre Waters' voice.

This was April. Waters was on his cell phone, driving a carload of at-risk teenagers to a barbershop and then on to a barbecue place. He was working with court-adjudicated youths, but still trying desperately to get back into the one business he knew best.

"I love the kids, I really do," the former Eagles safety said that day, just six months before he apparently took his own life. "But football, that's where I believe I have the most to offer. I just can't get a chance."

Waters, 44, died early yesterday from a self-inflicted gunshot wound to the head. He took with him the answer to the only question - Why, Andre, why? - worth asking. He may have given at least part of an answer in that nearly three-hour phone conversation in April.

He wasn't just frustrated and bitter about his inability to find a job with an NFL team. He was personally hurt by a system he believed used players up and spit them back out. But then, everything was personal with Waters.

That seems surprising, since he was the most violent and reckless of football players, but the contradiction isn't hard to explain. It was because Waters was a sweet-tempered, gentle soul that he had to be so vicious on the field. That's how this too-small undrafted safety from Cheyney State made it through a 12-year NFL career.

When he was a young player, clinging to a roster spot as a special-teamer, Waters was painfully shy. He had a stammer that made him too self-conscious to do interviews. He took classes to lose that stammer and became one of the most outgoing and personable and quotable Eagles of the last quarter-century.

With hard work, Waters believed, you could accomplish anything.

That's what made his estrangement from the league and the game so hard. Waters told me that he woke up some mornings in too much pain to get out of bed. His body burned and ached from every big collision he made in a career spent throwing his body at bigger men. He said he could link each pain to a particular hit or injury.

"I played because I loved it," he said. "I'm not looking for sympathy, because it's what I wanted to do. I just don't think people realize the players they cheer for wind up unable to walk or sleep because of pain."

What bothered him was that the sacrifice of his body didn't mean anything to the NFL the moment he couldn't play anymore. Jobs in scouting and coaching went to men who spent their 20s working a different career track and networking.

"Nobody knows the game like players," he said. "But the guys who get into coaching and scouting right out of college, they're getting experience while we're out there playing. When we're done, nobody wants to hire us."

Waters' first coaching job was at the University of South Florida, near his home in Tampa. After a couple of years, he was offered a spot in the NFL's minority coaching program. Forced to choose, he resigned his college job for a summer internship with the St. Louis Rams. The gamble didn't pay off with an NFL job. His subsequent college jobs were at smaller programs. Even there, he said, he ran into coaches who resented the ex-NFL big shot.

For the first time, hard work and dedication weren't enough. Coaching jobs are about whom you know and timing and opportunity. Although Waters played for great defensive coaches - Buddy Ryan, Bud Carson, Marion Campbell - none was active by the late 1990s. He had no sponsor, no pipeline, no one to give him that one break.

He coached this fall at Fort Valley State, a Division II program in Georgia. The Wildcats' season ended Nov. 11. Waters took his life nine days later.

Maybe there were other reasons. Maybe something happened recently to drive Waters to suicide. Or maybe the pain - physical and emotional - palpable in his voice just kept getting worse. Probably, we'll never know.

After the Eagles clinched the NFC East title in Dallas in 1988, the players were celebrating in the locker room as reporters filed in. Andre Waters, 26, was off to the side, capturing it with his video camera, when the distinctive voice of Reggie White called the team together for a prayer.

Compelled to join in, Andre handed his camera to the nearest person. It was still running, so I panned the joyous faces: White and Jerome Brown, Seth Joyner and Randall Cunningham. Then I centered the viewfinder on Waters and slowly zoomed in on his No. 20.

Someday, I figured, when he was old and looking back at his life, he'd have at least a few taped moments of himself in that huddle.

I don't know if Andre ever saw that video, or if he had any idea who took it. What hurts is knowing he'll never get old.

Phil Sheridan | Andre Waters: 1962-2006

Born: March 10, 1962 in Belle Glade, Fla.

High school: Pahokee (Fla.).

College: Cheyney, where he was a small-college all-American as a senior in 1983.

NFL career: Signed as an undrafted free agent, Waters played for the Eagles from 1984 to 1993. He played for the Arizona Cardinals in 1994 and 1995.

Position: Safety/cornerback.

Height: 5-foot-11.

Playing weight: 199 pounds.

NFL games: 156.

Sacks: 31/2.

Interceptions: 15.

Touchdowns: 1. (He scored on a fumble recovery against the New York Giants in a 1989 game.)

Tackles: Waters led the Eagles in tackles in four seasons.

For more on Mr. Andre Waters and people's reactions to his untimely demise and life please access the following link:

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