Q&A With Ricky

Q&A With Ricky Watters

Q: How would you describe your childhood?

A: 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 took care of elderly patients. My dad was as tough as they come, and he taught me discipline and how to survive in the inner city.

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. That was the motivation I used to excel in sports. I played all of them, basketball, baseball and football. However, football became my passion. 

Q: When did you start dealing with pain?

A: The day I started playing football was when I began to deal with pain. As I moved up from Pop Warner to high school, then college, and on to the pro level, the level of pain increased. 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 it would affect my future. We learned to be like "Supermen." From the first practice on, you'll be playing with injuries. 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. I broke my hand, fingers, wrist, foot, ankle, shoulder and sternum, tore my MCL and PCL, and suffered dozens of concussions throughout my career. 

Q: What is it like getting hit in the NFL?
A: It's like being in a car accident. When I played, it was a different game. On kickoffs, there were wedges and wedge busters. We were taught to lead with our helmet 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 as they ran up the field to face the wedge for a chance to tackle the kick returner.

ALS (Amyotrophic Lateral Sclerosis) is a progressive neurodegenerative disease that attacks cells in the brain and spinal cord needed to keep muscles moving, leading to muscle weakness and paralysis. In 2012, federal researchers had established that retired professional football players were four times more likely to die from ALS than the general U.S. population. 

Many of us back then played on turf, a layer of artificial 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 also at full speed, and at an angle (so not visible), targeting me and ending in head to head contact.

Q: Was it hard to leave the game?

A: Definitely. 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 clear. 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 help you or make sure you continue rehab or get the surgeries or treatments you need. There's no final physical, and no one makes sure you follow up with your doctor to seek necessary medical treatment. There's no exit program on how to deal with your pain, get off prescription medication, or deal with PTSD.

When your journey has ended as a pro player, it becomes difficult to get back into mainstream society. In addition to pain, we deal 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 behind our pain and deny that we are human and hurting just like everybody else. I don't enjoy talking about it, but I see the value in it.

Q. How do you feel about using opioids to manage pain?

 A. Opioids are not the answer. Both the trainers and doctors gave us opioids to make it through practice and games. 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. It wasn't until towards the end of my career that teams started to recognize the benefits of holistic alternatives.

I have learned that using opioids and other prescription meds only mask the sensation of pain for temporary relief. If you continue to take opioids for chronic pain, the pills become less effective over time, causing severe damage to your body and mind.

Q: How has CBD affected your life?

A: I have learned to take a more holistic approach to pain management. I stay away from opioids and I rarely ever even take aspirin. 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 was always a very painful and frustrating process.

I can tell you that I am a much 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 on my life, and I want it to impact others in the same way. I feel like I have taken back control of my health.

Q. Is it possible to avoid major injuries while playing professional

A. 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 you'll be playing with an 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. With these types of injuries come many years of physical therapy, rehab and treatments, and a long road to recovery that professional athletes can expect post-retirement.

Q. What made you decide to develop your line of athlete strength CBD

A. 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 continuously deny that I was having issues, physically and mentally. I wouldn't tell anyone when I felt 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 we don't know how to begin talking about it. As an attorney specializing in representing NFL players in disability claims and helping them transition from life on the field to life after football, 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 whenever I sustained a concussion at the time it happened, I would have had the chance to make other decisions based on this knowledge. Maybe I would have retired a bit earlier, or 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 mentioned earlier that 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 Cat'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 had 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 realized how important it is to spread the word and promote awareness of the impact of concussions. I advocate for all players who have risked their lives playing football, and I want to do what I can to help.

Research shows that CBD has powerful neuroprotective effects that can help protect against brain damage from head injuries and directly treat CTE symptoms, including anxiety, depression, mood disorders, and more.

I’m proud to be able to offer my athlete-strength CBD and Ayurvedic oils and pain topicals to anyone engaged in boxing, football, hockey, soccer, rugby, basketball, and other sports where players can suffer from head injuries and concussions and other physical injuries as part of their ongoing treatment program.