Brad Malkovsky was launching icebreakers on the first day of his summer theology class when a chiseled student sitting in the front row caught the associate professor off guard with his introduction. The student said he had not been in a classroom in more than 20 years. He said he was in his 40s. He said he had a wife and two kids.
"I thought he was a 25-year-old," Malkovsky laughed. "I'm thinking to myself, 'If this guy's in his 40s and he's back at Notre Dame -- and he certainly looks like an athlete -- I'll bet I can Google it and find out what's going on.' And I Googled it and it turned out, ‘Oh, I used watched to watch this guy 20 years ago.'"
"This guy" was Ricky Watters, who played 11 seasons for three NFL teams, was named to five Pro Bowls, rushed for more than 10,000 yards and won a Super Bowl with the 49ers in 1994. Now he's back in class, more than two decades after a four-year career at Notre Dame, during which the school won its last national title in 1988 and finished the season ranked No. 2 the next year.
"We talk about reincarnation and some of those things that they believe in other religions and stuff," Watters said. "And [Malkovsky] is like, 'Man, did you reincarnate right in front of me? What's going on here?'"
Not quite, but Watters' second act at Notre Dame is proving to be, in his mind, as memorable as the first.
He uprooted his family from their Orlando, Florida, home for the summer, moving into an apartment complex right off campus. His two boys, 13 and 7, have enjoyed their father's old stomping grounds, getting round after round in on the nearby golf course and enjoying the premature college life.
Watters exhausted his eligibility during a four-year college career that saw him rush for 1,821 yards and 21 touchdowns. But he never obtained the architecture degree -- which often takes five years to complete -- that he started.
It’s an itch that hasn't really left since he was drafted in 1991.
Watters considers himself an artistic person, and his parents encouraged him to pursue something involving his childhood passion of drawing, so he sought schools that offered architecture degrees while coming out of Bishop McDevitt High in Harrisburg, Pennsylvania.
"The reality of it set in at a high football school like Notre Dame," Watters said. "It's obviously about academics, but it's also playing big-time football, and the demands that are placed on you doing that and the demands that are placed on you trying to do architecture, they just don't fit, not if you plan on getting any sleep or eating or surviving.
“So I think it was a noble thing to want to do, but if I had to do it all over I probably would've taken business or something like that. Once I realized that football is such a business even, it could've helped me."
With his football career over, though, Watters has reverted back to his original passion. He said he'll finish with a graphic design degree, because he was able to transfer over so many of his credits.
His final three classes, which run for six weeks through the end of July, are in liberal studies, theology and, perhaps toughest of all, ceramics, a four-night-a-week, 150-minute-a-session course. The other two, which meet two and three times per week, respectively, are hardly cakewalks, with the reading assignments for Watters' liberal studies class carving out a good chunk of the remaining time in his week.
"I remember so vividly times that people would announce me as a Notre Dame graduate; everyone even thinks that I'm a Notre Dame graduate," Watters said. "I know I'm not, and I have that feeling every time someone would say that. So I said, 'You know what, that's also a big part of it.'
"It's for your soul, just to feel complete and to feel like you finished it. You did what you set out to do. Both my parents, they've passed away now, and I know they're looking down on me, and when they see me get that degree it's going to be a happy time for them, too."
Of course, in Watters' return, he hasn't been completely negligent of the program where he began to make a national name for himself. Fighting Irish running backs coach Tony Alford invited Watters to speak to his position group, with Watters stressing to the players the importance of immersing themselves with the rest of the student body and recognizing the power of their platform. And Watters has familiar company in Malkovsky's theology class, with offensive lineman Steve Elmer among the handful of players he can call classmates.
"I'm now sitting up front, they're in the back," Watters laughed. "I remember being in the back."
Watters' renaissance in the classroom also comes at a time when increased benefits for college athletes is a hot topic amid the backdrop of several high-profile lawsuits. While the former NFL running back said the finances behind his return to Notre Dame are still being sorted out, he did allow that he believes more should be done to help current athletes obtain their degrees one way or another.
"I think definitely if someone wants to finish, let them have that right and that chance to finish, because it is important, No. 1, to the person," Watters said. "But it should be important to the university, and I love the fact that our university at Notre Dame, they care about that, they care about their guys graduating. Everyone graduates. Everyone has a chance to graduate if they want it, but you have to want it. You have to be willing to do what it takes. They're not going to just give it to you. It's definitely not a situation like that.
"I have to do the work, I had to come here, I had to bring my family -- any way you look at it, I'm paying something. I'm definitely going to have to pay just to come here, but that is part of the sacrifice that you make to finish what you started, and I'm just so close that I think it would be a shame not to finish, and I know there are other guys that are working right now trying to figure out how they can get back and finish, and I think that they should."