To the casual Philadelphia Eagles fan (and most Eagles fans under the age of 25), the number 20 is synonymous with one player – Brian Dawkins. The Eagles’ 2nd round pick in 1996 went on to play 13 Hall of Fame-worthy seasons for the Birds and, depending on who you ask, is arguably the franchise’s most beloved player. But before Dawkins dawned the number and later saw it retired with his name in the Linc’s rafters, it was sported by another hard-hitting Safety that captured the hearts of fans and teammates alike. His name was Andre Waters.
There is no question that the Eagles defense of the late 80’s and early 90’s was one of the most intimidating and talented units ever assembled. In an era that embraced the physicality of the game, Philadelphia’s defense was a direct reflection of their outspoken and in-your-face Head Coach, defensive mastermind and former Super Bowl champion, Buddy Ryan. While household names such as ‘The Minister of Defense’ (Reggie White) and ‘The Ultimate Weapon’ (Randall Cunningham) were easily the most recognizable faces of the franchise, the tenacity and intensity that Andre Waters displayed for 10 seasons as an Eagle is probably the most accurate portrayal of a team that instilled fear into opponents each and every Sunday.
Born the 9th of 11 children in poverty-stricken Belle Glade, Florida, Andre Waters (like many other Belle Glade residents) never had it easy. He gravitated towards football at a young age and eventually attended Pahokee High School; a school that later produced Rickey Jackson and Anquan Boldin, among others. After a moderately successful high school football career, Waters wound up at Cheyney University of Pennsylvania. Despite being an All-PSAC player his senior season, the 1984 NFL Draft (which boasted a bloated 12 rounds at the time) came, went and failed to see Waters selected by any of the league’s 28 teams. Waters did, however, make enough of an impression on Philadelphia Head Coach Marion Campbell, who opted to sign him as an undrafted free agent.
Although his first two seasons in the league were largely forgettable, statistically (Waters registered 10 total tackles in this span), Buddy Ryan’s arrival in 1986 saw Waters’ role and production increase dramatically. Ryan was instantly drawn to the young Safety’s intense approach to the game and while most scouts viewed Waters as a serviceable special teams player at best, Ryan recognized Waters’ ambition and helped mold him into one of the most feared players of his generation. Andre Waters wouldn’t just hit you: he would inflict pain. Quarterbacks, Wide Receivers, Running Backs…no one was spared. A hit on Rams’ Quarterback, Jim Everett, essentially forced the league to implement a rule banning defenders from hitting QB’s below the waist while in the pocket. Andre “Dirty” Waters had officially arrived.
From 1986 to 1991, Waters averaged an astounding 131.5 tackles a season, with his single season, career high 156 tackles occurring in Philadelphia’s historic 1991 campaign. Even with the firing of Ryan after the 1990 season, the Eagles’ D finished first in run, pass and total defense and carved out their place in history as arguably the most balanced defense of all time. Despite this tremendously successful season under Defensive Coordinator Bud Carson, the following two seasons saw Waters’ production significantly decrease as he managed to play in only 15 total games. Years of playing as if every down were his last appeared to be finally catching up to the once-indestructible warrior. After Philadelphia failed to offer him a new contract following the 1993 season, Waters followed former coach Buddy Ryan to Arizona where he played his final two years in the league for the Cardinals.
Life after football varies for a lot of ex-players. Most retire quietly, some transition into broadcasting and others have aspirations to coach. Andre Waters strived for the latter. Waters, as a Ryan disciple and with the ability to connect and teach fellow teammates the intricacies of the 46 defense, started off coaching at smaller universities such as Morgan State University, Alabama State University and the University of South Florida with the hopes of inevitably landing a gig in the pro’s. His intended climb from the university level to the mountaintop that is the NFL, however, proved to be more difficult than anticipated. In addition to being frustrated by the lack of opportunities at the next level, Waters also began to experience difficulties remembering even the simplest of things. Over a decade of repetitive head trauma, suffered from those same hits that everyone cheered, was now aggressively affecting Andre Waters’ brain. He once confirmed that even he stopped counting the number of concussions he sustained after surpassing 15. In the wee hours of November 20, 2006, Andre Waters tragically took his own life at the young age of 44; no suicide note was left.
Waters’ brain tissue, as confirmed by a study that took place after his death, mirrored that of an 85-90 year old man with early-stages of Alzheimer’s. This is believed to be the direct result of the numerous concussions that went largely unaccounted for. The controversy surrounding football-related head trauma, and Waters’ case in particular, has been well documented in various books, articles and most recently the movie ‘Concussion’ (which features a portrayal of Waters).
Most people will say football killed him. Others will choose to focus solely on the tragedy associated with the way he passed. To me, Waters’ story is about the hard-working and humble fan-favorite that embodied the essence of the Eagles. The man that, after hours of practicing in sweltering heat, would sign autographs and take pictures with any and all fans in attendance. The man that broke down in tears while speaking at the funeral of his former Defensive Coordinator, Bud Carson. The man whose infectious smile lit up the city of Philadelphia for 10 wonderful seasons. For these reasons and the countless others that constitute his legacy, we will always remember Andre Waters.