For a few minutes that day in 1970, Charlie Waters envisioned himself catching passes from legendary quarterback Bart Starr, donning Green Bay’s classic green-and-gold uniform.
Those moments proved fleeting.
A telephone call came from the Dallas Cowboys and included an odd question: “You think you can backpedal?” the voice on the other end inquired.
A somewhat stunned Waters answered yes, sending his life in a new direction. That’s a feeling he has experienced many times in his 59 years, from the joys of winning Super Bowls to the devastation brought on by his teenaged son’s death.
A Shrine Bowl quarterback at North Augusta High, Waters became an All-ACC wide receiver at Clemson then an All-Pro safety with Dallas, helping the Cowboys make five Super Bowl appearances and win two championships in the 1970s.
An accomplished coach, polished motivational speaker and energy industry executive since his playing career ended on the wrong end of Dwight Clark’s famous 1982 catch in San Francisco, Waters finds himself in the North Augusta, Clemson and South Carolina halls of fame — and hardly can believe it.
“All are very, very humbling for me,” Waters said. “To be from meager beginnings, it’s been a super time.”
“Super” is an appropriate word for Waters to choose.
The Cowboys’ trip to Super Bowl XIII to face the Pittsburgh Steelers in 1979 marked the fifth Super Bowl appearance for Waters and five Dallas teammates.
Waters was primed to make a record sixth appearance when Dallas played at San Francisco in the NFC Championship game on Jan. 10, 1982. The Cowboys’ fourth-quarter lead evaporated into history when Joe Montana connected with Clark for the touchdown that gave the 49ers a 28-27 win, a play known simply as “The Catch.”
Waters’ assignment on the play was to guard the tight end, which he said he accomplished.
“If they were throwing to my guy, we’d have been in the Super Bowl,” Waters said.
Instead, slowed by the effects of a two-year-old knee injury, Waters saw his playing career end on that sloppy, wet day at Candlestick Park.
“I had envisioned ending my career in the Super Bowl,” Waters said. “Instead, I laid there, face buried in green kitty litter they used to soak up the moisture at Candlestick.”
Getting to that point was quite a journey.
Waters grew up in North Augusta playing a variety of sports. His brother, Keith Waters, went to Clemson on a baseball scholarship.
Charlie Waters said he would have gone that route too, but he changed his mind as a teenager.
“I loved baseball growing up,” he said. “Then I figured out that if I didn’t start playing football, none of the cheerleaders would date me.”
Waters played football well enough to make the 1965 Shrine Bowl team as a quarterback, even though he had been a receiver earlier in his career. Frank Howard signed him to a football scholarship at Clemson and, by the spring of 1968, he was competing with Camden’s Billy Ammons for the starting job.
When Ammons hurt his knee in spring practice, Waters won the job as a junior even though he admits now he wasn’t a great quarterback.
The defending ACC champions started the season 0-3-1. When Ammons’ knee healed, he took over the starting job and Waters shifted to split end.
The Tigers won four of their last six games to finish second in the ACC, and Waters had a new home on the football field. As a senior in 1969, Waters made the All-ACC team as a receiver.
The successful move to a new position foreshadowed his professional career. Count Ammons as one who was not surprised.
“He was really smart as far as a football player goes,” Ammons said. “He had a lot of good instincts and perspectives. He wasn’t the fastest and the strongest, but he was athletic and he was smart.”
Dallas’ scouts saw something as well, but not in Waters’ pass-catching skills.
In the days before the NFL draft drew round-the-clock coverage on cable TV and the Internet, Waters had no idea of Dallas’ plans.
On draft day in 1970, he remembers, the Packers called and said they planned to select him with their third-round pick. But Dallas, picking ahead of Green Bay, took Waters and told him he would be changing positions again.
“I never made a tackle in my life, except high school, until I got to the NFL,” Waters said.
He took to it quickly, making the 1970 NFL all-rookie team as a free safety before settling in at strong safety to become one of the league’s top defensive players of the decade. Waters played in three Pro Bowls and made two All-Pro teams as a member of the Cowboys’ “Doomsday Defense.”
On a December afternoon in 1977, not long after his first son, Cody, was born, Waters intercepted three passes and forced a fumble as the Cowboys smashed the Chicago Bears 37-7 in an NFC playoff game.
Back in South Carolina, his former Clemson teammates were impressed.
“We kind of laughed about that,” Ammons said. “He had never played a down on defense. They turned him into a pretty good one. The Cowboys knew what they were doing.”
Waters gravitated to coaching after his playing career ended, joining the Denver Broncos’ staff under Dan Reeves, Waters’ former teammate and coach in Dallas who was a quarterback at USC in the 1960s.
“He was one of my best friends when I first got there (to Dallas),” Waters said. “Dan was great to me. He pulled me over to the side and gave me suggestions of things to do. He was great. We became great friends. We never let any of that (USC-Clemson) rivalry bug us.”
Waters coached seven seasons with Denver, eventually became defensive coordinator and helping the Broncos to a Super Bowl appearance in 1989. He spent a season in college football as defensive coordinator at Oregon.
“I really enjoyed it,” Waters said. “I really loved the challenge of studying the video.”
But this is where Waters’ life takes another turn — a tragic one.
In December 1995, with Oregon preparing for a Cotton Bowl appearance, Cody Waters died in his sleep. He was 17. Although natural causes were given as the reason, Charlie Waters said his family still has no firm medical explanation for Cody’s death.
“It was brutal,” Waters said. “I went brain dead for a year and a half, two years. You never pull out of it. But you figure out a way to get back.”
Having missed too many moments with his family while on the road recruiting or preparing for that week’s game, Waters got out of coaching.
“It was fun, but I just refused to sacrifice any more,” Waters said.
The Ducks wore a sticker on their helmets to honor Cody in the 1996 Cotton Bowl at Dallas, which would be Waters’ last game as a coach.
The Waters family moved to Dallas, where Charlie works for Energy Transfer Technologies in the electricity and natural-gas delivery business. He also teams with former Dallas teammate Cliff Harris on motivational speaking appearances.
He and his wife of 31 years, Rosie, raised their two younger sons and, except for one season as a radio analyst on Cowboys broadcasts, Watershasn’t been active in football.
He does maintain ties with his home state. His brother, Keith, lives in Simpsonville. Waters returns to North Augusta every year to attend The Masters with a group of childhood friends.
“I really enjoyed my time growing up in South Carolina,” Waters said. “It was a great place to grow up as a kid. We felt safe. The town of North Augusta stood behind me and helped me make it.”
No matter what position he was playing.
Reach Wiseman at (803) 771-8472