The mysterious death of Andre Waters

Published December 11, 2006

BELLE GLADE -- The clouds, gray and wintry, rolled in from the Atlantic on a recent afternoon and formed a melancholy canopy above the vast sugarcane fields by the southern banks of Lake Okeechobee.

Outside an old red-brick Baptist church, across the street from a mission to feed the needy and homeless, a small crowd began to gather in the parking lot tucked away from the bustle of Main Street's holiday traffic. Inside, the body of man who once thrived before crowds of thousands lay at rest in an open casket.

There was a trace of a smile on the face of former NFL star and college coach Andre Waters, the way his grieving family and legion of friends and former colleagues always remembered him. He looked calm and at peace, wearing a neatly trimmed goatee and a nice brown suit.

There was no hint of the violent, tragic end to his life on Nov. 20, four days before Thanksgiving, when authorities say he put a small-caliber gun to his head inside his North Tampa home and squeezed the trigger.

"He was so wonderful," said his mother, Willie Ola Perry, greeting a handful of visitors at the front of the church. "And I know he had them last seconds with God. He's somewhere with the Lord now. I truly do believe that." But he left behind a mystery.

Why would a man - a widely respected coach, a beloved mentor of young athletes, a devoted father of three - take his own life when he seemed to have so much to live for? What was going wrong in his life, unseen to so many, that would make him want to end it?

There may never be an answer. But perhaps, not so far beneath the surface, there are clues.

"It's such a loss"

When the Hillsborough County Sheriff's Office releases its report in the next month or so, more might come to light.

For now, the department offers no new details - other than its initial findings about the gun and a still-unnamed girlfriend who found his body - pending the completion of a toxicology report. There has been no word of a suicide note.

Yet in numerous interviews conducted by the Times in the past two weeks, a picture has emerged of a person who projected an upbeat demeanor but concealed bouts of depression; a person who was engaged in a prolonged and emotionally draining court fight involving custody of his daughter; a person who harbored some deep-seated feelings of frustration about his career.

What puzzles so many people contacted by the Times is that Waters, 44, appeared to be in excellent spirits and making plans when they last spoke to him.

"Everything seemed well with him to me," said a nephew, USF running back Aston Samuels. "I talked to him right before he came back down to Tampa and he was laughing that big laugh of his and joking with me. So it's just a question mark."

The same sentiment was expressed by his former coach with the Philadelphia Eagles, Buddy Ryan.

"I had just talked to him two weeks before," said Ryan, retired and living on a farm in Kentucky. "I'm going to be coaching a college all-star game in Las Vegas and I was going to get him to come out there and coach the defensive backs. He and I were laughing on the phone and talking and all this. Two weeks later I hear he took his life. I had no idea he had any emotional problems."

Ryan gave Waters his first break. Waters made the Eagles in 1984 as an undrafted free agent out of the obscurity of Cheyney State in Pennsylvania, a rookie who stammered when he spoke to the media. But when Ryan became coach in '86, he immediately noticed the special-teams player who hit with a ferocity that far exceeded his 5-foot-11, 190-pound stature.

He would become the starting strong safety and one of the pillars on bone-jarring Philly defenses, a popular team leader and a postgame quote machine for reporters. On the field, he earned the nickname "Dirty Waters" for his aggressive style, though he insisted he just played the game hard. Off of it, he was known to people around him as a gentle, upbeat and giving man.

"It's such a loss," Ryan added. "He was a great leader and a great student of the game, and he was one of the first guys I had there in Philadelphia to build the team around."

Former Eagles teammate Mike Golic, now an ESPN radio personality on Mike & Mike in the Morning, noted sadly that Waters was the third major loss in the fabled Eagle defense. Lineman Jerome Brown of Brooksville died at 27 in a car accident in 1992 and end Reggie White of cardiac arrhythmia at 43 in 2004.

"It was a shock for Jerome Brown, a shock for Reggie White and the same way for Andre Waters," the former defensive lineman said. "With Andre, that would be the saddest in that you wonder what has to be happening in somebody's life going that bad to make you do something like that. It's troubling. He was such a great person. Always laughing. Always there for the kids."

Holding pain inside

In death, Waters had come full circle - back in the hardscrabble Belle Glade neighborhood of his childhood near the endless tracks of the Florida East Coast line, an at-risk enclave where hopes and dreams are so often derailed.

At the wake, only a day after Thanksgiving, talk focused on Waters as a person and not whether anyone could have foreseen such a devastating turn. A handful of his 11 siblings stood by his casket, smiling one minute, crying the next. In the pews, the silence was broken by bursts of wailing. As dusk became darkness, mourners continued to stream in.

There was a former football teammate from Cheyney State, Michael Steward, now coaching high school ball in Washington. The Eagles sent retired receiving greats Mike Quick and Harold Carmichael to represent the team; other ex-Eagles would come for the funeral a day later. Waters' longtime agent from Philadelphia, Jim Solano, flew in. And all around the church were nephews and nieces, aunts and uncles and countless friends, all dealing with the sudden loss as best they could.

Later, in the parking lot, one of Waters' nieces, 22-year-old Terrica Walker, offered a unique perspective about her uncle. She was close to him and often caught herself referring to him as "my dad" in conversations with friends.

It was Waters who encouraged her to enroll at Saint Augustine's College in Raleigh, N.C., during his four-year stint as a defensive coach ending last year. He let her save money by living in his house, and she stayed with him three years. She noticed something: He battled with depression.

"I saw him suffer in silence and I saw him struggle to find peace and find rest and that was what I was praying for him to get," she said. "Even the Sunday before (it happened), I knew he was depressed. This isn't something that just happened. I mean, he'd been struggling for years and he was trying.

"He would see a lot of pain in the world - often with kids who were broke that he tried to help - and he suffered from that. He searched for answers left and right. People will say it was for this reason or that. There's no one reason. He couldn't pinpoint it."

Walker says her uncle never took medicine for depression or sought professional help, though she says he insisted she see a psychologist at one point when she was depressed. But he wouldn't help himself.

"I was right in his midst for three years and every morning he would wake up with this big sigh, it never failed," she said. "He would try to cover it up because he didn't want to bring everyone else down."

A nephew nearby, 16-year-old Avon Waters, joined in the conversation. A high school football player in Atlanta, he stayed with his uncle during summers to attend football camps. He remembers that his uncle immersed himself in the Bible. "Every morning, it was read the Bible, go and run," he said. "Then come back and read the Bible again."

The teen said he got a call from his uncle on Nov. 17: "He was like, 'I'm down.' So I sung the church song we always sang - 'Hold out, just a little while longer.' And he started laughing, and I said, 'See man, you ain't down.' And he said, 'Well, if I ever do go, just dedicate the season to me.' But I never thought he would do anything like this."

Walker says she talked to him on her birthday one day later. "I called him because I knew he wasn't doing well and I said, 'How you doin', uncle Dre?' and he was like, 'I'm all right.' But I knew he wasn't. I could hear it in his voice. I said, 'You know I love you.' He said, 'I love you, too.' He wished me happy birthday. And I just told him to take it easy."

Trials and tribulations

There was something else going on in Waters' life during the last four years, something that likely was an ongoing source of stress and pain.

Since 2002, he had been engaged in a bitter custody rights battle with a Tampa woman with whom he had a daughter. The child, Andrea Waters, was born Nov. 10, 1998.

According to records at the Hillsborough County Courthouse, Waters - who has two other children from a marriage that ended in divorce - filed a petition of paternity in 2002 seeking shared custody of Andrea.

The mother and child had moved to Arizona, making it difficult for Waters, coaching at Saint Augustine's in North Carolina, to have contact with his daughter. On the stand, he was questioned about child support and his income: $37,000 college coaching salary, plus deferred compensation from the Eagles of $85,000 annually. The mother testified that "she did not believe that there was an effect on the child not seeing the biological father in the last year."

Still, in 2003, the court sided substantially with Waters, who re-established his residence in Tampa. Shared parental responsibility was granted, and if the mother failed to relocate to Florida within 60 days with the child, Waters would be awarded primary residential care of Andrea. She moved back.

But in 2004, she filed an appeal that addressed issues of custody and support. In August, the court affirmed most of the trial court rulings, but on one matter found in favor of the mother - that the trial court "erred by failing to consider child care expenses when it fashioned the child support award."

"Without getting into the particulars, it is clear from the very beginning of this case to the very end of this case, Mr. Waters was winning just about everything," said Tampa attorney Richard Escobar, who, along with law partner Carlos Ramirez, represented Waters.

"That was not that the problem here. I think what you've got to realize is that when people go through a battle for custody, (they) are going through probably the most emotional and traumatic event that they will ever experience. ... So even in those cases where you are winning hands down, you really aren't, because of the emotional toll - because of the separation, a real separation between a father and his most precious individuals, his kids."

Court papers suggest the case was not over. A court-ordered mediation conference had been set for Friday, and a case management conference was on the books for Jan. 19. It appears there were issues of visitation to be worked out. But, according to Escobar, "mediation precedes future litigation" as well.

The firm, he says, will continue to represent Waters, with a representative from his estate to take his place. The attorney who handled the case for the mother declined to comment.

"He was a very strong guy and very likable," Ramirez said. "A tremendous person."

And a person under immense strain from a custody fight with no end in sight.

"The emotional toll could be an absolute train wreck going on inside a person, and you just don't see that," Escobar said. "... The fact that Mr. Waters was a professional football player, an outstanding one at that, makes him a tough individual. So sometimes you just don't see it as easily or clearly with those types of people."

But neither man imagined it would end as it did. "I was very shocked," Ramirez said. "I still am."

A lingering bitterness

Another personal issue consumed Waters: frustration about his career. And perhaps nobody knew more about that than longtime sports writer Phil Sheridan of the Philadelphia Inquirer.

Six months ago, Sheridan set out to do a short interview with Waters, whom he had known for many years while covering the Eagles.

"I needed three minutes and Andre talked for three hours," he said. "He just started pouring his heart out and I wound up with a notebook full of quotes."

When Waters retired from the NFL in 1995, after 12 seasons with the Eagles and two with Arizona, he embarked on a career as a college coach. He landed a job at Morgan State in Baltimore, then spent three seasons as secondary coach at South Florida.

His troubles appear to have started when he left USF before the 2000 season to spend training camp with the St. Louis Rams as part of the NFL's minority coaching internship program.

Bulls coach Jim Leavitt believed Waters would miss too much preparation time with the team, according to sports information director John Gerdes, so Waters had to choose between the internship and USF. He took his chances on the internship, but it didn't lead to anything.

So Waters was out of a job and soon working a step down the career ladder in smaller Division II programs, first at Alabama State in Montgomery then at Saint Augustine's. Sheridan recalls how Waters talked of feeling unhappy and unappreciated and that some coaches resented him as a former NFL player and didn't welcome his input.

Waters badly wanted to get a coaching job in the NFL, but couldn't find a path in. He saw former Giants and Patriots linebacker Pepper Johnson hired by coach Bill Belichick. But none of Waters' former coaches were around by the late '90s, said Sheridan, and he had no sponsor. Sheridan wrote about his conversation in a recent column, including how Waters felt the NFL system used players up only to spit them back out.

"I was just shocked at how bitter he was about it," Sheridan added. "One thing he said was, 'When you're playing football it tastes like honey, and it goes down sour like a lemon when you're not.' That's how he felt about the sport. He was also in a lot of physical pain. Every part of his body hurt, and he knew which collision or injury from his career was at the root of it."

His frustration was also evident to friend Bill Thomas, a board member for a youth sports program in the Raleigh area when Waters coached at Saint Augustine's. Waters donated $5,000 to the Carolina Football Development League to help get kids get equipment. The league's first team was named the Carolina Eagles in honor of Waters.

"He said to me, 'Anytime I can do anything to help, just let me know,' " Thomas said. "He was always like that. He loved working with kids. His dream was to have a boys and girls club named after him, where he'd be behind the scenes and kids could play sports and get mentoring and education help. But I remember he said, 'When I was a superstar, I should have had this facility done. It's kind of hard to get this facility off the ground now that I'm a has-been.' "

Waters' most recent stop was this year at Division II Fort Valley State, a historically African-American university south of Macon, Ga. He served as defensive coordinator and the Wildcats finished their season Nov. 11 with a 4-7 record.

He earned rave reviews from players and staff for the energy, sense of fun and all-out dedication he brought to the job.

Nine days after the season ended, he was found dead by his girlfriend on the back porch of his Tampa home, leaving behind so many questions.

Two weeks ago at the little church in Belle Glade, none of that mattered. It was not a time for questions, but for remembering and accepting.

Under the South Florida night sky, Terrica Walker smiled.

"What my uncle taught me most is that you can't settle for what's average; you always have to go above and beyond," Walker said. "I loved him. He was my hero."

-- Dave Scheiber can be reached at scheiber@sptimes.com or (727) 893-8541.