Beyond the gridiron: J.J. Watt opens up about goals on and off the field
SCOTTSDALE, Ariz. -- J.J. Watt has that cross-over appeal going these days. Defense, offense, special teams -- whatever it takes, he seems to do it. The Houston Texans’ sack-happy, pass-swatting defensive lineman -- and part-time tight end/kick blocker -- put on a tour de force performance in 2014, reaching new heights of production and fame in his fourth NFL season.
Watt’s a lock to claim his second NFL Defensive Player of the Year honor in three seasons on Saturday night, when the league announces its major award winners, and he was the first defensive player in decades to warrant strong MVP consideration as well. In addition, Watt’s Q score is on the rise, too, as he continues to broaden his commercial impact with Gatorade and other companies he represents.
Watt is in the Phoenix area this week as part of the Super Bowl festivities, and he sat down with SI.com’s Don Banks on Friday for a Q&A session, fresh off his visit to the set of ESPN’s Mike & Mike show:
SI.com: Do you feel like you struck a blow this season on behalf of defensive players everywhere, injecting yourself into serious NFL MVP consideration with your 2014 performance?
Watt: There hasn’t been a defensive player in the MVP conversation for so long, so obviously even being in the discussion is great. But honestly, I think if you talk to players, and I know my own personal opinion is that it’s not hugely important. I play for the respect of my teammates and coaches and family. And then the fans after that. An award that’s voted on by 50 media members or whatever, it’s obviously an honor if you win it, but it really doesn’t matter a whole lot. Because I go out there and leave everything I have on the field. I left it all on the field this year, and if people want to vote for that, that’s great, and if they don’t, that’s fine as well. Because I personally know what I did this season, and I literally do play for the respect of my teammates and coaches and family.
SI.com: It’s always great to be at the Super Bowl, but this is not the experience every player wants. It won’t be enough, I imagine, unless you come back here to play in the game, and find yourself holed up in a hotel all week, correct?
Watt: Exactly. Obviously you get to do a lot of great things and cool opportunities at the Super Bowl. But at the end of the day we all want to be here as a player. That’s the goal and that’s why I work so dang hard.
SI.com: Have you been to other Super Bowls?
Watt: I didn’t go last year to New York, but the two before that [in New Orleans and Indianapolis] I went to, in my first two years in the league. It’s one of those things -- there are so many great opportunities and things to do as an athlete, so you kind of have to do it and take advantage of those. But obviously I’d much rather be here as a player.
SI.com: I’m pretty sure you’re going to pick up another trophy or two at the NFL Honors show on Saturday night. If not the MVP award, then another Defensive Player of the Year award. What’s that experience like, since it has turned into something like the Academy Awards for NFL players, with the red carpet and the whole Hollywood-style glitz?
Watt: It’s been a good time to see guys out of football pads and actually stepping out there. I think one of the funniest things is seeing how we all try to get ourselves dressed up. Because we all think we have style.
SI.com: Anything special in store with your look on Saturday?
Watt: I actually have no style whatsoever. I’m the worst. I have people I talk to and I say, "Please tell me how to dress because I don’t know what I’m doing." The biggest thing for me is my mom. I’m like, "Mom, do I look good?" If she says yes, I’m good to go. My parents and my brothers will both be here, and they were both here two years ago for my Defensive Player of the Year award [for the 2012 season], so I’m excited to have them here again.
SI.com: You’re here this week on behalf of Gatorade and its 50th anniversary in 2015. I can’t help but notice you’ve really started to develop your own brand out there, with more commercials and a higher level of off-field visibility in the past year or so. When you say J.J., a lot of people know who you’re talking about now even without a last name. Is that where you wanted to get to?
Watt: I appreciate that. That’s part of the cool factor of what I do for a living. As long as I do it my own way and I’m proud of what I’m doing and my family’s proud of what I’m doing, then it’ll always be awesome to me.
SI.com: Gatorade’s a global brand. So could it take J.J. Watt global at some point in time? Is that something you’re setting as a goal?
Watt: I think just being able to partner with Gatorade from my rookie year on and some of the things we’ve been able to do so far, I’m excited to see what’s next for us together. Like you said, they’re global, and as an athlete that’s kind of one of your things you’re after. It’s crazy to have the opportunity to even think about being global. Especially in a sport that’s mainly just in North America. Yeah, that’s a pretty cool thing to think about.
SI.com: Michael Jordan, of course, was Gatorade’s most recognizable face for so long. Do you aspire to be, um, like Mike? Is he the model for athletes crossing over into every aspect of pop culture?
Watt: He’s one of the biggest of all-time, probably the best basketball player ever. And he’s also one of the best at injecting himself into pop culture and making himself more than just a basketball player. He’s a household name all over the world. And I think as an athlete that’s pretty cool. Growing up you’d see Michael Jordan on everything, from Gatorade to shoes, everything. Obviously that’s something pretty cool for an athlete to aspire to.
SI.com: Any dream that J.J. will some day be as popular and well-branded as MJ?
Watt: I have a long way to go to accomplish what he accomplished in his career. There’s no question about that. He’s on such a different level. But, yeah, I think everybody aspires to the type of greatness that he accomplished. The one thing I know is, if I play good ball, things have tended to come along with it. Everything that I’ve ever done in my career has come off of playing good football. And so I realize I need to go out there and I need to take care of my business, then everything else, all these cool, great things come along with it. So maybe that is down the line and that would be awesome if it did.
SI.com: Your versatility became one of the stories of the year in the NFL. Is there even more in store or more that you could do on that front, besides just catching touchdown passes as a tight end?
Watt: Of course, myself, I always think I could do more. I’m always looking for whatever more I can do to help our team win football games. But it just depends on if they ask me to do it or not, and that’s what I said about all the versatility this year. I’m just so grateful that my team put that trust and confidence in me to do it. If they come to me and ask me to do anything, I’m going to do it.
SI.com: It wasn’t just a gimmick or a gadget play or two. At this point, it’s way past the novelty act, right?
Watt: Yeah, I never wanted it to be just a gimmick. I wanted it to be what it was, and it’s a package. It’s a true useful package and it had some success. So hopefully there’s more in the future.
SI.com: You’re still being paid as a pass-rushing defensive lineman, right? Not a tight end?
Watt: Yeah, I don’t think I’d win the argument to be paid as a tight end. I’m better off as a defensive lineman anyway.
SI.com: What did you think of playing for first-year head coach Bill O’Brien in Houston this season? The Texans went 2-14 last year, and still had quarterback issues this season, and yet they took a big step back to respectability at 9-7 and were knocking on the door of the playoffs at season’s end.
Watt: The job he was able to do coming in as a first-year head coach, having gone through four quarterbacks in one season, that’s tough for anybody, no matter if you’re a first-year head coach or not. He was able to fight through all that and get us close. We were a couple Cleveland points away (at Baltimore in Week 17) from being in the playoffs. We’re not where we want to be. Nobody will say they’re happy with where we are. But we’re going in the right direction, and I think a full offseason under coach O’Brien and another full year of everybody getting comfortable in our offense and our defense, and just with the whole staff, is going to be great for us.
SI.com: What’s your offseason look like? I heard you just bought a log cabin in Wisconsin?
Watt: Yeah, I bought a log cabin on some land. So after this week, I get to go back there and just kind of lay low. It’s in southeast Wisconsin, but it’s out a little bit. I’ve actually only slept there four nights so far. I bought it during the season while I was in Texas. It’s going to be where I go in the offseason. I always go back to Wisconsin, but this is my first year of actually having a place. I’m excited about that. And then I always get one trip a year. I take 10 of my best friends from high school on a trip every year. Different spots. Just a chance for me to say thank you to them for being so loyal and for being such good friends, and a chance for me to be with my buddies. That’s what I’m looking forward to.
Watt: Not that I’m trying to play it close to the vest, but I literally don’t know who’s going to win this game. And I think that’s what will make it fun to watch.
SI.com: Are you going to be at the game?
Watt: I will not be. I’m getting out of here by then. I won’t go until I’m playing in it.