J.J. Watt, NFL's best defensive player, really cares most about the next play
This story originally appears in the Nov. 17. 2014 issue of Sports Illustrated. Subscribe to the magazine here.
They see it every Friday, yet it never becomes commonplace. It's just too extreme. Typically, the Texans are two days from game time, tapping the brakes on a week's preparations, when out on the distant edge of reason they witness All-Pro defensive end J.J. Watt undergoing a personal transformation, from collegial sanity to wild obsession. It begins with a twitchy energy in the locker room, with jokes and nutty dance moves, and it builds until he's out on the practice field, at first shouting randomly and then punctuating pass-rush drills by screaming at the sky -- "just yelling trash talk," says practice-squad defensive end Keith Browner Jr., one of Watt's closest friends on the team. "Shouting about the quarterback we're playing that week, or the whole team, or just crazy stuff." Before it's all over, Watt grabs a weighted flatbed sled and hauls it across the field, a punishing strength-and-conditioning drill that's commonly performed in the spring and summer, but almost never during the season. "I get fired up," says Watt. "I yell some stuff. It's time to play football, and football is a violent game." Not quite -- kickoff is 48 hours away. But Watt is ready. Sometimes he runs with the sled on Sunday too, before kickoff, just to get pumped. He has been telling friends for a decade: You can't get today back.
They saw it back on the fourth Sunday in September, in a game against the Bills at Houston's NRG Stadium. Watt sniffed out an EJ Manuel screen pass that was intended for Fred Jackson, raised his long arms, intercepted the ball with his suction-cup mitts and bolted 80 yards for a touchdown, covering the last 30 yards, by his own estimation, faster than he's ever run in his life (and with Jackson, a running back, barely gaining a step). Minutes later, after the kickoff, the Texans' defense was back on the field. Nosetackle Ryan Pickett, a 14-year veteran, was shocked to see Watt standing at the ready, hands on hips. "Man, what are you doin' out here?" Pickett remembers asking. "Defensive lineman runs that far, you expect him to take the next series off. Man is crazy. Just 100 miles an hour, all the time."
They saw it in the darkened, predawn hours of Sept. 2, the day that Watt, 25, agreed to a six-year extension worth $100 million. Watt's lifelong friend from back home in Wisconsin, Taylor Jannsen, was visiting, and Jannsen awoke that morning to find his friend long gone, already putting in a full workout at the Texans' facility before formally signing the deal and facing the media. "He told me he couldn't sleep," says Jannsen, "so he went to work out. He just felt more driven to prove to everybody that they made the right decision by giving him that contract."
They saw it every afternoon at training camp, where Watt would position himself in front of a JUGS machine and catch footballs launched at him from 10 yards away -- "with one hand," says quarterback Ryan Fitzpatrick. "Pretty fun to watch, actually."
They saw it last spring in Watt's hometown of Pewaukee, at the NX Level gym where Watt has trained since he was a high school sophomore. Watt had just finished a grueling workout with trainer Brad Arnett -- "I gassed him pretty good," says Arnett, a former strength coach at Arizona -- when another trainer, a guy who competes in strongman competitions, bragged that he'd flipped a 1,100-pound tire from a front-end loader 10 times at a recent event, whereas he'd never seen Watt flip it more than a few times. Laid flat, the tire stood nearly four feet high; groups of three or four high school football players commonly teamed up to overturn it a couple times. Sweating puddles, Watt uprighted the tire and flipped it. Then he flipped it again. And he continued flipping it the length of the gym's FieldTurf hallway, then back to the beginning again, a good 80 yards on 27 flips. "The entire gym stopped and watched the guy," says Arnett, "and when he finished, he just grabbed a foam roller and started rolling himself out. Didn't say a word. He proved his point."
And they saw it in Madison, back in the fall of 2008, when Watt arrived on Wisconsin's campus as a walk-on who'd played tight end for one season at Central Michigan and was now chasing a scholarship and a starting spot on the defensive line. At first Watt played on the scout team, and in practices he stood in a huddle, looking at cue cards -- X's and O's and directional lines, drawn by a graduate assistant that explained how to simulate an opponent's defense against the Badgers' first-team offense. "I had no idea what I was doing," says Watt, "but if the line on the card went straight ahead, then I ran as hard as I could straight ahead." Across the line of scrimmage back then stood one current (Kraig Urbik) and two future (Gabe Carimi and John Moffitt) All-America offensive linemen, the foundation of teams that won 21 games across 2009 and '10 by road-grading front sevens into submission. Those linemen didn't expect a death struggle every Wednesday, but they got one just the same. "He pissed them off," says Charlie Partridge, Wisconsin's defensive line coach during Watt's career and now the head coach at Florida Atlantic. "And they struggled with J.J. because of it."
Says Watt, "I had to earn a scholarship. I'm sure I made some people not like me. I didn't care."
They saw all of these things, and many more, because there is a clock somewhere inside Watt's head with numbers descending inexorably toward zeroes, counting down his time first as a football player and tangentially -- but only tangentially -- as a giant corporate pitchman/superhero/celebrity. It is the same clock that inhabits every athlete, but Watt responds to its presence more acutely than most, racing through his 20s in a manic sprint to squeeze all the talent from his 6-foot-5, 290-pound frame and all the passion from his nimble mind before the former is broken by collisions and the latter grows weary of the chase. "He's not worried about the future," says Watt's crusty position coach, 61-year-old Bill Kollar. "He's worried about the next f------ play."
And that's true. "I know how little time I have in this game and how much it takes to be great," says Watt. "I don't want to waste any of it."
But it's not entirely true, because there is a plan beyond the next f------ play. Watt just isn't pacing himself in his attempt to accomplish it. He views the future as a series of urgent nows, laid end to end. He lives his life in a cocoon of his own making, football- and training-obsessed, emerging during the off-season to act in funny commercials, to fly his buddies to Man Week vacations far off the grid, to hang with a small gang of Hollywood A-listers who've brought him inside their velvet-roped circle. He's used his massive contract to splurge on a Range Rover for his mother (he drives a modest Ford F-250 pickup) and -- wait for it -- a second television for his house in a nongated community. "I can watch two college football games at once," he says, genuinely excited. He doesn't do clubs or anything else that might end the evening with a mug shot.
"Right now I'm trying to take every day so seriously and so passionately that I might be sacrificing aspects of life that other people seem to enjoy and tell me how great they are," says Watt. "Instead, I'm thinking about a practice rep that nobody remembers. That's what I'm thinking about on a Tuesday night when I go to sleep. Maybe that makes me crazy."
Maybe. But it's definitely part of what makes him the best defensive player in the NFL, and it puts him on the very short list of the league's best players, period. Through 10 games Watt has 9.5 sacks, sixth in the NFL, and, according to Pro Football Focus, 28 quarterback hits, more than double any other player. He has seven batted passes; no one else has more than four. Watt has achieved these numbers despite relentless double teams and offensive schemes designed to neutralize his disruptiveness, despite his being consistently held and despite the fact that the 5-5 Texans have been hit with injuries to four defensive starters, including both cornerbacks. Watt, meanwhile, has sat out just 58 of Houston's 731 defensive snaps, participating in an average of 61.2 per game. He has scored two defensive touchdowns, a 45-yard fumble return in an October loss to the Colts in addition to the pick-six against the Bills, and he's caught two touchdown passes as a tight end -- one in the Texans' Week 2 win over the Raiders, and one in a Week 11 victory against the Browns. (The first of his four touchdowns as a pro came on a postseason interception against the Bengals in his rookie year.)
None of this surprises Wade Phillips, the former Houston defensive coordinator and interim coach who lobbied for the Texans to draft Watt in the spring of 2011, when some in the organization preferred Aldon Smith. (Smith was off the table by the time Houston picked, at No. 11.) "What he is," says Phillips, "is the perfect football player."
This became apparent at Watt's first training camp, where Phillips began to see his rookie lineman as an assemblage of the signature qualities of the best players he'd ever coached. And it was solidified during Watt's breakout 2012 season, when he accumulated 20.5 sacks and 39 tackles for loss. "Reggie White was the most powerful man I've been around; he basically threw people down," says Phillips, who coached the Minister of Defense with the Eagles. "And Bruce Smith [whom he oversaw with the Bills] -- he was a quick, athletic movement guy; he could bend his body around the corner and get to the passer. Curley Culp [with the Oilers] was an inside player with tremendous strength. J.J. is almost a combination of all those guys. I'm not saying he can do each of those things as well as they could, but he's got all those qualities." Watt has studied all of those players, as well as their predecessors -- he is fascinated, for instance, by the crushing effect of Deacon Jones's head slap -- and lands on Howie Long as the closest thing to a precursor.
It's convenient to elucidate Watt's most superhuman qualities: size, strength, power, quick hands and feet. (Cue up the mind-bending YouTube video in which Watt does a 55-inch box jump in the spring of 2011. Now digest that he's since gone 59½ inches and, according to Arnett, wouldn't flinch at 65.) But all of those measurables might be secondary in importance to Watt's anticipatory vision. "J.J. is totally focused on what's going on in the backfield," says Titans offensive line coach Bob Bostad, who held that same position with Wisconsin when Watt was a Badger. "Most guys have their eyes on the guy blocking them because, basically, that guy is trying to choke you out. Not J.J. He's looking for the ball. It really is incredible how much he's improved since he was back in Wisconsin."
Wisconsin -- the state, not the university -- is where everything started. With a family conference. And then another one.
John and Connie Watt have been married for 27 years, and together they raised three boys: Derek (a junior fullback) and T.J. (a freshman tight end) play at Wisconsin this season. Both parents are recently retired, but they spent most of their marriage as a two-income household, John as a lieutenant paramedic in the Waukesha Fire Department and Connie as the vice president of a contractor that coordinated building inspections. The Watt boys were athletes from the start and excelled at everything, but particularly at hockey. By the time J.J. was 13 -- slightly taller than average, slender and skilled -- he'd played on three national or regional all-star teams, once traveling to Germany for a tournament. "J.J. was a really good hockey player," says Jim Burke, who coached Watt with the AAA Wisconsin Fire, a regional summer team. "There were [future] NHL players on teams we played, and J.J. dominated those games. He had great hands, and he was hard to move away from the net."
Soon, Derek and T.J. were also skating on regional teams, and John and Connie found their budget and (more important) family time being gutted by the schedules. In the late spring of 2002, as J.J. was finishing seventh grade, mom and dad called an end to premier hockey. "It was a watershed moment for the family," says John, "and it was tough for all of us. We enjoyed everything about hockey. But we had to decide whether to continue on or spend more time as a complete family."
J.J. says, "It was a massive thing in our house. I cried for an entire day."
He spent two uneventful years as a quarterback at Pewaukee High, measuring 5'9" as a freshman, 5'11" as a sophomore and 6'2" as a junior, but still thin and gawky, with size-16 feet. "All knees and elbows," recalls his Pewaukee coach, Clay Iverson. "Couldn't get out of his own way." Still, with a father who stands 6'4" and is north of 300 pounds, and with two uncles built similarly, there was little doubt that J.J. would eventually widen.
In the winter of his sophomore year, John took J.J. to Arnett's gym, and J.J. said, "I want to play college football." For most of the next three years, J.J. showed up for training before school. One morning, Arnett awoke to a fierce blizzard only to get a text from Watt: Training was still on. They worked out in jackets until the building's heat kicked in.
In Watt's junior year he was moved to defensive end and tight end. As a senior he grew to 6-foot-4, 230 pounds, and he made a diving catch in the end zone to send Pewaukee to the state quarterfinals. "[He was] at his best in the biggest moments," says Iverson. This idea of Watt as clutch was solidified when he played his only year of high school basketball as a senior. Watt's range was "three feet," remembers Jannsen, and he was a lousy free throw shooter, but in a sectional playoff game he was repeatedly hacked and repeatedly made his free throws as he racked up 25 points.
Watt committed to Central Michigan and started as a freshman at tight end, but he squirmed in the position, feeling he belonged elsewhere. "I could tell [tight end] wasn't what I wanted," he says. "I left right after our bowl game, and Wisconsin was the only place I wanted to go."
Commence family conference number two. Watt would be a walk-on; his parents would pay most of the cost. "Another tough decision," says Connie. "But we always told the kids, their happiness is the most important thing. It's their journey, not ours."
Partridge was in the Wisconsin weight room in that spring of 2008 when Watt introduced himself. "[Ivan] Drago-lookin' kid, brief hello," the D-line coach recalls. "Very serious." In the fall, Partridge would finish staff meetings late at night and find Watt outside his office, waiting to get feedback on his scout-team film from that day. "That's not unusual," says Partridge. "It's unheard of."
Watt earned second-team All-America honors as a junior in 2010, tore up the NFL combine that spring and then, as a rookie, helped the Texans ascend from 30th in total defense to second. Altogether, it gained him millions and cost him his anonymity.
Shortly after the conclusion of the 2013 season -- a 2-14 anomaly of a year that had much more to do with Houston's 31st-ranked scoring offense than its defense -- Watt flew to Los Angeles to film two commercials for Verizon, one of his three national corporate partners, along with Yahoo! and Gatorade. The first shoot was for the spot that would become the ubiquitous Middle School Dance, filmed in the Hollywood High gymnasium alongside an actress, Eileen O'Connell (as a chaperone named Amy), who had never heard of Watt. "My brother and my husband both told me, 'This is a really big deal,'" says O'Connell. "They said he's one of the best players in the NFL. I didn't know. I don't follow sports at all."
But as someone who has acted in L.A. for eight years, O'Connell knows ego when she sees it. "I've been with celebrities on other commercials who just didn't want to be there," she says. "And you can tell."
Not so with Watt. "He had no handlers, no special treatment whatsoever," says O'Connell. "He was game for taking direction. He was great with the [child actors]; they all wanted to talk to him." At one point Watt batted a bag of popcorn away from an adult male costar, mock-glowering and then laughing. He busted out dance moves that appear online in an outtakes reel. "He seemed like a very-low-ego guy," says O'Connell, "especially when you consider that he was the star."
This is Watt's gift, and also his burden. His football success has made him wealthy and famous, while his innate good cheer and generosity have made him seem accessible to his public. It's a combustible mix. For three years he handed out Halloween candy at his house (many kids showed up dressed as bloody-nosed mini-Watts), but this year neighbors asked him to abstain. "I really like to give out, but it got to be a hassle," he says. "People were driving from all over the city, like it was an excuse to come to my house."
As a rookie in Houston he began attending high school games at a stadium in suburban Pearland nicknamed the Rig. Early on he bought tickets at the front gate; three years later he needs multiple police escorts to avoid creating a small riot. In September he drove with Texans punter Shane Lechler to a game at Texas A&M. "People were pulling alongside our truck on Highway 6, taking pictures," says Lechler. "Seventy-five miles an hour." At home Watt now has a personal assistant who handles his shopping because trips to the grocery store turned into street festivals.
In the spring of 2013 he found one escape by traveling to Ireland. There, a 20-year-old college student and rugby coach connected with Watt on Twitter and offered a native's tour of Dublin. "We hardly talked about football at all," says Brendan Ryan, "and hardly anybody knew him." At the end of the trip Ryan's mother cooked brisket for Watt in their home. Watt went back in '14, and Ryan has twice come to Houston.
There are benefits, of course, to being a famous NFL player. After the 2011 ESPY Awards in Los Angeles, an entertainment agent from CAA, which represents Watt's football and commercial interests, invited him to a small house party with 20-odd Hollywood celebrities. Watt has returned to L.A. numerous times for similar events. He won't reveal the names of people he's met, and he is proud of his discretion. His mother, however, offered up a handful of names to a reporter last summer, much to Watt's consternation. Connie says now, "The names were accurate, but I wish you wouldn't write them in Sports Illustrated." She floats one: Tom Hanks. J.J. says he's become good friends with Modern Family star Eric Stonestreet, a sports fan. During an off-season breakfast in Pewaukee, John stood nearby as J.J. exchanged tweets with an actress whom he recalled his son watching on a popular television show when both J.J. and the actress were teenagers.
"Nobody understands fame like these people do," Watt says of his new friends. "And I'm meeting people that I see in movies and concerts, some of the coolest people in the world. It's fun to embrace that. But if I look at it through the eyes of the kid from Pewaukee, I'm thinking, There's no way this is happening."
It will all come to an end eventually. Through two seasons of major college football and three-plus years in the NFL, Watt has never missed a start. In training camp before his epic 2012 campaign, he dislocated his left elbow and now wears a bulky black brace on the joint. The bridge of Watt's nose got ripped open by his helmet during his junior year at Wisconsin, and several more times in '13, but he now wears headgear that can be inflated in the front, and it's been a bloodless '14. His joints are sound, but they won't stay that way, no matter how voracious his workouts. Watt is preparing for that too.
"I don't see myself as a 15-year NFL player," he says. "I'll play until I'm not good, but I won't tail off. People only remember Barry Sanders as great, which is the way to go. I don't see that happening soon because I'm having so darn much fun, but who knows?"
There has long been a strategy for what comes next. "I won't be a football analyst," says Watt. "I won't be on ESPN or NFL Network every week. My plan has always been to go back to being the most normal guy I can be. Buy a ranch on a piece of land back in Wisconsin, have a wife and a few kids, coach high school football."
But plans change. The man has Hollywood friends now. Watt has been offered movies, but none have fit into his off-season. That could change. "Movies," he says, "that would be the only thing to keep me in the limelight." It is an all-or-nothing conundrum: high school football coach or action hero. A man could find himself confused.
The clock winds down. Best to live in the now.