On the eve of his eighth NFL training camp, J.J. Watt opened a text message and got emotional. Inside was a cell-phone video filmed in a hospital corridor 10 months earlier. Watt was on crutches, still wearing his surgery socks and a giant bandage wrapped around his left knee. A physical therapist was showing the former three-time Defensive Player of the Year how to take a single step forward.
“It’s crazy when you look back at it,” Watt said after a late July practice at the Texans’ training camp site in White Sulphur Springs, W.Va. “That day, you are thinking to yourself, How the hell am I ever going to get back to who I am?”
The scar left behind from the complicated surgery to repair the fracture of his tibial plateau, which snakes up from his shin to the side of his kneecap, is lighter now, and even a source of pride. On the practice field, Watt has been back in his usual spots, leading the defensive linemen through position drills and slicing past blockers in 11-on-11 team reps. And on Sept. 9, when the Texans open their season against the Patriots, Watt fully expects to be starting at right defensive end.
But last October, with a second straight season officially cut short by injury, Watt couldn’t be sure about any of those things. If there was anyone who could understand what it’s like to traverse the long and uncertain road back, though, it was the person who recorded the video.
Kealia Ohai was at NRG Stadium on the night of Oct. 8, for the Texans’ Sunday night game against the Chiefs. She was sitting in the stands with her sister, Megan, when she saw her boyfriend run a third-down pass-rush stunt and then crumple to the turf. Ohai rushed downstairs to the locker room, and when she heard the team doctors say Watt definitely hadn’t torn his ACL, she was relieved. She had good reason to be.
In June 2017, Ohai, captain of the Houston Dash of the National Women’s Soccer League, was racing for the ball during a road game in Orlando. When she stepped to cut, she felt a pop in her leg. The diagnosis was what she’d feared—a torn ACL and meniscus. She had surgery 10 days later. A month after that, she needed a second procedure to clean out an infection that developed when one of the stitches didn’t heal. By early October, she still hadn’t been able to start running again. That night, she thought Watt avoiding ACL rehab was a win.
Then they got the diagnosis. Watt had shattered the top part of his lower leg, breaking bone and tearing cartilage, the sort of injury doctors said they usually saw in car accidents. He needed to be operated on within hours of the injury. Ohai waited at Memorial Hermann-Texas Medical Center, a setting she knew well. The orthopedic surgeon who had repaired Ohai’s knee months earlier was part of the team working to put Watt’s leg back together with a metal plate and screws.
“They weren’t even sure if the surgery would work and if he would be able to run anymore. That’s what was so scary for us,” Ohai says. “An ACL is difficult, but it’s pretty straightforward. With J.J.’s, because of the type of injury, I remember the doctors were not exactly sure how his leg and his knee would react to [the surgery]. From the beginning, he wanted to work hard and come back. But for a while, [the question] was, would he be able to come back and play at the same level, and support that much weight? Will his leg ever be the same again?”
It was during those anxious days that Ohai filmed the video of Watt trying to master the delicate art of moving his nearly 300-pound frame on crutches without putting any of his weight on his injured leg. The physical therapist helping him down that hospital corridor knew what awaited the couple in the months ahead—a lot of time on the couch—so he made a recommendation: Peaky Blinders, a British crime drama, available on Netflix.
Unable to walk for nearly two months after the surgery, Watt leaned on Ohai to help with almost everything. She’d bring him his toothbrush and a bowl of water, so he could brush his teeth while sitting down. “So I didn’t have to stand there,” Watt explains, “with my leg throbbing.” She mastered the art of sponge baths and took over the critical household duty of making the chocolate-chip pancakes. At the same time, she was in the most intense portion of her own rehab, strengthening her injured leg and getting her range of motion back. Before she’d leave the house they share for her four-to-five hour physical therapy sessions, she’d make sure Watt had his phone, food, water and anything he might need within arm’s reach. When she’d come back, he’d be sitting in the same spot where she’d left him—it was too painful for him move.
In so many ways, this was old hat. For most of the two-plus years that Watt and Ohai have been dating, he’s been rehabbing one serious injury or another. When Watt needed back surgery for a herniated disc in the summer of 2016, Ohai would carry his urine bottles from the bed to the toilet, where she’d dump them out for him. (And this after they’d been dating for only two months.) But this time was different: Now the heartbeats of two franchises were confronting the feelings of anxiety, frustration and uncertainty together.
“Neither of us could feel too sorry for ourselves,” Ohai says, “because the other one was going through the exact same thing.”
For instant pick-me-ups, the couple relied on yellowtail-, tuna- and truffle vinaigrette sushi rolls from Kata Robata or Neapolitan pizza from Pizaro’s. To conquer the boredom, they watched The Office for the fourth or fifth time through, and soon found themselves devouring episodes of Peaky Blinders. (They learned an important lesson: Why had it taken them so long to start watching the BBC?)
Watt resumed walking on Dec. 1, ahead of his doctors’ schedule; in January, he and Ohai vacationed in Italy and visited the Coliseum, rediscovering the feeling of stepping into an arena of competition. Toward the end of the winter, Watt started playing backyard goalie for Ohai—as long as she kicked from at least 20 yards away, to soften the sting.
“Having somebody to go through it with makes the bad days so much better,” Watt says. “Back when you are by yourself, you have nobody at all to talk you through it; nobody at all, if you are having a dark day, to really pick you up. I had my family, but they don’t live here, so you are sitting in an empty house all by yourself as opposed to when you have a girlfriend who can help lift you up.”
Ohai returned to the field first, in April, at the very same arena where she’d felt her knee pop. Playing in Orlando again in June, one year and one day after her injury, she booted a distance goal to tie the game. Last month, the forward got called up to the U.S. women’s national team training camp, an opportunity she was worried might disappear for good after her injury.
“That was cool for J.J. to see,” she says. “I think that gives him hope and confidence in himself that he’s going to [come back strong], too. I truly believe he’s going to have the best season of his career.”
Watt isn’t willing to make any such predictions. Such is the toll of the past two seasons, during which he played a total of eight games. But, as he talks about his road back from this most recent injury, he references the end point, when you feel like the player you used to be. When did that happen? “Over the summer,” he says. Before training camp began, he felt the shift, being able to make the cuts he used make and feeling like he had full use of his lungs and legs for his entire workout. “It’s more of a feel than anything,” he says. “You can feel that you got in a proper workout; you are doing the things you know how to do, and you are also not completely gassed at the end.”
In the nearly two years since Watt last sacked an NFL quarterback, his frame of reference has changed. He impacted the city of Houston well beyond anything he could have done on the football field, raising more than $37 million in the aftermath of Hurricane Harvey, and for two years in a row he had to confront not being able to play the game he loves for an indefinite amount of time. “I feel like he has a confidence now,” Ohai says. “I know he’s always been confident, but I think he saw himself lose [the ability to do] everything, and possibly not play, and then work his [butt] off to get back to where he is now. That gives you a sense of confidence; it makes you not really afraid of anything anymore.”
Before Watt left for Texans training camp at The Greenbrier in West Virginia, he handwrote Ohai a letter thanking her for helping him get to the other side. In return, she sent him the video of him taking those literal first few steps of the long road back. The clip wasn’t more than 20 seconds long, but watching it was like rewinding through the past 10 months.
“People say you’re going to come out on the other side of an injury better,” Watt says. “I always questioned that. I always wondered about it. But this one, I really do feel, when I look back at it all, I did come out better. She helped me through the struggle, so I could see the beauty at the end.”
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