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SI's 2017 Sportsperson of the Year: He Isn't on the Field, but J.J. Watt Is Still Lifting Houston Up

When devastation hit his city of Houston in late August, J.J. Watt set out to raise $200,000. He ended up raising more than $37 million in Hurricane Harvey relief, via donations from both millionaires and six-year-olds. And, after suffering an injury in the fifth game of the season, Watt has finally been able to realize that he's much more than just an NFL player

Reese May navigated streets strewn with wreckage: water-logged furniture and sheets of drywall, plastic children’s toys and ruined family photo albums, all tossed in front lawns until they piled so high that they obscured the homes they once occupied. Each became a twisted monument to a historic storm, one that caused $198 billion in damage, the costliest hurricane in U.S. history. “Almost everywhere you went it was the same scene,” says May. “You recognize it—in pieces—as the components of people’s lives.”

This was Labor Day, 10 days after the Category 4 Hurricane Harvey first made landfall in Texas, dropping as much as 60 inches of rain in parts of the greater Houston area. Reconstruction was barely under way. May, a slim, unassuming former Marine, is the national director of recovery for the St. Bernard Project. His organization had been on the ground for a week, helping rebuild in some of the hardest-hit areas, when he was summoned by the rep of a Houston Texans player who wanted to help. May arrived in a neighborhood largely spared from the floods and pulled through the front gate of a mansion, expecting to be greeted by a foundation director or some other support staff. Instead he found a 6' 5", 290-pound three-time NFL Defensive Player of the Year, just back from his team’s facility, where he’d been preparing for his season opener, six days away.

J.J. Watt met him at the door.

“When you deal with celebrities in these situations, typically there’s someone who heads the team—[someone] who’s not the celebrity. I was surprised to see him,” says May. “I went to shake his hand, and he shook my forearm up to my wrist.”

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By the time Watt met with May on Sept. 4, he was the head of an $18.5 million fund that was still swelling with contributions big and small, from lemonade stand proceeds to six-figure donations from celebrities like Drake. Forgoing his famously spartan sleep schedule, Watt spent his evenings in fluorescent-lit logistics meetings and in musty warehouses stuffed with pallets of food and diapers. Even with Houston’s opener coming up, he was determined to carry out the vetting process as he allocated the money, and the​ St. Bernard Project (launched nearly 12 years earlier, in the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina) was on Watt’s radar early on.

Over the course of their hourlong meeting in Watt’s living room, May was struck by a single sentiment. “It became clear to me,” he says, “that he believed he might be responsible for whether or not this entire recovery effort was successful.”

*****

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The watercame on a Friday. The Texans played a preseason game in New Orleans the following night, Aug. 26, and instead of going home headed straight to Dallas, where their final warmup was slated to go down. (It never did.)

While Watt’s teammates phoned loved ones back in Houston, some of them stranded in houses that were quickly taking on water, the four-time All-Pro defensive lineman signed up for an account on the fund-raising site ​YouCaring.com, wrote up a short description of a relief fund and sent the link over to Amy Palcic, the Texans’ head of media relations. The text thread that kicked it all off: “I think I’ll just start this campaign and then others hopefully join in on it. This is going to be the page.”

On Sunday, Watt posted the link to his various social media platforms, where his reach is among the largest in football, and in the initial push contributions overwhelmed YouCaring.com’s bandwidth, crashing the site.

The largest donation, $5 million, came from the billionaire Charles Butt, owner of the Texas supermarket chain H-E-B, 10 days after the fund was opened. But you have to look at some of the smaller contributions to understand Watt’s true impact. 

Clay Iverson had coached Watt and his two NFL-bound brothers, Derek and T.J., in Pewaukee, Wis. When Iverson’s two sons, 12-year-old Calvin and nine-year-old Corey, saw a YouTube video about Watt’s fund, they asked, “Dad, could we donate?”

Says Iverson, “I asked, ‘What do you mean by we? Me?’ ”

“No, us.”

The boys each gave $10 of their own money, passing the cash to their father, who paid with his credit card. “I know there have been a lot bigger donations, but [J.J. helped me] carry on that conversation with my kids,” Iverson says. “It’s hard at that age to grasp horrific tragedy, but they know good people when they see them. They see J.J. doing this; he’s a good person. So we want to get behind it. It’s one of the greatest things he’s done [for my family].

“I bet this happened in a lot of places.”

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Indeed. In Jefferson City, Mo., Allison Patrick was following the news of the flooding in Houston when, on a Friday afternoon, she asked her six-year-old son Hudson if he’d like to raise money and donate. Hudson had heard of Watt, so he did what grade-schoolers have done for generations in times of financial need: He started a (pink) lemonade stand.

The Patricks put the word out on their community Facebook group, and Hudson pulled in $330 on the first day. Neighbors asked if he’d set up the stand the next afternoon, so he did. Then Vanessa Robertson, who’d lived in Jefferson City before moving to Houston, saw the Facebook post and pledged to match whatever money Hudson raised. In the end, they collectively contributed $2,152 to Watt’s fund.

“It was amazing to see how excited [Hudson] was,” Allison says. “It got so hot outside that we asked him if he wanted to take a break, and he refused. Afterward, he started thinking about all these things he wanted to do for other natural disasters.”

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A five-hour drive north, in Hudson, Iowa, Kevin Yoder and Michael Roberts, volunteer co–head coaches on their sons’ third- and fourth-grade flag football team, wondered if their boys would be interested in helping out. After all, they were extended members of the Houston family—months prior, in a random draw, their team was assigned Texans-branded uniforms.

“We gave them the challenge on Tuesday night [after the hurricane],” says Yoder. “ ‘Go home, do extra chores, turn in your pop cans, and we’ll see how much we can raise by Thursday.’ We thought they might come back with $50.”

Instead the boys returned with $559. They printed up a novelty-sized check and sent a picture, along with the money, to Watt. Yoder, meanwhile, was reminded of a Bible story that his sons, Anderson and McCoy, had studied. The Lesson of the widow’s mite, from the Book of Mark, describes Jesus observing wealthy people donating to charity in large amounts—and a single widow donating a few cents. Calling his disciples to him, Jesus said, “Truly I tell you, this poor widow has put more into the treasury than all the others. They all gave out of their wealth; but she, out of her poverty, put in everything—all she had to live on.”

“It was just so neat for them to be able to put that into action,” says Yoder. “We always hoped that through football we could teach these boys something about life.”

 “It became clear to me that J.J. believed he might be responsible for whether or not this entire recovery effort was successful,” says May.

Back in Pewaukee, Watt’s mother, Connie, helped organize a food-and-supply drive that ultimately sent 10 semi-trucks and a cargo plane headed to Houston, packed with goods. Local farmers and truckers donated not only their time but also the money required to get a convoy of 18-wheelers across the country and back. “We begged them to let us at least pay for gas,” Connie says, “and they just refused.”

Watt’s old high school, meanwhile, was scheduled to play at rival Greendale on Sept. 1, and the hosts pledged to send all gate proceeds from the game (as well as the sales of Houston-relief-themed T-shirts) to Watt’s fund. Classes hadn’t yet begun at either school, but the fundraiser attracted triple the requested number of student volunteers and brought in $9,000 in ticket sales alone. Admission to that game was $5, but “people were giving $10 or $20 and not thinking anything of it,” says Jerad Galante, Greendale’s athletic director. “The kids were all in; they wanted to do anything they could to help out. It was a great thing to be a part of.”

By late October, with more than $37 million raised from 209,314 donors, Watt closed the giving phase and announced plans to distribute the money to four charities, including May’s St. Bernard Project.

“During a time like that, you learn so much about how the world is bigger than just the bubble you live in,” Watt says. “We always see these events on TV—a storm in Puerto Rico or Hurricane Katrina—and you feel terrible. You want to help. But there’s an entirely new level of heightened awareness when it’s your city, when you actually see the houses. It’s real. That will change you forever. That’s what we experienced. It’s an angle I didn’t even really contemplate fully until now.”

Of course, he now has time to contemplate it. Time he wasn’t supposed to have.

*****

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A little more than six weeks after Harvey’s landfall the Texans hosted a nationally televised game for the first time since the hurricane, a Sunday-nighter against the undefeated Chiefs. Despite the charged atmosphere, the visitors opened with an impressive drive, stringing together 14 plays over nearly eight minutes and moving the ball to Houston’s 17-yard line, where they faced a third-and-five. Watt put his hand down, lined up over the outside shoulder of the Chiefs’ right guard, Cameron Erving. At the snap he moved left toward tackle Mitchell Schwartz, occupying both blockers and creating a wide-open path to the quarterback for outside linebacker Brennan Scarlett. The stunt worked perfectly. Scarlett hit Alex Smith as he threw, causing the QB’s throw to Travis Kelce—wide open in the end zone—to fall well short. The crowd roared its approval. But en route to the QB Scarlett had clipped Watt’s left ankle, which in turn clipped Watt’s own right heel. He landed hard on his right knee and briefly restarted his push before crumpling to the NRG Stadium turf. 

He stayed down for 90 seconds. When he rose, the crowd erupted—briefly. They fell silent again as Watt put his arms around two Texans staffers and slowly limped to the sideline, grimacing with each step, tears flowing down his cheeks. On the sideline, doctors determined that he most likely hadn’t torn his ACL. Watt was optimistic but skeptical; he’d felt a pop in his knee before hitting the ground.

Medical staff examining Watt’s first X-rays, taken immediately at the stadium, said he was probably looking at a two-month injury. He’d be back for the playoffs. Hours later, though, an MRI provided a bleaker diagnosis: He was in fact facing a complicated surgery and a recovery process of up to a year. 

The next morning, Watt took to Twitter and Instagram and did something few athletes do after season-ending injuries. He apologized. “I can’t sugarcoat it, I am devastated,” he wrote. “All I want to do is be out there on that field for my teammates and this city. I’m sorry.”

What did J.J. Watt have to be sorry for?

“Because of my $100 million contract,” he says now. (Technically it’s $100,005,425 for six years, $51.9 million of it guaranteed.) “I know I’m looked at as a leader of the team, and I hate that I’m hurt . . . that I can’t be out there helping my teammates . . . that I can’t be out there putting on a show for the fans.