J.J. Watt was once on the verge of becoming the most dominant defensive player in NFL history.
Instead, his life took a turn for the better, and he’ll be retiring in a few weeks as one of the greatest players in NFL history.
Watt appeared out of nowhere – via Central Michigan and Wisconsin, at least – and Houston Texans fans booed his selection in the first round of the storied 2011 draught. Watt won them over by the end of his rookie season, when the Texans qualified for the playoffs for the first time in franchise history and won their first postseason game, with Watt’s 29-yard pick-six against the Cincinnati Bengals providing the game-winning score in a 31-10 wild-card win.
That was hardly a foreshadowing of what was to come.
Watt exploded onto the national scene over the next four seasons, winning the league’s Defensive Player of the Year award three times – a feat only matched by Hall of Famer Lawrence Taylor and eventual Hall of Famer Aaron Donald – while earning first-team All-Pro honours in all four seasons. Watt needed 82 games to record 75 sacks, a feat only accomplished by the legendary Reggie White. Watt is the only player to have at least 20 sacks in a season multiple times since sacks became an official statistic in 1982.
In 2014, he finished second in the league MVP voting, an honour no defender has won since Taylor in 1986.
Before Watt’s breakout in 2012, then-Texans defensive coordinator Wade Phillips predicted Watt would be a bust – not a first-round bust, but a Hall of Fame bust.
“The only players I’ve seen with his intensity who can do what he can do are in Canton.”
Phillips was dead on, and Watt will almost certainly be inducted into the Hall of Fame on the first ballot.
But he’ll be remembered for what he did off the field as much as for the sacks, batted balls, mic’d up one-liners, and constant hustle he displayed every time he suited up.
Watt has been named to one All-Pro team and one Pro Bowl over the last seven seasons. Injuries limited him to 69 regular-season starts out of a possible 114. Recovering from leg, chest, and back problems, among other ailments, proved difficult and frightening for a player who had set such a high standard for himself.
Watt, who requested his release from a Texans team in disarray, will not play in a Super Bowl. He will join the Arizona Cardinals in 2021.
But his physical pain didn’t stop him from spreading joy, goodwill, and much-needed emotional and financial support. Watt became ingrained in a Houston community that quickly reversed course to embrace him despite being rejected by it on draught day. He frequently aided local police, firefighters, and the military. His outreach was occasionally covered by the media, but not always.
The stated mission of the Justin J Watt Foundation is “to reach out to middle schools that have insufficient funding for after-school athletic programmes, or that have no after-school athletics at all.” It has donated $6.8 million over the last 12 years and is close to reaching its goal of $7.5 million.
Watt shone brightest in 2017, despite missing five games due to a broken leg and going sackless for a 4-12 Texans team. Otherwise, he only raised $41.6 million for Houston and its residents, seeding the effort with $100,000 from his own pocket after Hurricane Harvey devastated the city. Watt seemed to be everywhere, informing the public about Houston’s crisis through interviews in every medium imaginable – when he wasn’t passing out water, food, clothing, and other necessities from the back of a tractor trailer in Texas’ sweltering heat.
“The memories of destruction and devastation remain, but they are accompanied by memories of hope, selflessness, and the beauty of the human spirit,” Watt said a year after launching the recovery effort in a statement.
“I was fortunate to witness that generosity firsthand, as the fundraiser I started with a simple goal of $200,000 turned into an incredible outpouring of support from people all over the world.”
Watt’s tireless efforts to help his adopted hometown earned him the Walter Payton NFL Man of the Year award in 2017, the league’s most prestigious honour. Few will ever live up to Watt’s lofty aspirations, as he has and continues to do.
“My heart is filled with nothing but love and gratitude,” he tweeted Tuesday as he announced his retirement. It’s been a true honour and pleasure.”
The news came just two days after his 2-month-old son, Koa, went to his first NFL game. Watt, 33, was a threat reminiscent of his prime, making six tackles and putting two licks on Tom Brady, even if TB12’s Buccaneers won in overtime.
Koa is unlikely to recall the game. No NFL fan, however, will ever forget Watt, whose son will grow up in the shadow of a man who has proven to be a far more influential person than a football player.