J.J. Watt was once on the fast track to becoming the best defensive player in NFL history. Instead, his life went in a different direction and he got better. He is now one of the best people in NFL history and will retire in a few weeks.
Watt came out of nowhere (well, Central Michigan and Wisconsin), and Houston Texans fans were so happy that he was their first-round pick in the 2011 draught that they booed his selection. But Watt won them over by the end of his rookie season, when the Texans made the playoffs for the first time in the team’s history and won their first playoff game, with Watt’s 29-yard interception return for a touchdown against the Cincinnati Bengals being the difference in a 31-10 wild-card win.
That didn’t say much about what would happen next.
Over the next four seasons, Watt became known all over the country. He won the league’s Defensive Player of the Year award three times, a feat only matched by Hall of Famer Lawrence Taylor and future Hall of Famer Aaron Donald. He also made the first-team All-Pro in all four seasons.
Watt had to play in 82 games to get 75 sacks, which is a record only Reggie White beats. Watt is the only player to have at least 20 sacks in more than one season since sacks became an official statistic in 1982.
He even finished second for league MVP in 2014, which is something no defender has done since Taylor won it in 1986.
Before Watt broke out in 2012, the Texans’ defensive coordinator, Wade Phillips, saw the potential. In training camp that year, he said, “Watt is going to be a bust—not a first-round bust, but a bust in the Hall of Fame.
“I’ve only seen players in Canton who can do what he can do with their intensity.”
Phillips was right on the mark, and Watt will surely get into the Hall of Fame on the first ballot.
But he will be remembered as much for what he did off the field as for the sacks, batted balls, mic’d up one-liners, and constant hustle he showed every time he suited up.
Watt has been named to the All-Pro team once and to the Pro Bowl once in the last seven years. He only started 69 of the 114 games he could have in the regular season because of injuries. A player who had set such a high bar for himself found it hard and scary to get better from leg, chest, and back problems, among others.
Watt would not play in the Super Bowl because he joined the Arizona Cardinals in 2021 after he asked to be let go from the struggling Texans.
But his pain didn’t stop him from spreading cheer, goodwill, and much-needed emotional and financial help. Even though the Houston community turned down Watt on draught day, they quickly changed their minds and began to accept him.
He helped the local police, fire department, and military a lot. The media sometimes covered his work, but most of the time they didn’t.