Mandatory Credit: Photo by Weston Kenney/AP/Shutterstock (6014629j) J J Watt Houston Texans defensive end J.J. Watt plays catch with fans before an NFL football game against the Tennessee Titans, in Nashville, Tenn Texans Titans Football, Nashville, USA
John McClain: Yes, Watt was a great player, but an even better person in the community
Rather than dwell on J.J. Watt’s extraordinary statistics and incredible awards when he played for the Texans – they can be found on the Internet – I’m going to tell you some stories that reveal more about Watt the man than Watt the defensive player who’s destined for the Pro Football Hall of Fame on the first ballot.
Before I get into the storytelling, there are a few statistics I’ve looked up that show what a dominant player Watt was during four- and six-year periods compared to the greatest defensive players I’ve had the privilege of covering during my 51-year career as a sportswriter.
From 2012 through 2015, Watt recorded 69 sacks and won the NFL Defensive Player of the Year award three times, tying Lawrence Taylor for the most in history. Taylor, Watt, Reggie White, Bruce Smith, and Aaron Donald are the greatest defensive players I’ve seen – game-changing pass rushers who also excelled against the run.
During their best four-year periods, White registered 68 sacks, one fewer than Watt. Taylor had 63, Donald 59, and Smith 55. Taking into account Watt’s best six years – with two games remaining – he had 94½ sacks. Only White, with 99, had more. Taylor had 87½, Smith 84, and Donald 81.
Watt is going out on top. With road games left against the Falcons and 49ers, Watt has 9½ sacks, the most since 2018, when he finished with 16. In his last two games, he has three sacks, 11 tackles, five tackles for loss, and five quarterback hits. That’s the Watt who Texans fans know and love.
Now, enough with the statistics.
I was stunned when I learned Tuesday morning Watt is retiring after the season. He’s 33, playing well, and doesn’t turn 34 until March. I thought he’d play one or two more years, but he’s a husband and a father ready for the next part of his life. If he wants to attend games in 2023, he can go to Pittsburgh and hang with his younger brothers, T.J. and Derek.
At some point, Watt will disclose why he chose Tuesday to announce his retirement. This season, he went public on social media, disclosing his bout with atrial fibrillation in which his heart had to be shocked back into rhythm. He didn’t miss a game. Maybe that episode scared Watt and his wife, Kealia, parents of newborn Koa, enough to think seriously about life after football.
The NFL isn’t going to be as interesting without Watt. I imagine Fox, NBC, CBS, ESPN, Amazon, and YouTube will be scrambling to hire him as a studio analyst. I believe Watt would be outstanding in that role.
Politicians in Texas and his home state of Wisconsin better hope he doesn’t want to run for office because one of them would be out of work.
Watt came to Houston from Wisconsin when he was drafted in the first round – 11th overall – in 2011. New defensive coordinator Wade Phillips who had been hired by Gary Kubiak, wanted Missouri outside linebacker Aldon Smith for his new 3-4 scheme. The 49ers traded up in the first round to get Smith, and Phillips started pushing general manager Rick Smith to select Watt. When the selection was announced at NRG Stadium, where fans were attending the draft party, they booed Watt, primarily because they knew nothing about him. Watt always got a kick out of getting booed for the only time in his career with the Texans.
Because the owners had locked out the players in 2011 as they negotiated a new collective bargaining agreement, Watt was unable to sign his first contract, but that didn’t keep him from coming to Houston to work out with his new teammates.
In early July, the Berry family from Houston – mom, dad, and three children – were returning from a vacation in Colorado. They were involved in a head-on collision in West Texas. The parents were killed. Their two sons suffered spinal injuries that left them in wheelchairs. The daughter suffered broken bones but recovered.
I was reading a Chronicle story about the Berry tragedy. It listed some of the local dignitaries and celebrities who visited the children. In the last paragraph, it mentioned Watt. When the lockout ended, I asked Watt if he’d had a prior relationship with someone in the Berry family. He said no. I asked why he’d been visiting the children in the hospital. I’ll never forget his response: “I wanted to meet them to see if I could do anything to help lift their spirits.” To this day, Watt remains close to the three Berry children.
A couple of years later, I asked Watt why he spent so much time doing charitable things in the Houston community. He said, “I’m single. I don’t like to hang out in bars and clubs. I’m too young to sit on my sofa watching SportsCenter every day, so I try to do things to help people. That’s the way my mom and dad brought me up.”
After Hurricane Harvey decimated parts of Houston and the Gulf Coast in 2017, Watt raised more than $41 million for hurricane relief. His original goal was $200,000, with him donating the first $100,000. For his herculean efforts, he was voted the Walter Payton NFL Man of the Year Award and was named Sports Illustrated Sportsman of the Year for his humanitarian efforts.
On Christmas mornings, Watt took presents to Texas Children’s Hospital and distributed them to patients and their parents. When children and teachers were killed in a shooting at Santa Fe, south of Houston, Watt paid for the funerals. When a driver in Wisconsin killed eight in an attack in his SUV during a Christmas parade, Watt also paid for the funerals. There were others he paid for that were never disclosed.
Once, a kid from Ireland wrote Watt a letter telling him if he returned to the United Kingdom for another vacation, he was welcome to stop by his house. He gave the address. Sure enough, the next year, Watt showed up at his house and met his family. They became friends, and Watt flew the family to Houston for a vacation so they could see the Texans play.
I can’t remember all the details of another story, only that Watt showed up unannounced at a backyard birthday party to wish happy birthday to a stunned guy or girl.
Of all the Watt stories I’ve heard, one is my favorite. A young girl was crying, and her mother asked what was wrong. She told her mother she would never be able to “marry J.J. Watt.” Her mother filmed the daughter saying it and put it on social media. Eventually, the video found its way to Watt.
One afternoon, the family loaded up their car and went to NRG Stadium. I believe the parents told the children they were going to buy tickets to a concert. Rather than go to the ticket window, they went into the lobby. Waiting on the young girl was Watt with one of his No. 99 jerseys. One of the Texans’ PR guys held up a laptop with “Here Comes the Bride” playing. Watt got down on one knee, gave the girl his jersey, and asked her to marry him. Then he picked her up and danced around the lobby with her family in tears.
I’ve had people around the country ask me if Watt is a phony who does things for publicity and to feed his monster ego. I tell them Watt is about as far from phony as anyone I’ve ever known in or out of sports. I tell them a story about a firefighter who emailed me one afternoon and wanted to tell me how Watt had come to their firehouse unannounced and spent time with them. He thought I’d like to write a story about it and provided details.
I asked Watt about it to get some quotes. He asked me not to write it because it would look like he told me, so I didn’t. Through the years, I’ve heard so many stories about some of Watt’s good deeds in the community that were never disclosed. I know there are many, many more we’ll never know.
It’s been a pleasure covering Watt during his career. I have no clue what he wants to do next – studio work, I hope. Whatever it is, he’ll continue to have a 24/7 work ethic to be the best he can be. And I know he’ll continue to give his time to his community, whether it’s in Texas, Arizona, Wisconsin, or all three.
There’s one thing I’m sure about when it comes to Justin James Watt: I’ll see him in Canton in 2028.
(John McClain writes four columns a week for GallerySports.com. He can be heard Tuesday, Wednesday and Friday on Sports Radio 610 and Monday and Thursday on Texans Radio. He does three weekly Houtopia podcasts for 610. He also can be read three times a week on SportsRadio610.com).