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Mega Watt

He’s the best player in the NFL. He makes men cheer. He makes young women (and their mothers) swoon. He spends time with orphaned children. He says it wouldn’t be fair to date right now because all he wants is a Super Bowl title. Can J. J. Watt really be this good?

By September 2015Comments

Photograph by Wyatt McSpadden

Imagine, for a minute, that you are not a sports fan. You do not follow pro football. You have never heard of Justin James “J. J.” Watt, a 26-year-old defensive end for the Houston Texans. Here is what you need to know about him: In 2011, when the team drafted him in the first round, many fans were dumbfounded, mainly because they had no idea who he was. But at the end of his rookie season, during a first-round playoff game against the Cincinnati Bengals, Watt made an improbable, acrobatic interception and returned it for a touchdown to put the Texans in the lead for good. Suddenly Watt became Houston’s biggest sports personality. He starred in so many television commercials that a columnist for the Houston Chronicle remarked that there might as well be “a twenty-four-hour all–J. J. Watt channel.” H-E-B named an ice cream flavor in honor of him and the team: Texans Tackle Crackle, a mix of vanilla, chocolate swirl, and crunchy candy pieces. Justin Timberlake, who met Watt backstage at a concert at the Toyota Center, taught him an end zone dance to use whenever he scored a touchdown. Zooey Deschanel was so entranced with Watt that she invited him to appear on her sitcom, New Girl, where he bantered with her and sang a silly song about hot dogs. Soon predictions were being made that Watt was on his way to becoming the most famous sports figure in American history.

Well, okay, there was only one such prediction, and it came from my 31-year-old stepdaughter, Hailey, a high school teacher in Houston who wears a steel-blue Texans jersey with “Watt” and the number 99 emblazoned on the back every Sunday during football season. “To be honest with you, I’m a little in love with J.J.,” she told me last year.

“Hailey, you’re happily married,” I said.

“When he makes a good play, I get emotional,” she replied. “Sometimes I hit pause on the television when they show him on the sidelines.”

“I didn’t even realize you were a football fan,” I said.

“If you meet him,” she insisted, “you’ll understand.”

And so, this past May, I took her advice. I flew from my home in Dallas, the state’s sanctuary of pro football heroes, and headed to Constellation Field, a minor league ballpark just outside Houston where Watt was holding his J. J. Watt Charity Classic softball game. (For the past few years, Watt and other members of the Texans’ defense have played against members of the Texans’ offense to raise money for Watt’s charitable foundation, which helps middle schools in low-income districts set up after-school athletics programs.)

I got there at five o’clock, two hours before game time. The stadium was already packed with fans, many of them females wearing number 99 jerseys. One middle-aged woman was wearing a beauty-queen sash bearing Watt’s name over her jersey. Another was holding a hand-painted poster that read, “I’m 53, but still young enough for you, J.J.” I saw an older woman with a poster that read, “All I want for my birthday is a selfie with J. J. Watt,” and I saw a tween with a poster that read, “Please wait for me to grow up, J.J.!” Then I spied a young woman standing near the dugout, her blond hair sparkling in the evening light. Her poster read, “Can you box jump me?”

“Can you what?” I asked the woman, a 26-year-old project manager for Hewlett-Packard named Sally Ratcliff.

“You don’t know about J.J.’s box jump?” she asked, giving me a delighted, dimpled smile. “From a standing position, he can jump on top of a box that’s sixty-one inches high. I’m five feet three—that’s sixty-three inches. So all he has to do is jump two inches higher and he can jump over me!”

I paused. “You are a project manager for Hewlett-Packard, and this is what you think about?” I asked.

“I took the afternoon off work so I could get a chance to meet him,” Ratcliff said, giving me a steady look, not even a little bit embarrassed.

At that moment, Watt emerged from the dugout in his softball uniform. Six feet five inches tall and 289 pounds, with icy-blue eyes, a chiseled face, and muscles that seemed to be exploding from every inch of his body, he looked as if he had walked straight out of a comic book. Ratcliff and the other women in the stadium went absolutely—and I’m sorry, but despite the fact that I’m a professional writer, I don’t know how else to put this—bat-shit crazy as he ran one of his massive hands through his thatch of sandy hair, grabbed a bat, took a couple of practice swings, and then performed some sort of impromptu stretch, sticking the bat on the ground in front of him and bending forward so that his butt lifted up in the air. He turned to the crowd with a huge, disarming grin, and he waved, setting off another round of pandemonium.

The men who had come were also cheering and whistling. “You are the man!” yelled a few of them, who were wearing number 99 jerseys too. Watt took another couple of practice swings, stepped up to the plate, and promptly sent the ball soaring over the left-field fence. The roar was so loud I wanted to hold my fingers to my ears.

jj-watt-fans
Watt signing autographs at his annual charity softball game, which raises money for after-school athletics programs.

Photograph by AP/Matt Patterson

“It’s insane, man,” Watt later told me. “The fans are completely insane.” How insane? Consider this story: Watt loves to hand out candy for Halloween, but this past year, his neighbors in Pearland, a bedroom community south of Houston, asked him to turn off the lights of his home and not answer his door. They wanted to avoid the havoc created by the massive swarms of trick-or-treaters—many of them dressed as mini-Watts, in number 99 jerseys and Texans football helmets—who flock to his home. The neighbors told him they planned to block off the entrance to their neighborhood with garbage cans to keep Watt’s fans from clogging up the streets and tromping across the yards, knocking over Halloween decorations, potted plants, and anything else that stood in their way.

“And I was like, ‘All right, I’ll just leave to make it easier for everybody else,’ ” Watt told me. That Halloween night, he went to dinner, drove around for a while by himself, and returned at nine-thirty, figuring that all the trick-or-treating would be over. Not far from his neighborhood, he saw a string of cars on the side of the road. “I’m like, ‘Why are all these people parked there?’ And then I started to get closer and closer, and I realized everybody had parked outside of my little neighborhood and had walked in. Literally hundreds of people streaming into the neighborhood, a whole line of people going straight to my house. I got my [home security] cameras up on my phone and looked at my house, and there’s people taking pictures in front of it. I came back an hour later, and at the front door, it was almost like a shrine. There were gifts and notes, and they were piled up probably three or four feet high.”

One of the notes Watt read was written on the back of a MapQuest printout. “The map led to my house from a place just north of Dallas,” said Watt, shaking his head. “Somebody had driven five hours to come to my home on Halloween.”

J.J. Watt
Watt’s interception against the Cincinnati Bengals.

Photograph by AP/Tony Gutierrez

Did I mention that I live in Dallas? Over the decades, I have watched Cowboys fans turn such players as Roger Staubach and Troy Aikman into deities. But Staubach and Aikman were quarterbacks who led the Cowboys to Super Bowl titles. The Texans are hardly a great football team: since Watt joined the team, Houston has made the playoffs twice, but lost each time in the second round.

Most significantly, Watt is a defensive lineman. Compared with a quarterback, who handles the ball between sixty and seventy times a game, Watt is directly involved in, at most, ten plays a game: tackling the running back, sacking the quarterback, forcing a fumble, deflecting a pass, or making an interception. Opponents now design their offenses to run most of their plays away from Watt, so an entire quarter can sometimes pass without his name ever being mentioned by an announcer. Yet it is almost impossible to take your eyes off him. Watt is an utterly disruptive force, smashing into offensive linemen, throwing them to the side or driving them backward, and then thundering after whoever has the ball. He plays so ferociously that his helmet sometimes slams against the bridge of his nose, sending blood pouring down his face. On every pass play, he throws up his arms as he pushes into the backfield, trying to block the vision of the quarterback and often forcing him to scramble.

In a game last year against Buffalo, Watt batted a pass thrown by the Bills’ quarterback from the 19-yard line, grabbed the ball as it fluttered toward the ground, and sprinted 81 yards untouched for the score, outrunning even the speediest of the Bills’ offensive players. Later that season, in a game against the Tennessee Titans, he smashed into the quarterback, knocked the football out of his hand, recovered the fumble, and raced down the sideline for 14 yards before being forced out of bounds. Two plays later, while the Texans were still on offense, close to the goal line, he ran back onto the field, lined up as a fullback, and caught a pass in the end zone, where he promptly performed the shimmy-like touchdown dance Timberlake had taught him.

In 2012, which was only his second season in the NFL, Watt was voted the NFL’s Defensive Player of the Year after he accumulated 69 solo tackles, 20.5 sacks, 4 forced fumbles, 2 fumble recoveries, and 16 deflected passes—a simply mind-blowing set of statistics that no other defensive lineman came close to matching. He received the honor again last year after chalking up 59 solo tackles, 20.5 sacks (he is the only player in NFL history to have twenty or more sacks in more than one season), 4 forced fumbles, 5 fumble recoveries, and 10 deflected passes. Pro Football Focus, a website that uses statistics to chart the performance of NFL players, declared earlier this year, “At this point we’re running out of superlatives for him, a once-in-a-lifetime player. Watt has re-written what we thought of as possible at this, or any, position and while he continues to play at this level it’s reasonable to question whether any other player is capable of his level of consistent dominance.”

When football coaches talk about Watt, they have no shortage of superlatives. Texans head coach Bill O’Brien called Watt the “best defensive player I’ve ever been around.” Denver Broncos defensive coordinator Wade Phillips, who fiercely pushed for the Texans to draft Watt in 2011 when he was their defensive coordinator, described Watt as the “perfect football player.”

“The consensus among everybody in the NFL is that something even beyond the sky, whatever that might be, is the limit for J.J. He’s in uncharted territory for a defensive end,” said sportswriter Dale Robertson, who began covering pro football in Houston in 1976. “I can promise you that, as we speak, coaches who have to play the Texans this upcoming season are staring at game film, wondering just what, if anything, they can do to keep J.J. out of their backfields. And they have no idea what to do.”

Watt’s torturous weight-lifting workouts, his eight-thousand-calorie-a-day eating program, and his ascetic lifestyle—he likes to be asleep by seven-thirty to rest his body—are constant fodder for football fans. But as Robertson hastened to point out, Watt’s on-field prowess and training regimen don’t completely account for the fact that he has 891,000 followers on Twitter and 1 million on Instagram. It isn’t solely because of his pass-rushing skills that he made the covers of Sports Illustrated and ESPN The Magazine in the same week this past November—the sporting equivalent of Bruce Springsteen’s simultaneously being featured on the covers of Newsweek and Time in 1975.

“This might sound strange coming from me, because I’m about as old and as cynical as they come,” said Robertson. “But what J.J. has got is a charisma that you don’t often see these days among professional athletes. He seems to be the real thing—an old-fashioned, down-to-earth hero of sorts who hasn’t let all the fame mess with his head. After that charity softball game, he actually sent me a personal tweet saying, ‘Hey, Dale, thanks for coming out.’ I mean, who does that anymore?”

“Believe me, this guy is different,” said Watt’s best friend on the team, veteran punter Shane Lechler. “He gives out handwritten Christmas cards with a couple of hundred bucks to the team staffers, from the guys who cook the food to the guys who wash the uniforms. He goes around to all the hospitals and visits kids who have cancer. He raises money through his charity. People have come up to me and asked, ‘Is J.J. for real?’ And I say, ‘He’s absolutely for real. He doesn’t have a fake public persona. What you see is what you get.’ ”

Robert McNair, the billionaire Houston businessman who owns the Texans and who last year gladly renegotiated Watt’s contract, giving him a six-year extension worth $100 million, with at least $50 million of it guaranteed, told me that he can think of only three Houston athletes who have made a similar impact on the city. “There’s Nolan Ryan [the Hall of Fame pitcher for the Astros], Hakeem Olajuwon [who led the University of Houston to three Final Fours and then led the Houston Rockets to two NBA championships], and Earl Campbell [the running back who won three NFL rushing titles with the Houston Oilers, the forerunner to the Texans]. But there’s something special about J.J. People feel personally connected to him. Wherever I go, someone comes up to me and says how lucky we are to have J.J. in Houston.”

Indeed, Watt is a kind of gentle giant when he is off the field, with an almost ridiculously good-natured personality. Throughout our interview, he was completely open, telling me things that other football players would never say—he actually said that the one person in all the world whom he most wanted to meet was Jennifer Aniston—and he didn’t hesitate to poke fun at himself. During the photo shoot for this story, he kept folding his arms and holding them high up on his chest. When the photographer asked why he liked that position, Watt said with a completely serious face, “Hey, man, I worked out like hell to get these arms, and I’m not about to hide them now.” Then he let loose with a laugh so loud that a glass on a nearby table started shaking.

Watt is so gregarious that companies from Reebok to Gatorade to Axe are willing to pay big bucks to have him star in their television commercials. (If you want to see how good he is playing the role of the goofball, watch the commercial he shot last year for Verizon, in which he performed a hilariously lame dance.) Charmed by his funny, free-spirited manner, Hollywood producers are also beckoning, ready to put him into more sitcoms and movies. During the off-season, he flew to Washington, D.C., to attend the White House Correspondents’ Association dinner, where he talked at length with an enraptured Arianna Huffington; he’s gone to Los Angeles to appear on Jimmy Kimmel’s talk show, where he did his box jump; and he’s shown up in Nashville to be a guest presenter at the CMT Music Awards, where he walked the red carpet in brown-and-black boots, a black vest, and a black cowboy hat.

In Houston itself, he does what he can to accommodate hundreds of requests to make appearances at everything from the Houston Livestock Show and Rodeo to the Houston Art Car Parade to charity benefits populated by couture-draped socialites. In April he appeared at the Hobby Center for the Performing Arts with Barbara Bush, of all people, for her Celebration of Reading, an annual benefit to raise funds for the Barbara Bush Houston Literacy Foundation.

As if that’s not enough, he’s regarded as a modern-day Babe Ruth, who was a constant presence at children’s hospitals and orphanages. Watt even paid a surprise visit to a middle school boy in Houston who was being bullied by other students for his attempts to play quarterback on the school’s football team.

Watt told me that he receives “literally thousands and thousands” of requests from people who want to meet him. “My Facebook currently has seven thousand to eight thousand in-box messages, and the stories I get on a daily basis are incredible,” he said, shaking his head. “People who are sick, people who are dying, kids who are in trouble, families who are in trouble.” His mother, Connie, and a team of assistants screen the requests, “because they know if I read them all, I’ll try and do every single one, and I’ll wear myself out.”

Still, Watt tries to visit with someone or schedule a trip to a hospital (no media allowed) about once a week. He also makes room in his schedule to meet with wounded military veterans and with the families of soldiers who have been killed in action. Among soldiers and veterans, Watt is revered because he does a salute honoring them after every tackle he makes, and he is equally beloved by police officers and firefighters because he sent pizzas to every police and fire station in Houston last year along with thank-you notes.

One Houston woman, Nicole Alexander, who has suffered a series of debilitating strokes since 2010, is so inspired by Watt that she has said her goal in life is to stand up from her wheelchair, walk out of the hospital, and walk into NRG Stadium, where the Texans play, to meet Watt in person and give him a hug. “Some of the first words that’s she’s been saying since she’s been able to talk now are ‘Texans’ and ‘J. J. Watt,’ ” one of Nicole’s friends informed a local television station in May.

When I asked Watt if he ever felt burdened by such adulation, he shook his head again. “That’s why I work so hard,” he said. “There are so many people who support me, and I don’t want to let anybody down.”

J.J. Watt bloody nose
Watt sporting one of his famous bloody noses during a game.

Photograph by AP/Aaron M. Sprecher

Watt doesn’t just work hard. “J.J. is completely, utterly obsessed,” said Lechler. “I get to the stadium at six-twenty in the morning, and he’s already there, his truck parked in the front row. And while the rest of us go home by three, he usually is there until the evening. Sometimes he’ll text me, asking me where I am, letting me know he is still lifting weights, making himself better, trying to win us a championship.”

Besides going through the regular drills and team practices conducted by his coaches, Watt puts himself through an additional workout five days a week. Last September, on the morning after he signed his new $100 million contract, he was out of bed and at the stadium by 3:30 a.m., asking a janitor to unlock the door so he could get to the weight room. His workout regimen is spectacularly grueling. He pushes a sled loaded down with 45-pound weights. He flips a giant truck tire back and forth across the room. He does the “Heavy Prowler Push,” the “Trap-Bar Deadlift,” and the “Litinov Prowler Sprint”—exercises that are too complicated to explain in the space of a magazine article. When he’s done, he’ll stretch, sit in a cold bath, get a massage, or undergo acupuncture. Then, if he is not scheduled to make a hospital visit or public appearance, he’ll return to his two-story house in Pearland—the same home that he bought for $399,000 during his rookie season—where he lives by himself. He eats dinner (a heaping plate of grilled chicken, eggs, whole wheat pasta, and sweet potatoes) and goes to bed.

Watt said he never goes to a bar to have a beer with his buddies and he rarely goes out on dates. Rumors abound that he has been seen a few times this past off-season with Caroline Wozniacki, a Scandinavian tennis player who was once ranked number one in the world, but he has said that they are not in a relationship. “I would love to go out on a date. I want a wife and kids someday. But it’s so much harder than just saying, ‘Hey, I want to go on a date.’ You have to take into consideration the fact that even when I go out by myself, people take photos and videos. You add a girl into the mix, and then everybody wants to have the photo with me and the girl.” He shook his head in bewilderment. “So how do you take a girl on a first date?”

Besides, Watt said, “It’s so hard for me to say that I’m going to be an awesome boyfriend to somebody when I know that right now football’s my first priority.”

Actually, for much of his childhood, hockey was Watt’s first priority. Raised in Pewaukee, a town of 14,000 outside Milwaukee, by his father, John, a retired firefighter and paramedic, and his mother, Connie, the former vice president of a small contracting company, J.J. and his younger brothers—Derek and Trent—skated in the junior leagues, and Watt was good enough to play on regional all-star teams that competed across the country. But when he was thirteen, his parents decided they couldn’t afford the high cost of three boys playing hockey. They also weren’t happy with the way the different schedules and constant traveling were cutting into their family time. “Family is very important to us,” said Connie. “And although J.J. was understandably upset when we told him and his brothers that he had to play another sport, he agreed it was the right thing to do.”

In high school, every morning before classes started, he went to a gym to lift weights, and by his senior year, he was six feet four, 230 pounds, and playing defensive end and tight end. He won a scholarship to Central Michigan, whose team, the Chippewas, was a member of the Mid-American Conference. After his first season, in which he caught eight passes as a tight end, the coaches decided to move him to offensive tackle. Wanting a bigger stage, he quit Central Michigan, saved his money while delivering pizzas, and then enrolled at the University of Wisconsin, joining the football team as a walk-on.

By his sophomore season, in 2009, Watt was a starting defensive lineman for the Badgers. He played so well during his junior season that he decided to forgo his last year of eligibility and declare for the 2011 NFL draft, where the Texans took him as the eleventh overall pick. When Watt arrived in Houston, wearing a Texans T-shirt, an airport employee struck up a conversation with him. Not realizing who Watt was, he commented that he wasn’t sure that “this big white kid from Wisconsin” was going to be a good player. Watt replied, “I sure hope he is.”

According to Robert McNair, the Texans coaches believed Watt would be “a good, solid player.” But none of them, of course, were thinking he was going to be the best defensive player in the NFL. “It was probably about halfway through his rookie season that we started seeing him do things that were very impressive,” said McNair. “A lot of times, rookies hit a wall, but J.J. just kept getting better and better. He was outworking everyone. And then came the interception.”

The interception took place in a wild-card game—the Texans’ first playoff game since they had joined the NFL, in 2002, as an expansion team. Watt threw up his arms and somehow grabbed a bulletlike pass and ran it back 29 yards for a touchdown. It was arguably the biggest play in the Texans’ history. “And suddenly, in Houston, it was all J.J., all the time,” said Robertson.

Watt’s superhero reputation only got bigger when the media learned that he had spent that season quietly visiting three siblings under the age of ten who had been orphaned in a car crash. He shot hoops with them, taught them card games, and even took them to a Justin Bieber concert. That off-season, Watt made trips to see other kids, and he promoted his charitable foundation, which he started when he was at the University of Wisconsin. “During J.J.’s college years, he had come across some kids who had gotten into trouble after school, and when he learned that their schools didn’t offer any sports activities to give them something else to do, he said, ‘We’ve got to do something about this,’ ” recalled Connie, who runs his foundation from the Watt home, in Pewaukee. “We started selling wristbands that read, ‘Dream Big, Work Hard,’ which is J.J.’s personal motto, and everything took off from there.”

It was around this period of time when my stepdaughter, Hailey, began doing her swooning act. (“Seriously, he doesn’t do anything wrong,” she said during one of our phone calls.) She wasn’t the only one swooning. When Watt dislocated his elbow in training camp before the 2012 season, he was inundated with requests from Houston “nurses” who said they could help take care of him. Other young women began showing up at restaurants that they heard he frequented. They drove past his home.

“It’s hilarious,” Watt told me about all of the attention. “I get a lot of letters that say, ‘I’m a normal, down-to-earth girl. I love to cook, and I love sports.’ What I also get are letters from a whole bunch of moms saying, ‘My daughter is awesome,’ and, ‘My daughter is a great daughter.’ They’ll give their grade point averages and their profession. They’ll say, ‘She’s a doctor.’ Or they’ll say, ‘She goes to spin class!’ ”

Watt is no Johnny Manziel: he has not been distracted at all by the adoration. (When I told the Chronicle’s Robertson that Watt couldn’t be “that perfect,” Robertson shrugged and replied, “All I can tell you is that he has yet to make a misstep. His teammates aren’t even jealous of him, which is saying a lot.”) He was so good during the 2012 season that the New England Patriots’ head coach, Bill Belichick, reportedly ordered defensive linemen on his scout team to hold up brooms to prepare quarterback Tom Brady for Watt rushing toward him on pass plays. Other coaches came up with schemes to double-team him, which did no good. “J.J. has great instincts,” said the Texans’ O’Brien. “He seems to know where the play is going. And even if you try to run plays away from him, he’s so good at chasing from the backside, better than any player in the game. He beats back blocks. He focuses on getting to the ball. It’s a beautiful thing to watch.”

By 2013 he was starting to get triple-teamed. Still, he pulled off 65 solo tackles, made 10.5 sacks, and deflected 7 passes. After his dominating 2014 season, many players believed that he should have been voted the NFL’s Most Valuable Player, which has been awarded to only two defensive players in history: Minnesota Vikings defensive tackle Alan Page, in 1971, and New York Giants linebacker Lawrence Taylor, in 1986. “I told him that if he wasn’t named MVP for 2014, then I didn’t see it ever happening,” said Lechler. “We should all just say, ‘Hey, this is something that goes only to a quarterback or a running back.’ ”

Sure enough, the award went to quarterback Aaron Rodgers, of the Green Bay Packers, who won a dramatic playoff game against the Detroit Lions while limping around on a torn left calf. When I asked Watt if he was disappointed in the outcome—the award is voted on by fifty sportswriters—he tried to be diplomatic. “A quarterback is always going to be the most valuable player on a football field because he touches the ball every single offensive play,” he said. His smile disappeared and he gave me a steely look. “Now, if you are going to create the Best Football Player award, then I’ll have a discussion about that.”

J.J. Watt
Watt visiting a fan after a game.

Photograph by Brett Croomer/Houston Chronicle

Despite his fame, Watt told me he does his best to live a normal life. He has refused to move into a mansion in an exclusive gated community, and he hasn’t hired a decorator to come over and make his home look like something out of Architectural Digest. (When he bought it, he asked the owners if he could keep the art and other decor they had hanging on the walls—“Like, fake grapes and vines of leaves in the kitchen,” he said—and he has not touched them since.) After signing his $100 million contract, he bought a Range Rover—for his mother. He then bought a massive flat-screen television for himself so that he could watch University of Wisconsin football games (his younger brothers now play for the Badgers) while simultaneously watching another college game on a television that he already owned. He still occasionally does his own grocery shopping, though the aisles tend to get so crammed with fans that he can’t move his cart, and he loves to attend Pearland High School football games on Friday nights, though he needs a security detail to escort him in and out of the stadium.

Watt said that he had so little idea what to do with his new wealth that he and a friend from Pewaukee, who had come to Houston for a visit, sat down one day right after the contract was signed and Googled the question “What do rich people buy?” “It started off with islands and jets and stuff like that, and then it’s Ferraris and it’s Lamborghinis and it’s watches and suits and stuff,” Watt said. I asked him if he at least went out and bought a nice watch for himself. “I don’t have a watch,” he replied.

In truth, Watt has made one concession to being a very wealthy man. He has begun chartering private jets whenever he needs to take a trip. But there is a practical reason for that, he told me. It saves him from spending several hours in the airport, which makes it far easier to get in his two daily weight workouts. Nothing, of course, gets in the way of Watt’s weight workouts. As he said during a press conference before his charity softball game, “I never want to let a day go by without having done something to get a little better. I want to go out and chase greatness. That’s all I want to do.”

Watt does not have to be told that, at any moment, the chase could come to a sudden stop. He could suffer a career-ending injury—or at least one that could slow him down for a long time—and it wouldn’t be long before he disappeared from the public spotlight as quickly as he had stepped into it. When I asked Watt about his football afterlife, he looked me straight in the eye and said that even if he does go off to Hollywood and work as an actor for a few years, he eventually wants to return to his home state of Wisconsin, quietly raise a family, and coach high school football. “At the end of the day, in my heart, I’m just a small-town kid from a middle-class family who enjoys hanging out with his family and friends, tossing a tennis ball for a dog, cutting the grass, going for a walk, having a beer with my buddies, and stuff like that,” he said.

It’s hard to imagine that that day will be coming anytime soon. In July the NFL Network ranked him as the number one player in 2015, beating out Aaron Rodgers for first place. “I know the average length of stay for a player in our league is only two and a half to three years, but I think J.J. will last at least another decade, maybe more,” said O’Brien. “He is one of the hardest-working players I’ve been around. He’s always coming up with new ways to get faster and stronger, and I just have a feeling we’ll be marveling at his on-field performances for many, many years.”

I asked O’Brien if he believes that Watt will someday be named the NFL’s Most Valuable Player. “Oh, that will happen too, especially if we start winning more games and get to a Super Bowl,” he said.

Watt is fixated on playing in a Super Bowl. Although he attended various festivities at this year’s Super Bowl week, in Phoenix, he flew home before the game began because, he explained to Sports Illustrated, “I won’t go until I’m playing in it.” I wanted to ask him more about the Texans’ chances of making a Super Bowl, but by the time I got to that question, he had been talking to me for an hour and a half. He looked at his phone to check the time. It was close to six o’clock. He rose and walked with me through the Texans’ offices toward the front door. Almost everyone was straightening their desks or putting papers in their briefcases or satchels, preparing to head home.

Watt yawned. He had been there since five-thirty that morning. He had a brief conversation with a staffer about making an appearance at a hospital the next night, and he had another conversation with another staffer about making yet another public appearance. He yawned again.

“What are you doing next?” I asked him.

He stopped at an unmarked door that led to the team’s locker room, and he gave me one of his disarming grins. “Actually, I’m going to go work out, to be honest with you,” he said. He kept grinning as I simply shook my head in admiration. Then he opened the door and he was gone.

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  • Jed

    wow. robert brazile never got this kind of attention.

    wonder why?

    • Lydia Sifuentez Moreno

      I was a Brazile fan but he didn’t do the work J.J. does. That’s probably why he didn’t get the same amount of attention.

  • Fran Holmes Devine

    I have never had this big a crush on anyone else in my life. My friends are becoming quite concerned about me. If only there were guys like Justin James Watt in real life…

  • Karen

    When JJ intercepted the ball and returned it for a touchdown against Cincinnati I became very emotional and almost cried. I can’t explain to anyone why I became so emotional, maybe I just then felt that football really WAS back in Houston and perhaps we finally have a team to get us to the Superbowl. Hasn’t happned yet but I’m now I’m always hopeful!

  • Phil A.

    JJ Watt is very hard to hate. However, there will be a time where people get tired of hearing how wonderful he is and all that. I don’t subscribe to mania, but the dude’s legit.

    I will say this. He’s probably the definition of the most base Texan woman’s fantasy, hence his immense popularity in Texas: strong, big, white, tall, godlike features, down-home dude, kind-hearted, workout warrior, seems 100% legit. No fake, no anger…his own colleagues in the NFL voted him as the No. 1 player. Lot of respect. Get him on a poster with a cowboy hat and some down-home country wear and people will start weeping in the streets.