Justin James Watt is the first player in NFL history to record two 20-sack seasons.
When healthy, J.J. Watt is the most disruptive player in the NFL. Like Lawrence Taylor three decades ago, he must be accounted for on every play – making him an offense’s greatest concern. The face of the Houston Texans franchise, Watt was named NFL Defensive Player of the Year in three of his first five seasons. Now in his eighth season, he is a four-time First Team All-Pro. In 2015, Watt was rated the number one player in the league, ahead of Aaron Rodgers, Tom Brady, and Peyton Manning. He was the only defensive player listed in the Top Ten.
At 6’5” and 295 pounds, Watt is a combination of size, speed, strength, and quickness never before seen in the NFL. A long-armed, relentless pass rusher, he has been dubbed J.J. Swatt. Watt has one career interception, which he returned 80 yards for a touchdown in a 23-17 win over Buffalo in 2014. A tight end in college, he ran a 4.81 40-yard dash at the 2011 NFL combine and has caught three touchdown passes for the Texans. Primarily a defensive end, Watt also lines up at tackle on occasion. He holds Texans franchise records for sacks and forced fumbles, and led the NFL in sacks in 2012 and 2015.
“J.J.’s a great player,” said New England Patriots head coach Bill Belichick. “He’s very talented. He’s got a great motor and is very instinctive. He is a smart player.” In 2012 – his second season in the league – Watt had 20.5 sacks, an NFL-record 16 passes batted down, and tackled 39 runners for either no gain or a loss. Following the season, he was named NFL Defensive Player of the Year. Inheriting the work ethic of his father, John, who was a Wisconsin firefighter for 25 years, Watt ramped up his offseason workouts from one per day to two. “Complacency kills progress,” said the former college walk-on. “That’s when you’re not focusing on being the best. You’re satisfied. That is not me.”
Born March 22, 1989, in Waukesha, Wisconsin, Justin James is the eldest of three boys born into a football family. All played collegiately at Wisconsin before moving on to the NFL. Derek, 26, is now a fullback for the Los Angeles Chargers while baby brother, T.J. was selected as a linebacker by the Pittsburgh Steelers in the first round of the 2017 NFL Draft.
Hockey was J.J.’s, first love. He learned to skate at three and played competitively until a teen. A goal-scoring center, Watt played in Canada, all over the U.S., and even Germany. His eyes get as big as a puck when he talks about hockey. “The excitement, the fast pace, the intensity of the game. I had to quit because our family could no longer afford it.” At 13, Watt switched his focus to football.
Watt lettered in basketball, baseball, and football at Pewaukee High School, his father’s alma mater. He tried shot put his senior year, and ended up winning the state title, in the process breaking his father’s Pewaukee school record [his two younger brothers later won state shot put titles, with T.J. bettering J.J’s school mark by just over two inches]. Watt’s best sport was football, where he was named Woodland Conference Player of the Year and selected first-team All-State. A starter at both tight end and defensive end, Watt was selected team MVP as a senior.
Overlooked and undervalued, Watt was rated a two-star recruit by scout.com. According to Scout’s rating system, two-star prospects are “overmatched versus the better players in the nation…their weaknesses will be exposed against top competition.” Equally baffling is the assessment by Rivals.com, who ranked Watt as the seventh-best defensive end in Wisconsin. Following official visits to Colorado and Minnesota, Watt chose to play for Butch Jones at Central Michigan, where he was signed as a tight end. He appeared in 14 games as a freshman, catching eight passes for 77 yards.
When Jones wanted his tremendously athletic tight end to move to offensive tackle the following year, J.J. opted to walk on at Wisconsin. Only 50 minutes up the road from Pewaukee, Madison was a welcoming fit for Watt. After redshirting the 2008 season – and being named Scout Team Player of the Year – he was moved to the defensive side of the ball. After playing 13 games as a sophomore, Watt earned his first letter. He emerged as a star in 2010, leading the Badgers in tackles for loss, quarterback hurries, blocked kicks and forced fumbles. Watt was named All-Big Ten and voted second-team All-American. He was also named Wisconsin MVP and earned the Ronnie Lott Trophy, voted on by the national media and awarded to the player who best exemplifies outstanding character and athletic excellence.
The Houston Texans selected Watt with the 11th overall pick of the 2011 NFL Draft, the first of 27 defensive ends taken that year. Houston took J.J. three spots after quarterback Jake Locker, who is no longer in the league, and one spot after Blaine Gabbert, a journeyman now with his fourth NFL team. Watt became an immediate starter and quickly established himself throughout the league as a force to be reckoned with. After helping the Texans reach the playoffs for the first time in franchise history, Watt was named to the All-Rookie Team. In 2012, Watt had one of the best seasons in history, leading the league in sacks while garnering 49 of 50 votes for Defensive Player of the Year.
In 2014, Watt became the highest-paid non-quarterback in the NFL. The Texans got their money’s worth, as Watt earned his second Defensive Player of the Year Award. Virtually unblockable, Watt was named First Team All-Pro as a defensive end and was named to the second team as a defensive tackle. He also garnered the top spot in the NFL Top 100 Players of 2015 list.
Injuries derailed Watt in 2016 and 2017. In July 2016, he underwent back surgery for a herniated disc. Watt returned to start the season opener, then reinjured himself two weeks later against the Patriots and was lost for the season. He came back in 2017, only to suffer a tibial plateau fracture in his left leg in the fifth game, ending his season. Watt spent much of 2017 rehabbing with his girlfriend, Kealia Ohai. Captain Houston Dash of the National Women’s Soccer League, Ohai was recovering from a torn ACL and Watt was coming back from leg surgery.
A star on and off the football field, J.J. Watt touched the heart and soul of Houston – and it had nothing to do with athleticism. When Hurricane Harvey – the costliest tropical storm on record — hit Houston in 2017, it damaged more than 300,000 homes and shattered countless lives. Wanting to help the people of his adopted hometown, Watt aimed to raise $200,000 for hurricane victims. He exceeded his goal, raising over $37 million and setting an example as a positive role model while lifting the spirits of Houstonians. One year ago today Watt, along with Houston Astros second baseman Jose Altuve, was named 2017 Sportsperson of the Year by Sports Illustrated.