Best Of Houston 2013: J.J. Watt made Houstonians love him, whether they wanted to or not
Ain't we lucky we got him? Good times.
Photo by Aaron M. Sprecher
The NFL Draft is a time of hope for every team, and in April 2011, Houston Texans fans were in dire need of some hope. Coming off a 2010 season where their team's defense was historically awful, fans wanted something big on draft night.
So the Texans were on the clock. Fans chewed their nails nervously in anticipation as the card was handed to Commissioner Roger Goodell. He stepped to the microphone and read:
"With the 11th pick in the 2011 NFL Draft, the Houston Texans select defensive end J.J. Watt from Wisconsin."
The response from much of Houston?
Whether it was because fans lazily stereotyped Watt as "a big, plodding white kid from the Big Ten" or because Lombardi Award winner Nick Fairley of national champion Auburn was on the board at the time, Houston fans in sports bars and at Texans draft parties booed.
Think about how silly that sounds now -- Texans fans booed J.J. Watt.
And you know who heard them that night? J.J. Watt, that's who.
"I heard the boos on draft night, and since then my goal has been to make this city proud every day. The people here are unbelievable. The fans are rabid; they get it," Watt said, despite the evidence to the contrary on draft night, when asked about his initial impressions of Houston.
So in an age where players' "doing something about it" often means whining on social media or taking callous offense at criticism, J.J. Watt set out to convert the city of Houston in the most Wattian way possible -- he went to work.
What Houstonians now know, and what the rest of the National Football League is quickly learning, is that Watt's "going to work" means a whole lot more than the punching of the proverbial clock.
When J.J. Watt goes to work, records get set, money gets raised, mountains get moved. In the Texans' 3-4 defense, defensive ends typically don't pile up big sack numbers, yet in 2012, Watt came within an eyelash of breaking the NFL record for sacks in a season with 20 1/2. For good measure, Watt added 16 passes defended, a stat normally reserved for defensive backs. Not surprisingly, he took home the NFL's Defensive Player of the Year honor.
But that's just on Sundays, and the love affair between Watt and the city of Houston is not just a one-day-a-week thing. The stories of Watt's random acts of kindness are legendary, and the videos on YouTube of his charitable works and good-heartedness could fill a DVD box set. When Watt says he set out to make this city proud from the time he was drafted, he's being literal. He started doing it right after the draft.
During the NFL lockout in the 2011 offseason, shortly after draft night, Watt was resting in his hotel room in Houston and decided to jump on Twitter. A follower of his asked him to retweet a story about three Houston children, the Berry kids, who'd been orphaned in a recent car accident with their parents. Two of the kids, the two boys, were paralyzed in the process.
This is where many people would hit the "retweet" button and feel like they'd done their part to help. And maybe retweeting the story does help. After all, it was a retweet that helped this story find its way to J.J. Watt.
But Watt is different. He doesn't just hit "retweet."
"I sent the guy who tweeted the story to me a direct message and asked him, 'Is there any way I can visit these kids?' He got me in touch with them, and I brought them some Texans gear, and we immediately became friends," Watt said. "I gave them my phone number so they could text me, and we still get together often."
Watt proudly stated, "The Berry kids were my first friends in Houston."
The first of many.
There's the young girl whose viral video of her lamenting that she couldn't "marry J.J. Watt" resulted in a one-day faux wedding organized personally by Watt at Texans headquarters. There's the young boy, stricken with cancer, who uses a robot to attend class in his school. The boy named his robot "Watt," which led to J.J. visiting his home for a day and tossing the football with him in his backyard.
And there are the hundreds of kids who will benefit from the $330,000 raised by J.J. Watt's charity softball game. The money will go toward after-school programs for kids. "With all the money we raised, and with the support of all of my teammates, that was one of the greatest days of my life," Watt said happily.
But maybe the most Houstonian thing about J.J. Watt is his pragmatic view of the Texans' Super Bowl chances, where he has the cart firmly affixed behind the horse. When asked if he has envisioned what a Super Bowl celebration would look like in Houston, Watt interrupted, "No, no, no...we have so much work to do. I am focused on training camp and that's it right now.
"But I do know it would be unbelievable."
It's been a little over two years since that night in April, the night that many Texans fans wanted Nick Fairley over J.J. Watt. The fact that Fairley has been arrested twice in his short career with the Lions is mere happenstance. Texans fans wanted hope that night in 2011, and they got a whole lot more.
"My relationship with this city, nothing is more perfect," Watt emphasized.
The feeling is most certainly mutual.
Get the This Week's Top Stories Newsletter
Every week we collect the latest news, music and arts stories — along with film and food reviews and the best things to do this week — so that you’ll never miss Houston Press' biggest stories.