If you're looking for the perfect way to encapsulate Houston Texans defensive end and franchise icon J.J. Watt, it happened on Saturday night. Following a season in 2017 in which he missed the final 11 games, a season which followed a season in which he missed the final 13 games in 2016, and with multiple surgeries and months of grueling rehab embedded in between, Watt still found a way, even having played just eight games the last two years, to provide a moment, THE moment, at the NFL Honors show, taking home the Walter Payton Man of the Year Award and delivering an unwavering, emotional speech afterwards:
Watt has been in the middle of these awards shows before, taking home Defensive Player of the Year three times, and finishing runner-up for league MVP in 2014. However, the Payton Award represents a recognition of the human spirit in a player, and ultimately, that's what's always separated Watt from his on-field peers.
Whether it's something as large as the mission of his foundation — providing equipment and resources for underprivileged schools to have after-school sports — or something as small as shouting out a young fan on social media, Watt gets it.
In 2012, Texans quarterback Matt Schaub somewhat off-handedly said that then-Lions defensive tackle and league bad boy Ndamukob Suh wasn't "Texans worthy." We joked about the term at the time, but Watt has come to embody a sort of "Texans worthy," a phrase that captures the can-do spirit of the community in Houston as much as anything.
To that end, Watt's recognition on Saturday night was largely for his efforts during Hurricane Harvey. While the team was on the road, unable to return from a preseason game in New Orleans and sidetracked to Dallas, Watt saw the carnage back in Houston and used his powerful social media presence to begin a charitable funding effort on the YouCaring.com website.
What started as an effort with a $200,000 goal turned into a viral tour de force. Watt continued to up the bar on what seemed to be an hourly basis. Eventually, the number closed out an incomprehensible $37 million. However, Watt's efforts didn't stop at merely using his star power to get people to donate money. He was (and still is) very hands-on with the specific recipients of the funds from his foundation, taking time on his off days to take part in the vetting and distribution process. Additionally, Watt and his teammates have been part of the grunt work, delivering supplies to various spots in Houston in the wake of the hurricane.
Per the press release from the Texans announcing the award, Watt will receive $500,000, half of which will go to a charity of his choice and half of which will support the expansion of Character Playbook across the country. Character Playbook is the NFL and United Way's digital education program that teaches middle school students how to cultivate and maintain healthy relationships.
One of the other honors announced each Saturday night before the Super Bowl is the Hall of Fame class for that year. Someday, Watt will get that knock on his door, as well. He's done enough on the field for that. Saturday night gave Watt the other piece, that recognition that someday will put him into that rare group of Hall of Fame player and human being.
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Sean Pendergast is a contributing freelance writer who covers Houston area sports daily in the News section, with periodic columns and features, as well. He also hosts the morning drive on SportsRadio 610, as well as the pre-game and post game shows for the Houston Texans.