Back in January, the best NFL defensive player of this generation — or any generation — was holed up alone in a Philadelphia hotel. He accepted no visitors, not even his parents. He had simple goals: Every day, he tried to get out of bed. If he succeeded, he rested before attempting to walk to the end of the hallway and back three times.
A few weeks later, he was well enough to visit a teammate. His buddy watched him shuffle like an elderly man recuperating from a car crash, wondering if his 27-year-old pal would ever walk without pain, much less return to the field. During Super Bowl week, the injured defender fulfilled his many commercial obligations by being driven around in a golf cart like, well, a broken-down football player.
Six months later, the same guy is in a hangar-like gym in Bumblesticks, Wisconsin. Outside, the summer wind rushes through the corn. The man is working to get it all back. When he's at his best, it's search and destroy without thinking. He sees the quarterback, the formation, the offensive linemen. He processes the data and then, when the ball is snapped, instinct takes over. After the game he'll look at pictures of himself returning an interception for a touchdown or wrapping up a tailback at the line of scrimmage, and he won't even recognize his own face, because it's all contorted in a way it never gets in real life. That out-of-body animal instinct is what he's trying to get back.
The gym is full of high schoolers and housewives, all of them angling for a sideways glance at the 6-foot-5 dude. A few young women are there, one of whom approaches him near the weight benches to let him know about a new sausage shop in town.
"You should try it," she says.
"Why do you think I'll like it?"
"Because you're such a carnivore."
The guy laughs, maybe blushes — it's hard to tell. His face is red and beaded with sweat. A few minutes later, he's zigzagging through a line of pylons. His giant left foot steps on one of the orange markers.
The face contorts and is unrecognizable for a moment, just like when he's playing for real.
It would seem that J.J. Watt is back. But looks can be deceiving.
Only in football does the biological clock start ticking loudly at 27. Between last season's crippling injuries and the fact that pro football is essentially a series of sanctioned car crashes, Watt could play another five years, or he could play one more and be done. Adding to his woes, Watt underwent surgery to repair a herniated disk in July and may not be ready come opening Sunday. He is marooned on the Houston Texans, a team with one of the league's most ferocious defenses — and one of its more impotent offenses.
Since his sophomore season, in 2012, Watt has had just about the best run of a defensive player ever. His 69 sacks in four seasons rival the stats of his hero, Reggie White. Sometimes, just for laughs, he'll line up as a tight end, his high school position. He has caught three touchdown passes. But even as Watt has shone, his Texans have struggled. They finished a middling 9–7 the past two seasons and lost in the first round of the play-offs in January. During the off-season, the team signed the Broncos' Brock Osweiler, Peyton Manning's longtime understudy, hoping to end the Texans' quarterback carousel, which has featured six passers in two years. But Osweiler has thrown exactly 11 touchdowns in his career — a decent month for Tom Brady. For the Texans, he could be great. Or he could be a free-agent bust. "A championship is the one thing I don't have," says Watt. "I have three Defensive Players of the Year. Only one other player has done that. But being a defensive lineman, it's hard to control the game."
Still, there's no need to cry for J.J. Watt; he'd be the first to tell you that would be stupid. He makes more than $16 million a year, plus another $7 million in endorsements — amounts unheard of for guys on his side of the line of scrimmage — for brands like Reebok, Verizon, and Papa John's. There is discussion of a postcareer Hollywood action-hero movie. Women talk about him the way that guys talk about Kate Upton. Case in point: During this summer's ESPY Awards, skier Lindsey Vonn, a casual acquaintance, cut into his red-carpet interview to announce a new part of Watt's therapy after his surgery to repair ripping his groin from the bone: a series of under-the-pads sensual massages. "It's getting hot in here," Watt joked in response.
Sure, there are slings and arrows. Some fans describe him as a defensive version of Patriots tight end Rob Gronkowski — a goofy caveman capable of superhuman feats of strength. Other wise guys call him a faux Gronk, grousing that his act seems too calculated — that he wants everyone to know how hard he works, to see him at the right parties, endorsing the right products. "Does J.J. like J.J.?" asks Watt's teammate and pal Shane Lechler. "Yes, of course he does. That's just part of what we have to deal with." Oh, and he has a new shoe out. The best that can be said about his kicks is that they are no uglier than Stephen Curry's nursing-aide shoes.
For all his Gulliver-like travels, Watt is a bit of a gentle giant. He tucks in Lechler's children and plays with Texans coach Bill O'Brien's boys. For the past two years, Watt and Barbara Bush have proved an unlikely but effective comedy duo at the former first lady's annual literacy fundraiser.
But, Jesus, will he be able to walk when he's 40? Last year, he played with a broken hand, through a debilitating virus, and with that groin tear, which ripped a little more every week. The weakness of the Texans' offense put relentless pressure on Watt and the rest of Houston's defense. So it was a sort of a mercy killing when the Texans were skunked by the Chiefs in an AFC wild-card game. Watt was done. "One of the things I need to do a better job of with J.J. this year," says O'Brien, "is giving him a break."
He stopped by to see Lechler in the post-season and could barely get out of the car. Watt's friend wondered if he'd ever play again. "I was standing next to my wife," Lechler remembers, "and I thought, 'Look, the best defensive player in the game can barely walk.' " He had tried to get through to Watt during the season, but it was fruitless. Even when the staff mandated a day off, Watt would come out in full pads. Lechler says: "I told him, 'That's great, and you are performing better than any defensive player in the game right now, but I'm worried about you in the very near future — now, not like the guys already in their fifties and sixties.' "
Back in Wisconsin, Watt finishes up his workout and orders his usual second breakfast: five eggs and ham and cheese inside a potato cake with a side of mashed potatoes. We are at a diner in Oconomowoc, a Mayberry-like town about a 15-minute drive from where he played high school football in Pewaukee.
"I live with the fact that while I am playing, I am going to give everything I have, and I will live with those consequences," Watt says, his voice quiet. He comes across as a thoughtful young man, and not just by football-player standards. A light behind his eyes suggests that nothing is said without consideration. He politely defers an old lady's request for a photo until after he is done eating. "Maybe when I'm 50 I won't be able to walk, and I will say, 'You were young and stupid.' But right now this is my mentality."
Watt's quiet, contemplative side is a stark contrast to his fierce on-field persona. There's the time an offensive lineman ripped off Watt's helmet and Watt still swallowed the quarterback. In his breakout game as a rookie, Watt snatched a point-blank pass from the Bengals' Andy Dalton and romped in for a touchdown in the play-offs. Before a game against the Titans, a teammate showed Watt a picture of Titans rookie quarterback Zach Mettenberger taking a smiling selfie in the locker room. Watt proceeded to sack Mettenberger twice, even taking an imaginary selfie over his body. "I wasn't necessarily angry," Watt says with a chuckle. "For me it was happy hunting time."
He plays instinctually, often lining up wherever he wants, which confuses offenses who constantly double- and triple-team him and try to run/pass/cower in the opposite direction. Coaches have learned just to let him go. When he was a rookie, Watt did a spin move in practice, crushing the ball carrier. Legendary defensive guru Wade Phillips told him, "Nice tackle, but don't do that again." Instead Watt did the same spin five more times, and five times made the play. Phillips then revised his remarks. "OK, you can do it," he said. "But nobody else can."
But Watt accepts that he is not exempt from all of the game's rules. Last year's calamities cured him of any lingering thoughts on that matter. Back in the diner, he puts down his fork and thinks about it for a second. "Part of you has to have a feeling of invincibility," he says. "That is what makes you good — you think nobody can stop you." He scans the restaurant and sees that the old lady is still patiently waiting. "But this year definitely gave me a new perspective. There is no question about that. Having to fight through everything I fought through and waking up some days thinking, 'I literally don't know how I am going to make it to play' — it makes you reevaluate everything."
Like most good Americans, Watt credits his success to his parents, coaches, and teammates. He would also like to thank a 12-pack of beer. It was early in his rookie season and the Texans were playing the Ravens. On three plays he screwed up his assignment. His coaches were so enraged that they took his helmet away — the definitive sign that you are done for the day.
Watt is known to brood after losses. That night he sat alone in his Houston house, fearing he would be a first-round washout. So he grabbed a 12-pack from the fridge. Somewhere around the time he crushed the last can, he had a revelation: If he was going to fail, he was going to do it on his own terms. "I thought, 'I am going to do what I want to do,' " Watt tells me. "I was like, 'You got here by playing the way you know how to play.' "
At practice the next day, he played like he had at the University of Wisconsin. Everything changed. If you look at tape of his performances after being benched in that Ravens game, you'll start seeing the ferocity that has won him those three Defensive Player of the Year awards. Coach O'Brien has learned to let Watt be Watt. "He so instinctively understands the game," O'Brien says.
Says Watt with a sly grin: "You earn the ability to fuck up."
Confounding conventional expectations is something Watt has been doing since he was a kid. Growing up in Pewaukee, a town of 14,000, he was afraid of the sirens of fire trucks because they meant his firefighter dad might be in danger. Justin James Watt is the oldest of three boys. (Middle son Derek was recently drafted as a fullback by the Chargers.) They weren't poor, but they weren't rich. Watt remembers the time he and his brothers were forced to quit hockey because the family could not afford to outfit all three of them. So J.J., who played all sports, turned his focus to football.
Wisconsin high school football isn't exactly Friday Night Lights, but the town turned out during his high school years. Tall and skinny, Watts started as quarterback, not moving to defense and tight end until his junior year. "The greatest problem we had with J.J. was that he didn't understand why everyone didn't work as hard as he did," says Clay Iverson, Watt's high school coach. "He'd get so frustrated and angry about it."
Iverson and the teammates leaned on Watt. But, still skinny as a high school senior, he was rated a two-star recruit and was not offered a scholarship at his beloved University of Wisconsin. Instead he ended up playing tight end at Central Michigan University. Early in the season, though, the coach changed plans and went to a spread offense, in which the tight end is peripheral at best. So Watt told his parents he wanted to transfer and walk on at Wisconsin. It meant they would have to pay his tuition, a walk back on J.J.'s promise that he'd take care of his college costs. But his parents were completely supportive. That off-season, he worked at a Pizza Hut, where a co-worker sized him up and sadly shook his head, saying, "You're not big enough for the Big Ten."
It did not take long for Watt to prove his co-worker wrong. Ineligible to play his first year, Watt dominated the scout team. He had finally grown to his full 6-foot-5 and was north of 280 pounds. Even before scout season ended, teammates were talking about his going pro. A coach sidled up to him and said, "I just want one thing: a cap from the NFL draft."
In 2010, his junior year, Watt led the Badgers' defense in nearly every major category. It was time to turn pro. That's when the carnival really began.
Houston is not known for its abundance of celebrities, so it's not a stretch to say J.J. Watt is the most recognizable face in America's fourth-largest city. In search of some kind of normalcy, Watt has latched on to Lechler. Despite being 13 years Lechler's junior, Watt took him under his wing when the future Hall of Fame punter arrived from the Raiders in 2013, and Lechler has never forgotten it. His quiet domestic life with a wife and two daughters reminds Watt of his own childhood. Lechler, meanwhile, is seeing things he's never seen. During one week off, Lechler took Watt to a game at his alma mater, Texas A&M, and Watt was quickly swarmed by cameras and fans. The circus was too much for Lechler. "I told him, 'I need another beer,' " he says. " 'You're on your own.' "
Watt is still trying to figure out the fame game. He has someone do his shopping for him — it would take him two hours to get through the grocery store. When he goes out for dinner with teammates, he tries to get some privacy by reserving a back room. But then word leaks out and a crush of people gapes through the curtains. "I tell him, 'Why don't we just come through the front door, sign the autographs, and just get it over with?' " says Lechler with a laugh.
There are really three J.J. Watts. Wisconsin Watt is a homebody who roams his 36-acre country retreat and hosts high school friends around the fire pit. Houston Watt is a semi-recluse who spends dawn to dusk at the Texans' training facility, popping into public occasionally for a charity event and the sporadic steak dinner.
And then there's Los Angeles Watt. This is the J.J. who guested on an episode of New Girl and just hosted the CMT Music Awards. L.A. Watt rents a Ferrari and lives large. He has already met with agents and producers about a possible post-football career; some see him as the next big action hero. (He had a cameo as a soccer coach in the recent comedy Bad Moms.) He's tempted but torn. After three or four days in L.A., Watts develops a physical ache for the Wisconsin quiet. "Part of me wants nothing to do with any Hollywood," he says. "But another part of me wants to go there. I feel like I could be successful at it."
He gets a bit of a faraway look in his blue eyes. "I know I'm going to be remembered for football," he says quietly. "That's why I work so hard at it." He has no interest in being an analyst or an announcer: "Ex-players in the booth don't know what's really going on in the locker room," he says. "If you see me doing that, you'll know I've lost all my money."
A few minutes later, Watt talks about shucking Hollywood and retreating to Wisconsin, where he'd raise some kids and coach high school football. I wonder aloud if he would be able to lead the quiet life after all the adulation he's grown accustomed to. He whispers an address to me and says come over after his post-workout nap.
"Come see my place and I think you'll understand."
A couple of hours later, Watt meets me in the circular driveway of an active construction site. Behind him is his log cabin — a log cabin, that is, the way Trump Tower is an apartment building. (Watt once described the property as "minimalistic." Deadspin found some pictures online and wrote in its tender, understated way: "J.J. Watt is a Goddamn Lying Clownfraud.")
Even Watt would admit the minimalist days are over. Today, at least, the place is neither peaceful nor conducive to quiet contemplation. We grab bottles of water inside the residence, near a sign that reads, what happens in the cabin stays in the cabin. Outside, tractors drag dirt while construction workers hammer away. We walk the grounds, passing a couple-thousand-square-foot garage that Watt has converted into his home workout space.
"It goes all the way to the highway," he says, pointing to some faraway brush. Then he starts listing new features to be finished before the season starts: "This is going to be the berm, this will all be high grass." Watt points at an acre-size hole in the ground and says, "There's going to be a pond with a beach. I wanted to live on the water, but I didn't want to live on a lake necessarily. So I just built a pond." There will also be a volleyball court, a waterfall, a barn with a giant karaoke machine, and a two- or three-hole golf course. "I like golf because me and all my friends suck," Watt explains above the drone of machinery. "We compete on an equal level."
Watt's parents live 10 minutes away and manage the property for him. He convinced his father to take early retirement from the fire department; now his dad does a lot of the mowing and snow removal on the grounds. We keep walking because he wants to show me something around the corner. I try to engage him on the issues facing his profession these days: the Goodell Autocracy and concussions. He says he doesn't know Roger Goodell well. "I do not have a relationship with him," he says with a grin. "I've never been in trouble."
But he views head trauma as caveat emptor. "I am a football player," he says. "I know they're completely different worlds, but it's like a firefighter running into a fire — that is just part of the job." He chooses his words slowly, as if he's having an internal debate over whether to say anything more. "I have never been that crazy about the whole controversy around it, because I understand what I am getting into."
He talks about the upcoming season and how he wants to get back to where he was. Last year was such a grind — there weren't enough games in the violent twilight of going just by feel. "It became more of me having to force my body to do stuff," he says. "It became a manual override to get through the pain." (Unfortunately, Watt may have to count on that manual override again this season, thanks to his recent back surgery, which occurred shortly after I left Wisconsin.)
As we walk around his property, Watt seems to prophesize his future. "I'm not going to be the guy trying to squeeze one more season out of my body," he says. That might be after the 2016 season; it might not be until 2020. He doesn't know. His body will decide for him.
Finally, we reach the farthest point of the property, and the construction noise begins to fade. Across the property line are rows of corn. "This is my favorite spot," Watt says in a whisper. "I come out here and think and just be alone for a while."
But here's the thing. That contemplative corner is not far from an adjoining road. The rumble of traffic and truck horns can be heard. It's not that peaceful at all — much like Watt's life in sport's most violent game is not peaceful. Still, he likes the spot and smiles the smile of a contented man. He pauses for a moment and then turns for home with just the slightest hint of a limp.
It's time for his afternoon workout.