Just when you thought it was safe to play quarterback, Houston Texans sack master J.J. Watt has become the NFL's most dominant force
Long before J.J. Watt grew into his 6′5″, 290-pound body, he was a small high school kid playing quarterback in Wisconsin. Hard to believe the NFL's most feared defensive end was a self-described "short and skinny" signal caller, right? "I had a pretty late growth spurt," says the Houston Texans star. "But I'm not so little anymore." You're right, J.J. You're not.
Watt has become a hauntingly quick and agile player whose sole mission is to bring opponents down. And he's pretty good at it. He had a historically great 2012, leading the league in sacks (20½), knocking down more passes than any defensive lineman in NFL history (16 passes defensed), and winning the AP's Defensive Player of the Year award. No, there's nothing little about the 24-year-old now.
"Playing offense was cool. But I love being on defense because, every single play, I get to create my own destiny," Watt says. "I get to decide how each play ends for me."
Often, those plays conclude with a tackle or a tipped pass. He's the biggest reason the Texans have been a top 10 defense in each of his two NFL seasons, after finishing 30th in 2010, the year before he arrived. Watt is also the biggest reason why the Texans are one of the AFC's Super Bowl favorites.
Before Watt entered the NFL, he tried a wide range of sports while growing up in Pewaukee, Wisconsin. When he was five years old, youth hockey taught him "balance and how to handle my body," he says. Playing high school basketball, all he could do was "dunk, rebound, and block shots. I was terrible at jump shots and free throws." As a senior, Watt was a state champion in shot put.
Watt eventually dedicated himself to football. After earning all-state honors as a tight end and defensive end at Pewaukee High School (he was a QB until junior year), Watt went to Central Michigan University to play tight end. However, his role was limited. Watt caught eight passes for 77 yards in his only season at CMU. He wanted desperately to be a game changer. He realized that becoming one required both a change of scenery and position.
So Watt left the Chippewas in December 2007 and set his sights on the University of Wisconsin. With only a walk-on opportunity available, it was a risk. "I was gambling on myself," Watt says. "But I knew if I stayed focused and worked hard, everything would work out."
Watt took a six-month break before joining the Badgers, taking classes at the University of Wisconsin-Waukesha, working with a trainer, and delivering pizzas for Pizza Hut. During his break, Watt says people doubted his choice and dream to play in the NFL. But there were reminders that he made the right decision. Like the time he delivered a pizza and a young boy recognized him as a local football star.
No other pass rusher can bat down passes like Watt. His 16 passes defensed in 2012 was a single-season record for a lineman.
"He had this look of excitement, but then he was confused as to why I was delivering pizza to him," Watt says. "He remembered me as a football player. It was a moment that reminded me to keep going."
Watt arrived at Wisconsin in 2008. He wasted no time making an impact. During his redshirt season, he was named the Badgers' defensive scout team player of the year, earning a scholarship and a starting role. For the next two years Watt proved to be the game changer he knew he could be. He racked up 36½ career tackles for loss. In the Badgers' upset of No. 1 Ohio State in 2010, he sacked Buckeyes star quarterback Terrelle Pryor twice.
His Wisconsin coaches rave about his rigorous work ethic, which included heavy film study.
"J.J. was always studying QBs, where they'd be, the timing of their release," says Charlie Partridge, Watt's former position coach at Wisconsin who's now at Arkansas. "He'd look for indicators to see where they'd throw."
That homework, along with his massive hands (11⅛″ from thumb to pinky), makes Watt a pass-deflecting menace. "When J.J. would get his hands up, we would laugh because they're like jazz hands. Up and wiggling," Partridge says. "Those hands are what helps J.J. get the job done."
In 2011, Watt took his jazz hands with him to Houston. But it took some time for Texans fans to warm up to him. Drafted 11th overall, Watt was booed by the Houston faithful. Many wanted a player like Auburn defensive tackle Nick Fairley, not a "pizza boy," as some called Watt.
The boos were quickly replaced by cheers when fans saw Watt's gridiron heroics. He helped the Texans to their first playoff appearance in 2011. They won their first postseason game, 31–10 over Cincinnati. In that game, Watt intercepted Bengals QB Andy Dalton and returned it for a touchdown.
Last season Watt really broke through. He was just two sacks short of former New York Giants star Michael Strahan's single-season record. His record 16 pass breakups earned him the nickname "J.J. Swatt."
Now, Watt's eyes are on offense again. Well, kind of. Half-joking, Watt has been asking head coach Gary Kubiak for a chance to be a part of the Texans' goal-line package. "I'm always asking, 'When's my play coming?'" Watt says. "I don't think it'll happen, but I'll be ready if it does."
Watt's former coaches believe he could successfully play offense. "He's so athletic and more than capable of doing it," says Bret Bielema, Watt's former head coach at Wisconsin who now coaches Arkansas.
For now, the swat machine will focus on frightening QBs. And his former college coach has scary news for the rest of the NFL.
"J.J. has only played a few seasons of defense," Bielema says. "I believe his best days of football are in front of him."
Photos: JOHN W. McDONOUGH/SPORTS ILLUSTRATED