Hall of Fame
Join Date: Apr 2004
Texans’ Watt Makes a Play as Big as His Dreams
Texans are getting some nice national recognition.
NEW YORK TIMES
January 10, 2012
By TOM SPOUSTA
HOUSTON — Only three years ago, J. J. Watt was delivering pizzas, mopping floors and being picked at like a leftover pepperoni pie by doubters who scoffed at his football dreams.
He had walked away from a scholarship at Central Michigan, taken a job at Pizza Hut and enrolled in a community college, with the goal of someday walking on at Wisconsin. That path forged his determination on the way to becoming a first-round N.F.L. draft pick. Those memories are still fresh enough to motivate Watt, a rookie defensive end who etched himself in Houston Texans lore last Saturday with an interception return for a touchdown that sparked a 31-10 wild-card victory over the Cincinnati Bengals.
“It’s your dream, and you can do anything you want,” Watt said amid the celebration of the Texans’ victory in the first playoff appearance in the franchise’s 10-year history.
“There’s a lot of people who counted me out,” he said. “There’s a lot of people when I worked at Pizza Hut who told me: ‘You’ll never do anything for the Badgers. I don’t believe you’ll ever play for the Badgers.’ People didn’t believe in me and now to do something like that in an N.F.L. playoff game, it’s truly special.”
Watt wears wristbands that read, Dream Big. Work Hard, and teammates said it was a matter of when, not if, Watt’s work ethic would result in a big play. With less than a minute to play in the first half, Watt stared down Bengals quarterback Andy Dalton, raised his gloved hands and snared Dalton’s pass as if he were putting a short leash on a stray dog.
To his teammates, it could have been a scene from a late November walkthrough, when Watt unleashed his intensity on the newly acquired veteran quarterback Jake Delhomme, knocking down three of his passes.
“I felt terrible,” said Watt, who is 6 feet 5 inches and 288 pounds. “He was kind of mad at me. I didn’t know if we were allowed to bat balls in the walkthrough, and I just kept batting them because that’s kind of my deal.”
Linebacker Brian Cushing said of Watt’s skill: “He’s real fanatic about it. He’s always getting his hands up on a pass rush or whatever during practice. If you just continue to do it all the time, it’s going to happen in the game.”
The Texans will face the Baltimore Ravens on Sunday (1 p.m. Eastern) in an A.F.C. playoff game, and Watt will be watching quarterback Joe Flacco, trying to anticipate a quick flare to running back Ray Rice or a short out to a wide receiver, like the pass Dalton intended for A. J. Green that Watt turned into one of the memorable plays from last weekend.
Watt’s rookie season coincided with a stunning turnaround for Houston’s defense. The unit was ranked 30th in total defense last season but improved to No. 2 this season.
Cornerback Johnathan Joseph was the only Texans defender to be recognized as a Pro Bowl player, and he was chosen as a reserve. Watt and three other defensive players are alternates. The defense is a group that is mostly unfamiliar with the postseason, too: 39 players on the 53-man roster made their first playoff appearance against the Bengals.
“We try to alternate guys, but they’re all every-down players, and that’s the key,” Houston’s defensive coordinator, Wade Phillips, said. “High motor, high energy — that’s the way that we want to play defense.”
Watt fits that profile and quickly justified his distinction as the Texans’ first pick (11th over all) in Phillips’s first draft with the team. Watt registered five and a half sacks, including one of Houston’s four sacks against the Bengals.
“You want your top picks to be good players, but they usually don’t develop that quickly,” Phillips said. “You can see it throughout the season with him that he’s just a really good football player.”
Watt was a tight end at Central Michigan and caught eight passes as a freshman in a spread offense. But after he was asked to switch to offensive tackle, he decided to transfer and attempt to walk on at Wisconsin, whose Madison campus is about an hour’s drive from Pewaukee, Wis., his hometown.
Watt’s parents offered to help him financially for one year so he could pursue his dream. Watt soon enrolled at a community college, slung pizzas and mopped floors, telling anyone who would listen about his plan to play for the Badgers and his dream of making it to the N.F.L.
As he explained the details of his interception of Dalton, Watt was asked about his vertical leap being measured at 36 inches at the predraft scouting combine.
“Thirty-seven,” Watt said, quick to correct the record once again for any doubters still out there. “I don’t think I got that high off the ground, but I did have a 37-inch vertical, so thank you.”