Before J.J. Watt became a three-time NFL Defensive Player of the Year, before he raised $41.6 million for Hurricane Harvey victims and was given the 2017 Walter Payton NFL Man of the Year Award, and before he gave this awesome commencement speech at his alma mater at the University of Wisconsin, he was a nobody.
Coming out of Pewaukee High School in Pewaukee, Wisconsin, Watt barely turned heads. He was a huge kid that needed to fill out — he stood 6-foot-5, 220 pounds — but as a tight end and defensive end garnered little to no attention from college coaches. Rivals.com and 247sports.com rated him a two-star athlete. Just five small schools offered him scholarships: Central Michigan, Colorado, Minnesota, Northern Illinois and Wyoming.
Like so many other two-star high school recruits that play their way into the NFL, Watt’s story is one of persistence, hard work and believing in himself and his abilities. You’ve heard the stories of Watt’s insane workout routines and commitment to his craft. That’s what it takes.
Born Justin James Watt in Waukesha, Wisconsin, to Connie and John Watt, J.J. grew up playing hockey and football in Pewaukee. His younger brothers, Derek and T.J., both played football for Wisconsin before landing with the Los Angeles Chargers and Pittsburgh Steelers, respectively.
Watt played tight end and defensive end in high school. Coming from an athletic family, Watt also played basketball, baseball and track and field. He captured a state title in the shot put in 2007 WIAA Division II Championship.
Despite his clear athletic abilities, Watt didn’t stand out in the minds of major college football programs. Scroll over to his recruiting profile and try not to burst out in laughter at how everyone from coaches to scouting experts passed over this future star from Wisconsin.
Watt accepted an offer from head coach Butch Jones at Central Michigan, home to other overlooked NFL players like Antonio Brown, Joe Staley and 2013 first-overall pick Eric Fisher.
A tight end for the Chippewas, Watt didn’t receive the playing opportunities he expected when he first arrived in Mount Pleasant, Michigan. He caught just eight passes all year in 2007. Jones suggested Watt switch to offensive tackle, so Watt decided to transfer to the University of Wisconsin-Madison and walk on to the team he idolized growing up.
Watt had to ask his parents to pay for one year of tuition at UW but promised them he’d earn a scholarship after that. He took community college classes and delivered pizzas for Pizza Hut to earn extra money before enrolling.
Watt switched to defensive end and redshirted for the Wisconsin Badgers in 2008 but made an impact for the Badgers the next two years. He played in all 13 games in 2009, tallying 44 tackles, 4.5 sacks and five passes defended. He shined in 2010, totaling 62 tackles (21 for loss), seven sacks, one interception, nine passes defended and three forced fumbles in 13 games.
In addition to being named a 2010 Associated Press Second-Team All-American and First-Team All-Big Ten, Watt was voted the team’s MVP in his junior season.
After putting on a clinic in the NFL Combine, Watt solidified himself as the top defensive end in the draft. The Houston Texans made him the 11th-overall pick in the 2011 NFL Draft.
Watt has amassed 92 sacks over 104 games in the NFL. He recorded his first against the Saints in his third career game and his first multi-sack game against the Jaguars on Nov. 27, 2011. Three years later, on Dec. 21 versus the Ravens, he tallied his 54th career sack, passing longtime Texans and Buffalo Bills defensive end Mario Williams as the franchise sack leader.
Watt’s been a big part of Houston’s playoff pushes, too.
The Texans have won the AFC South five times since Watt’s rookie year in 2011. His first playoff win came that year in a 31-10 win over the Cincinnati Bengals. Twice Houston was bounced from the playoff by the New England Patriots (2012, 2016). Kansas City sent them home in the 2015 Wild Card round. Most recently in 2018, the Texans fell to the Indianapolis Colts.
Shoot, what hasn’t J.J. Watt accomplished in the NFL beside a Super Bowl appearance? There’s a better question surrounding Watt, however.
How does a two-star recruit develop into not only the NFL’s best defensive player but also one of the greatest defensive lineman of all time? Maybe Watt developed later than other players typically do. Maybe scouts and coaches just whiffed. Either way is mind-boggling.
Plenty of other two-star athletes have gone on to emerge as superstar NFL players. Tony Romo, Jordy Nelson, Joe Staley, Chris Johnson, DeMarcus Ware, Dontari Poe, Bobby Wagner, Aqib Talib and Eric Weddle were all in the same boat. But none of those names were surefire Hall-of-Famers at just 30 years old the way Watt is.
Clay Iverson, Watt’s coach at Pewaukee High School, told Bleacher Report that Watt was not only determined but mature for his age even in high school.
“[He] always had lofty goals, but you never doubted him,” Iverson said. “I’ve never seen a young man so committed and so quick to put all the foolishness around him on the back burner at such a young age.
“Whatever he has inside, it’s what makes the special ‘special.'”
Special. That’s the word.
From the bone-crushing quarterback hits Watt serves up in the NFL to the humanitarian work he leads off the field, everything about J.J. Watt and his story of perseverance is just that: Special.