Football 101: No. 42, J.J. Watt
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Nobody seemed especially excited about J.J. Watt when he came out for the 2011 NFL draft. But, hey, that was pretty much the story of his life up to that point. It’s funny looking back now — after Watt has turned into not only one of the greatest defensive players in NFL history but also one of the most famous athletes in America — that there was a long stretch of time when people simply didn’t notice him.
I mean, the guy’s whole dream growing up in Waukesha, Wis., was to play football at the University of Wisconsin. He started telling people he was going to do that when he was 7. And he made himself into a star high school football player … at least everybody in Waukesha thought so. He was All-State. He was a hero around town.
But the summer before his senior year, he got mono and wasn’t able to play in any of the summer camps, and he was rated a two-star recruit by the services. That won’t get you to Wisconsin … and sure enough, Wisconsin didn’t give Watt a second glance. He signed to play tight end at Central Michigan, and after his first game — his very first game — he knew that he’d made a terrible mistake.
He had dreamed about playing at Wisconsin. And, damn it, he was going to play at Wisconsin. He asked his parents if they could help him pay for college at Wisconsin so that he could walk on. They agreed, on one condition.
“Every single play for you,” his father John told him, “had better be like the Super Bowl.”
J.J. Watt didn’t need to be told twice. He left Central Michigan, went home, got a job as a delivery guy for Pizza Hut, went to Wisconsin to play on the scout team, and played like a madman. Before the end of camp, he would manage to tick off each and every member of Wisconsin’s vaunted offensive line because they were playing to win and he was playing for his life.
“I had to earn a scholarship,” Watt told Sports Illustrated’s Tim Layden. “I’m sure I made some people not like me. I didn’t care.”
Of course he didn’t care. Watt tells a great story about when he was delivering pizzas. He went to one house, and a young boy answered the door. The boy looked up and said, “You’re J.J. Watt. What are you doing here?” And Watt said, “I’m here to deliver your pizza.”
And he could see the extreme confusion the boy was feeling — why was the great J.J. Watt, the town’s biggest football star, delivering a pizza? Watt would say he did not feel embarrassed … that’s not the right word. He felt motivated. He was going to be that star again. He earned his scholarship before he ever played a snap at Wisconsin.