It all started as a joke. That’s what Taylor Jannsen thought, at least. Jannsen lives with an old friend in his hometown of Pewaukee, Wisconsin, in a two-bedroom, third-floor walk-up of an apartment building about five miles from town. He’s 25, a basketball personal trainer and coach just getting his business off the ground. It’s postcollege living at its purest: 1,000 square feet, beige appliances about his age, wall-to-wall carpet, and a pair of recliners in front of the TV. So when J.J. Watt mentioned he might want to crash on Jannsen’s floor, he didn’t take it seriously.
A few days later this spring, the Texans’ superstar defensive end was knocking at the door of apartment 3A, carrying a mattress and not much else.
Jannsen doesn’t know why he was surprised. He’s known Watt for the better part of a decade. A spot on the floor at the Manor1 gave Watt exactly what he wanted: a place to sleep while he wasn’t working out. Twice a day, Watt drove the 10 minutes to the gym he’s visited since he was 16, a place called NX Level, in a business park next to a machinery company. Watt’s parents live only a few minutes from the Manor. They thought his move home would mean seeing their son for dinner almost every night; they barely saw him once a week.
1. A facetious nickname derived from the complex’s faux-grandiose name, Oakton Manor.
Suburban Wisconsin became Watt’s version of Rocky’s Siberia. The only traces of him were half a closet of button-down shirts, three printer-paper boxes of belongings, and a few pairs of size-19 chukkas and sneakers thrown in a corner. It was everything he needed.
“If you’re an outsider looking into my life, you’re thinking, That dude is crazy. He’s literally crazy,” Watt says.
Watt’s routine has always been maniacal, but the pains of last season are what pushed him to a spartan existence. Calling Watt’s 2012 season historic doesn’t do his performance justice. In his second year, he finished with a league-best 20.5 sacks, 39 tackles for loss, and 56 defeats — the highest total in the 17-year history of the stat. He was named Defensive Player of the Year, and many believed he was the league’s rightful MVP. It was a type of dominance not seen since the days of Lawrence Taylor.
Repeating that was going to be next to impossible, but Watt came closer last year than most think. He was again a first-team All-Pro and could still lay claim to the title of best defensive player alive, but after three months without a win, blame becomes a virus. “When you’re 2-14,” Watt says, “you have moments of doubt.”
That’s why Watt is here, on this Wednesday in mid-June, having just finished another workout at NRG Stadium.2 As he sits down at a table in a half-lit room used for press conferences, his gray sleeveless T-shirt is soaked through with sweat. Four drinks — two waters and two small protein shakes — sit in front of him. It’s the Texans’ day off.
2. Formerly Reliant Stadium.
He’s here for the same reason that mattress was on the floor — because doubt was an unwelcome guest he would rather never see again.
“When it comes down to that moment,” Watt says, “when it’s me against you, you know in your head whether you worked hard enough. You can try to lie to yourself. You can try to tell yourself that you put in the time. But you know — and so do I.”
If the Texans would have had their way in 2011, Watt wouldn’t be in Houston. The plan with the 11th pick was to take an outside linebacker, someone who would ease the transition to Wade Phillips’s 3-4 defense. But when the linebacker options were off the board, Phillips offered up a contingency plan: If a quality defensive lineman was around, they could move former no. 1 overall pick Mario Williams to outside linebacker. There were two choices, with the room split nearly down the middle. Eventually, they landed on Watt.
Out of high school, Watt chose to play tight end at Central Michigan, but after only one season, concerns about the Chippewas’ spread offense and a lifelong affinity for the Badgers pushed him to walk on at Wisconsin. That meant going back on his promise that his parents wouldn’t have to pay for college. They agreed to take on tuition for his first year, but with one condition. “I said, ‘OK, fine. We’ll pay, but you have to treat every practice like it’s your Super Bowl,’” says his father, John. Watt obliged. During his mandatory redshirt year, his relentlessness earned the highest honor a scout team player can have from a team’s starters: disdain. “They didn’t like me very much,” he says. The move to defensive line was seamless. He was gifted, a prodigy. In two seasons, “J.J. Watt” went from some walk-on to the name being chanted at Camp Randall Stadium in the waning moments of Wisconsin’s last home game.
The start of his rookie season was unspectacular — some scattered sacks but little pointing to what we see now. “Some of it was us,” Phillips says, laughing. It took Phillips about 15 weeks to learn the same lesson Watt’s coaches had in Madison. The only way to unleash J.J. Watt is by letting him break the rules.
One of Watt’s favorite moves is one he calls the jab-and-go.3 It typically starts with him lining up just outside of a guard. In Phillips’s one-gap defense, that space between the guard and tackle is Watt’s responsibility. The standard way players are taught to control that gap is by firing into it just as the ball is snapped, to claim that space with the most speed and authority possible. Every so often, Watt will eschew those lessons. Instead, he takes a step inside, momentarily leaving him and the defense vulnerable. “If it works, you’re giving up your gap for a brief second to gain an advantage in getting back in your gap more effectively,” Watt says. “If it doesn’t, you’re giving up your gap, and you’re also blocked, so now there’s one gap unaccounted for.” Usually, it leaves a guard so off-balance that he has to catch his footing just to keep from falling on his face.
3. Seen above.
When Phillips first saw Watt try the maneuver, 35 years of NFL practices set off alarms in his head. “The first time you see it, you think about the old coaching adage, ‘You never go around the block,’” Phillips says. “Well, you do when you can make the play.” Coaches refer to these plays as calculated risks, and what Phillips and defensive line coach Bill Kollar soon realized is that Watt’s were more calculated than most. Because Watt watches so much film, he has an ironclad grasp on what plays to expect out of formations. Because he was quicker, he could recover faster. Because he has the best hands in the league, he could shed blockers more easily.
This is what makes Watt special. His genius comes by way of subversion. He is allowed to look down his scarred nose at defensive line conventions only because he’s mastered them.
Trust from the coaching staff is what allows Watt to chase plays, and by the end of his first season, he felt like he had it. Houston’s final game — a loss to the Ravens in the divisional round — was his best of the year. His 2.5 sacks were nearly half what he’d compiled the entire regular season. He finished with 12 tackles, nine on his own. “That springboarded me into the offseason, into the next season,” Watt says.
In nearly four decades of pro football, Phillips has been lucky enough to coach some of the best pass-rushers ever. He had five years with Bruce Smith in Buffalo. He coached Reggie White for three in Philadelphia. Before arriving in Houston, he oversaw the prime of DeMarcus Ware’s career with the Cowboys. “Two years ago was the best defensive line play in the history of football,” Phillips says. “He had more tackles, blocked passes, pressures on the quarterback. The conglomeration of all that was the best that anybody has ever played. I’ve had some great ones, but they’ve never made that many great plays in one year.”
The gap between greatness and fame is measured in time. Achieving greatness may be a process, but fame comes all at once. Becoming a great player took J.J. Watt years. Becoming a famous one took a single play.
With a minute left in the first half of the wild-card round against the Bengals after the 2011 regular season, Andy Dalton dropped back to pass on first down. As Watt realized he couldn’t get to the quarterback, he opted for what has since become his signature — stop, raise his arms, jump. This time, instead of ricocheting to the turf or caroming to a cornerback, the ball landed right in Watt’s massive hands. Twenty-nine unmanned yards sat between him and the end zone. The touchdown gave Houston a 17-10 lead. They were the last points the Texans would need for their first postseason win in franchise history.
“That was the moment,” Watt says. “That was when whatever this is now started.”
The next day, Watt and his family drove the hour to Galveston for a day at the beach. As he and his brothers threw a Frisbee around, a few people approached with congratulations. By the time they left, more than 100 people had gathered at the seawall. Someone had tweeted that he was there.
There’s a tradition at Packers training camp that Watt remembers from when he was young. As the team walks across the street from Lambeau to the practice field, local boys and girls hand over their bikes for players to ride. Watt craved to be one of those kids, but really, he craved to be one of those Packers. They were gods to him.
He does his best to hold on to that feeling. In June, a nearby high school held its graduation at NRG Stadium. Seeing the students lined up against one wall, Watt worked his way down the hallway, popping his head out of every door along the way, each time to shrieks. “We take this for granted so often,” Watt says. “I can open up a door and someone goes crazy. Why wouldn’t I take advantage of that?”
Watt’s sincerity about kids never sounds contrived, in part because of how he looks. The 6-foot-5 and nearly 300-pound hulk makes it tough to imagine him ever being a child (somehow, he looks bigger out of pads), but it’s still there in his face. Save for the divot on his nose, it’s boyish.
That’s where the playfulness ends. The first time Charlie Partridge, Watt’s defensive line coach at Wisconsin, met him, he had only one thought: That’s a very, very serious young man. At times, the approach makes relating to his peers a struggle. His longtime trainer, Brad Arnett, tells a story about when Watt and a few Badgers teammates were working out at NX Level. The others were talking about a bar in Madison, one of those spots so established it might as well be a stop at freshman orientation. When they asked Watt what he thought of the place, he didn’t have an answer. He’d never been. How, they kept asking, is that possible? “You want to know how?” Watt snapped back. “I was too busy becoming a first-round pick.”
Watt can’t eat out much anymore anyway, but there is one restaurant, a steakhouse near his home in Pearland, that he still hits every so often. They have a system. He parks in the back, slides past the storage area, and slinks in through the kitchen. On a busy night, the owner will set up a curtain in the back. “I don’t feel like I’m entitled,” Watt says. “It’s just so I can sit down and have a meal with family and friends in town.”
That became a challenge about midway through 2012. Watt’s parents were in town, eating at a Mexican restaurant near his house. “As we walked out, you could kind of hear the noise building outside as we were leaving the restaurant,” says Watt’s father, John. “There were clearly a lot of people.” A ring of nearly 50 bodies had gathered in the parking lot. On the way toward the car, a girl in her twenties, boyfriend in tow, leaped onto Watt and wrapped herself around him. She was crying. “I had to peel her off him,” Watt’s mother, Connie, says. “I turn around, and another girl passes out!”
Elvis moments make for good stories, but eventually, Watt’s local fame crept into his daily life. Trips to the grocery store that once lasted 30 minutes now took two hours. The Texans urged him to hire an assistant, and finally he relented. Now, Emily does his food shopping twice a week — first for the essentials (egg whites, milk, turkey) and once more for any last-minute cravings. “It sounds so prima donna, but it’s literally for convenience because it would take too long to grocery-shop on my own,” Watt says. She also handles the post office, the dry cleaner, whatever he needs.
The only trip left for him is the one between home and the stadium. “You can find me one of two places,” Watt says. It’s about a half-hour drive to Pearland. Watt’s lived there since his rookie year, in a house he bought from a family of five. Before they moved, the owner asked Connie if she wanted to keep what was up on the walls. She did. Otherwise, “he would have a toothbrush, a pan to make his eggs, and a couple glasses,” Connie says.
Watt has never been quick to make friends. “He’s not the type of person who meets someone and after two weeks says, ‘This guy’s my buddy,’” John says. “It takes a while to get close to J.J.” The week after Memorial Day, they noticed the remnants of a party from the weekend. There’s a hint of relief in John’s voice as he remembers it.
“I barely know one person outside of the organization,” Watt says. “It’s just so hard, because everyone wants something. Everyone wants an autograph, a picture. I can’t go out to a bar and meet John Smith. ‘Hey, we should go out some time, John. Want to play some shuffleboard?’ I can’t do that.”
When Watt needs a human moment, he finds it with the Berrys. During the lockout, someone tweeted him a story about three siblings — Peter, Aaron, and Willa Berry — whose parents had died in a car crash. Two of them were left paralyzed from the waist down. Watt visited them in the hospital, and they’ve stayed in touch ever since. The kids live with their aunt and uncle now, and there’s always a home-cooked meal and some perspective waiting for Watt when he needs it.
But Watt spends most of his time alone. He’s tried dating, but it tends to end the same way, with him admitting he can’t give a relationship the time and focus it deserves.
“I’m used to it,” Watt says of solitude. “For me, it’s kind of what I need. It’s hard to understand the life that I live and rationalize some of the things that I do. I don’t need someone questioning every move that I make, asking me why I don’t just relax. When there’s no one asking me those types of questions … to me, it’s peaceful.”
In the span of four days last summer, both John and Connie Watt left their longtime jobs. John retired after 35 years as a fireman, Connie after 23 as the vice-president of a building inspection company. She now runs her son’s foundation, but as John says, “her boss is pretty lenient on travel.” The newfound free time means more stays in Houston, but last year that wasn’t always pleasant.
The week Houston hosted the Colts, the Watts and a few family friends had come down for the game. It was the Texans’ sixth straight loss. Watt was no longer hiding his irritation. “[At home], he was right through the front door, through the kitchen, into his bedroom,” John says. “The door would close, and you wouldn’t see him until it was time to come out and get something to eat.” It was supposed to be an extended stay, but by Monday, Connie was looking for flights home. “You could just kind of tell, maybe this isn’t a good week for us to be down here,” she says.
Watt had never lost at anything, and the confusion about how to cope was fueled by how close Houston seemed to winning in each game. “The worst part was that every single week, I thought we were going to win, until the very last week,” he says. “Every single week.”
Houston was bad enough to land the no. 1 pick, which it spent on Jadeveon Clowney. Despite its need at quarterback, people saw pairing Clowney — considered a rare pass-rushing talent — with Watt as a way to build one of the most frightening defensive fronts in memory.
“I haven’t really thought about it at all,” Watt says of his new teammate. “What I told him when he got drafted was, ‘Listen, I don’t care what people have said about you before. I don’t care about what you’re going to do. I’m basing everything I see on what I see with my own two eyes: how hard you work, how much you study. I’m going to be an open book.’
“Now, I can’t make anybody learn. I can’t make a guy work hard. I can’t make him come in and do extra work. But if he wants it, I’m here.”
It was also the type of season that costs people jobs. Head coach Gary Kubiak was gone by early December. Phillips followed a month later. Replacing him is Romeo Crennel, who, like new head coach Bill O’Brien, is a branch off the Bill Belichick coaching tree. Crennel runs a 3-4, too, just a much more conservative version, in which players are often tasked with controlling rather than attacking. Watt’s line coach, Bill Kollar, survived the transition, but Phillips hopes the rest of the new staff realizes what they have faster than he did. “They just need to let him play,” Phillips says. “You can’t box him in.”
There are only two shows in rotation on Watt’s DVR. He loves Modern Family, and although he hesitates to admit it, because “it’s kinda girlie,” he’s a fan of Nashville. He was drawn in by Connie Britton — he’s watched every episode of Friday Night Lights. Twice. “The fact that that show didn’t get more credit blows my mind,” Watt says.
He and Michael B. Jordan, the star of Friday Night Lights’ final two seasons, exchange texts every so often. They met at a dinner party in Los Angeles made up almost entirely of celebrities. It’s a world Watt discovered after his rookie year, through his reps at CAA. He doesn’t name names, but mom and dad aren’t so tight-lipped. One party was at Kate Hudson’s house; Katy Perry and John Mayer were there, too. He’s met Leo DiCaprio and Tom Hanks. When he first started going to these parties, Watt was the new guy, politely introduced by the host to the rest of the guests. His second season changed that.
“They were walking up to me, introducing themselves,” Watt says. “It was crazy. There are people out there that I never, ever thought would know who I am.”
Excess is rare for Watt, but he uses L.A. as a free pass for lavishness. He rents a Ferrari, stays at the Ritz. Elsewhere, he’s frugal in the way befitting a child of middle-class Wisconsin. When he does spend, he spends on travel. Since his rookie year, he’s footed the bill for an offseason trip with 10 friends every year. This February it was Cabo San Lucas. “It’s a time for me to just be J.J., and not have to be J.J. Watt,” he says.
That trip is where the idea to crash at the Manor started. “I think that’s why he did this, to be honest with you,” Jannsen says. “Instead of living in a fancy hotel, I think he just wanted to be him again. Where he just hangs out with his buddies, jokes around, screams at the TV playing video games.” The game of choice was FIFA 14. There was an apartment-wide tournament, replete with standings tallied on the back of a Nike shoe box. They called it the MPL — Manor Premier League. Watt played with Chelsea. He won.
Watt’s father says that March and April were a chance to capture the college life his son had ignored in Madison, but the reason Watt knew his mattress would be worth it is the connection he and Jannsen share.
The two would spend evenings talking about books, like Daniel Coyle’s The Talent Code, which explains the factors that create greatness. As Watt tells me about Coyle’s book, he eagerly leans forward in his chair. It outlines three main elements: deep practice, master coaching, and ignition. The first two are easy to understand for a world-class athlete.
Ignition is “that moment of motivation,” Watt says. “What makes you do what you do?” That moment is what people have started to wonder about Watt. After winning Defensive Player of the Year, after a two-year stretch rivaling any in NFL history, they’ve asked how he still manages to find it.
“The way I look at it is that somebody in the world, no matter what your field is — teacher, violinist, football player — has to be the best,” Watt says. “Why not me? If I dedicate all my time, if I cut out all the other crap from my life, if I give everything I have to this game for 10 or 12 years, maybe it is. And when I’m done, I’ll go sit on my front porch with my buddies, have a beer, and say, ‘That was pretty cool, wasn’t it?’”
Those are reflections for another time, though, he says. Right now, his four bottles are empty, and his shirt is almost dry. Morning has turned to afternoon, and it’s time to take the familiar stretch of road home. His off day is almost over. And he has work tomorrow.
Photo illustration by Gluekit.