HOUSTON -- Ray Lewis couldn't do it. Reggie White couldn't do it. Neither could Bruce Smith or Mike Singletary or Joe Greene.
J.J. Watt did.
The Houston Texans defensive end is now a three-time winner of the Associated Press Defensive Player of the Year award, while Lewis, White, Smith, Singletary and Greene were all two-time winners. In the history of the NFL, only Lawrence Taylor and Watt have won the award three times, and he is the league's first back-to-back winner since 1982 when Taylor did that in his second NFL season. Even Taylor didn't do it this quickly. He won his third award in his sixth NFL season, and Watt has done it in five.
"It almost doesn’t register with me because of the greatness of the guys that have come before me," Watt said. "To even be considered amongst those guys is truly incredible but that’s what the goal is. The goal is to come out and be one of the best ever."
And now comes the most difficult challenge of all for any NFL player, much less one determined to stay on top of his profession.
Physical gifts -- which Watt has -- can make a player rich and famous. Alone they aren't enough to create a legacy that matters. Watt's maniacal desire to better his own marks; it's turned some of the greatest players ever to play the game into a form of Watt's peers. It will be his greatest asset as he strives to stay on pace for the Hall of Fame.
Watt will be 27 this season. That's the same age Taylor was when he won his third Defensive Player of the Year award and was named the league's Most Valuable Player. There's a reason it's so rare to do it so often.
As a player's prestige grows, so does the fervor with which opponents take aim at him. Chiefs tackle Eric Fisher was proud of his effort against Watt. He saw regular double- and triple-teams every single week. Watt takes the abuse of opponents desperate to stop him, constantly.
It means Watt has to be smarter, has to work harder, his tricks have to be more effective than theirs. That kind of adjustment is one Watt has done so far, and those adjustments must continue to be made for as long as he plays.
The other challenge to longevity is health.
This season the only thing that could slow Watt was his health -- but not even two serious injuries could stop him. Despite playing the final five games of the season and postseason with a broken hand (three with a club cast covering his fingers), and at least the final six with a severely injured groin, Watt led the league in sacks with 17.5. His nine batted passes were three more than any other player had this season. His 29 tackles for loss led the league.
Health becomes more difficult to sustain with age, but at 27 Watt shouldn't have that concern for a few years.
The historic nature of what he's accomplishing might be wasted on someone who thinks less about his legacy, but it is not lost on Watt. He dreamed in steps. He dreamed of playing for the Wisconsin Badgers, of playing in the NFL, and then he reached for greatness, sure he could get it if he just kept trying.
Nobody had won Defensive Player of the Year three times in his first five seasons until Watt. So does it matter that nobody has ever won it four times?
There's no chance it matters to Watt.
"That’s my goal," Watt said. "To do things that have never been done before. To show people what’s capable."