- Ashley Fox
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Football is a game. Yes, at the National Football League level it's other things, too, like a $9 billion machine that continues to grow and thrive and secure ridiculously lucrative television contracts so that voracious fans can get their fill.
It is entertainment, an escape from the workaday world of Monday through Friday, 9 to 5. But at its core, it is 11 on 11, just like they do it in Pop Warner and high school, except the boys have grown into men.
Football is not war. It is not a battle. It is not life or death.
"My job is a game and I love it, but it's not war," Watt said last week. "Nobody's getting shot at in our world."
Nobody's getting killed. That wasn't the case for 19 Americans in Afghanistan in June 2005, when a four-man Navy SEAL team came under attack from the Taliban. Three of the SEALs died. Sixteen other Americans, eight SEALs and eight Army night stalkers, were killed trying to rescue them when their helicopter was shot down. Only Marcus Luttrell, a Texas native and Navy SEAL, survived.
Watt read Luttrell's best-selling account of the SEAL's mission to capture or kill Ahmad Shah, a Taliban leader thought to be close to Osama bin Laden. Over Memorial Day weekend, Watt attended an event in Rosenberg, Texas, honoring Danny Dietz, a SEAL who died in the operation, and met the wives of some of the SEALs who were killed. In July, he went to Coronado, Calif., and visited the SEALs' training facility. He checked out the obstacle course, shot guns, toured the facilities and became friends with several SEALs. .
Listening to the widows, talking with the SEALs, all gave Watt perspective and depth. They know war. He is just a football player, albeit one who is showing signs he could become one of the greats.
"They're remarkable human beings, so driven, so humble, and they're workers, just constantly working," Watt said. "They're so dedicated to what they do, so passionate about what they do, so stealth. No one knows who they are. They can't take any credit. They put in all this work and all this effort and they don't get credit. We get out here and millions of people watch us play and we get tons of credit. They get nothing."
Watt certainly is getting tons of credit for helping the Texans have the best defense in the league in the month of September. Through the first four weeks of the regular season, Houston led the NFL in points allowed per game (14.0) and was second in total yards allowed (273.0). Although there is plenty of credit to go around -- from defensive coordinator Wade Phillips and his proven 3-4 scheme to the linemen who get pressure and the defensive backs who can cover and the linebackers who can do it all -- Watt is getting the most attention.
Last Thursday, the NFL named Watt the AFC's defensive player of the month, and for good reason: He has been the best defensive player in the league thus far, batting down passes at the line of scrimmage and harassing quarterbacks. Through four games, Watt has a league-high 7.5 sacks, 10 tackles for loss, 10 quarterback hurries, 30 tackles and two fumble recoveries. Not since Carolina's Kevin Greene in 1998 has a player recorded at least 1.5 sacks in each of the first four games of the season. In Week 3 against Denver, Watt sacked Peyton Manning 2.5 times.
He has quickly gone from being relatively anonymous in and around Houston to posing for pictures at the grocery store, post office and whenever he goes out to eat. Watt and his parents went to lunch at the Olive Garden last Tuesday, and a waiter and waitress both asked to take a picture with him.
"It's pretty cool," Watt said. "Some day it will all go away. I'm trying to enjoy it while it lasts."
It should last awhile. Watt missed much of the preseason with a dislocated elbow, and he said being on the sideline made him "even hungrier to show everybody what I'm about in my second year, and there's no such thing as a sophomore slump if you are willing to put in the time and the effort to make yourself a great player." Phillips has said he thinks the 6-foot-5, 295-pound Wisconsin native could go down as an all-time great.
Time will tell.
It sounds like Watt has his priorities in order, with a strong family unit and a background that includes his dropping out of college and selling pizzas before finally earning a scholarship at Wisconsin. He already has started his own foundation, and on Tuesday afternoon he was off to see three kids he met a year ago whose parents died in a car accident that Watt said left two of the three kids, all under the age of 10, paralyzed. Then, he was going to go "hang out with the guys tonight."
This is a close Texans team, where no one is hungry for credit or quick to place blame. They are 4-0 heading into their Monday night game against the Jets. They look like they have all the pieces.
Watt is a big one. He understands it, but he also has perspective. He has a patch he wears that says "NEVER FORGET 6-28-05," and he hasn't. Football is not war. Football is a game, and a game Watt is playing very, very well.
3hEric D. Williams
1dSharon Katz & Hank Gargiulo