- Elizabeth Merrill, ESPN Senior Writer
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The firefighter worked in 24-hour shifts. Every time he was dispatched to a call that involved a baby or a little boy, Lt. John Watt would get on the phone afterward and ask his wife, Connie, to put their newborn son on the phone. If the baby was sleeping, John would ask Connie to wake him up. He just needed to hear his child laugh, cry or even breathe, so he could feel better and finish his shift. The request did not always go over well with a sleep-deprived new mother, but she'd dutifully wake the boy and press the phone to his face.
Even then, the ritual seemed ridiculous. How can you worry about a Mack Truck? Long before J.J. Watt was destroying quarterbacks, before his leviathan arms were slapping down passes and redefining what a defensive lineman can do, he was wreaking havoc on Connie. He grew so big in her womb that people assumed she was having twins. She cried at least once when someone asked her that. J.J. was her first, and she had no frame of reference for what a son should be.
Twenty-one hours of labor and the kid just wouldn't come out. The doctor finally reached in and broke the baby's collarbone so Justin James Watt -- all 9 pounds, 14 ounces and 22 inches of him -- could slide into the world. "My husband would go to the nursery to get him, and he didn't have to show any ID," Connie says now. "John is 6-4, and J.J. took up the entire incubator."
Even before J.J. was born, John Watt had a very clear picture of what a father should be. Some people, he told Connie, want to be their kid's friend. He intended to be a parent. The Waukesha Fire Department was 10 minutes from the Watt home in Pewaukee, Wis., which meant that John was always close. He did not demand perfection from J.J. -- or later from J.J.'s two younger brothers -- as much as he instructed him to try his best to be perfect.
He used to say the same line to his boys over and over again: "Act like somebody." On days when he wasn't working, John saw J.J. off to elementary school; as the boy walked out the door in the morning, his father would make him repeat the line.
"Act like who?" John would ask.
On an October afternoon in Houston, John Watt is in town to watch his son play some football. In the Texans' 11-year history, they've never beaten Baltimore, but on this given Sunday, Houston crushes the Ravens 43-13. As he has in so many games in the past year and a half, Watt gets his massive hands on the play that changes the game. With Houston up 9-3 early, the defensive end tips a pass from Ravens quarterback Joe Flacco. Cornerback Johnathan Joseph catches the deflection and returns the pick 52 yards for a touchdown. Baltimore never seriously challenges for the rest of the day.
The win improves the Texans to 6-1 and further spotlights Watt as an electrifying, disruptive force. He is 23 years old, 6-foot-5, 295 pounds and does things that only agile and fleet-footed athletes are supposed to do. Through seven games, Watt led the NFL in sacks (9.5), pass deflections among defensive linemen (10) and marriage proposals (a few hundred in October). An equipment worker for the Texans likes to wear a T-shirt that asks, WATT JUST HAPPENED? Nobody can say for sure.
Some of this you can't make up. Watt, the NFL's It Guy, famously delivered pizzas while in college. He destroys quarterbacks but seeks them out after games because he's big on sportsmanship. He goes to his favorite restaurant and waits in line for more than an hour like everybody else because, Watt says, he "wasn't raised to be a big shot."
At his bachelor home in Texas, Watt sits among pumpkins and other fall decorations that he put up himself. His dad, John, who took the week off from work for the Ravens and Packers games, starts to tell the story of J.J., the kid who would become an NFL star. In 2006, John took his son to a gym. He had dreams for his boy, then a gangly 6-3 high school junior, but didn't know where they'd lead. He asked Brad Arnett, the owner/director of NX Level Sports Performance in Waukesha, if someday his son would be good enough to play Division III football. Arnett looked at the size of J.J.'s ankles and hands, then looked at the size of John. He knew J.J. would grow.
But before Watt's senior year at Pewaukee High, he developed mononucleosis, which hindered his recruiting chances. He eventually accepted a scholarship to play tight end at Central Michigan. He did not enjoy the year he spent in Mount Pleasant. He wanted to play defense again. He also wanted to go home.
But it wasn't that easy. Watt longed to play at Wisconsin, but he would have to walk on. No scholarship. To make some money, he started delivering pizzas. But he says that story, told everywhere from local papers to the "Today" show, has been blown out of proportion. It has become folklore that Watt came to some grand revelation that he was a football player, not a pizza guy, after he delivered a pie to a kid who recognized him as a former prep star.
Watt denies this. He says he knew all along that he was a football player.
But he had no idea if he'd get a chance at Wisconsin. He left Central Michigan after his freshman year, returned to Pewaukee and trained with Arnett for six months. Watt pushed himself to eat six meals a day, heavy on chicken, greens and protein shakes. He and Arnett worked on acceleration and deceleration, and in the summer of 2008, Watt felt he was physically ready. He had added 20 pounds by the time he left for Madison. He could squat 700 pounds and bench-press more than 400.
During his redshirt year, Watt played on Wisconsin's scout team. Every day at practice, he faced the Badgers' offensive line, which was loaded with NFL prospects. "He's going against a group of five that are all draft picks," says Badgers co-defensive coordinator Charlie Partridge. "And he was going toe-to-toe with them -- and then some -- every day."
But mentally, Watt was rusty. He hadn't played defense in a year, so he immersed himself in film study. He started spending 15 hours a week watching tape, and that's where his knack for swatting down balls was born. In the beginning, he'd just throw his hands up at any time, hoping to make contact. But then he became fixated on watching quarterbacks' tendencies. He would study their eyes and track their arms to see when they cocked the ball.
"After dinner, I'd go up in Coach Partridge's office and watch," Watt says. "I loved it because it was quiet. I was by myself, and his office overlooks the stadium, so the stadium would be empty and dark. And if I ever got sick of it and thought, Man, I could be doing something else, I'd look behind me at the stadium and picture myself on game day, making plays."
But for all the plays Watt made in Madison -- 36.5 career tackles for loss, one Lott Impact Trophy and an All-Big Ten junior year -- he did not immediately endear himself to the draft analysts. He was called a "high effort guy," which in most circles is a testament to work ethic but a knock on talent. When Watt's name was called with the No. 11 pick in the 2011 draft, the normally hospitable Texans fans booed. They wanted Auburn D-lineman Nick Fairley or Nebraska cornerback Prince Amukamara. Watt never forgot that.
But here's the thing: Houston's scouts saw plenty of talent in Watt. His first day in Houston, the Texans held a news conference to introduce their first-round pick. Within 10 seconds, defensive coordinator Wade Phillips held up one of Watt's hands and said they were the largest at the NFL combine. Yes, the Texans loved his motor. But they were also intrigued by his 37-inch vertical leap and by the fact that in 2010 he broke up more passes in college than all but one member of the Badgers secondary. "He's got great explosion," Phillips says. "He's big, he's athletic, he's smart. And he's a tremendous effort player."
Four of Watt's 10 deflections through seven games this season have led to interceptions. He's becoming known in Houston as J.J. Swatt, but he doesn't want to be known only as a guy who tips passes. He wants to be dominant in every aspect of the game -- and he's well on his way. Take the night of Oct. 8, when the Texans played the Jets. Watt wouldn't leave QB Mark Sanchez alone. In the Texans' 23-17 win, he had six tackles, a sack, three pass deflections -- and one handshake after the game. "Man, did you have to bat down that final pass?" Sanchez asked. "I mean, come on."
Watt just smiled and continued shaking hands. He also made sure to find Tim Tebow. "You have to be able to be a nice guy off the field," Watt says. "Be personable. Be great with the fans, be great with the kids. But as soon as you step onto the field, you have to turn into a monster."
Watt is in high demand these days, buried under a crush of interview requests. But he'll go on and on when asked about Pewaukee or his family. His success story, he says, is simple. His role models were firefighters, football players and his mom, who went from being a secretary at a building inspections firm to a vice president. With all those successful people behind him, how could he possibly fail?
The formula has worked for the rest of the family too. John coached all three Watt boys through much of youth football. The middle son, Derek, is now a redshirt freshman fullback for the Badgers; the youngest, T.J., is a prep tight end who verbally committed to Wisconsin last spring.
Long after youth football, John continued to offer advice, even chiming in if he spotted a small mistake from J.J. "Dad," his son would tell him, "I'm an NFL player. I know what I'm doing."
Adds Derek: "He was definitely hard on us growing up. But it made us into who we are today, and we've been pretty successful so far and we have him to thank for it."
When John was told recently that J.J. had remembered the "Act like somebody today" comment and that it had motivated him throughout his life, he was taken aback. He says he can't accept full credit for the line, that it was actually something he had heard on The Andy Griffith Show.
John hadn't said it in a long time and was certain his sons had forgotten it. But as J.J. got older, he figured out what his dad was trying to tell him all those mornings. John didn't want his sons to float through life. He wanted them to make a difference. To have an impact. To be like no one else.
"To me," J.J. says, "the biggest thing about having success in the NFL is that you have to have the belief that nobody on the field can block you. If you have any doubt in your mind, you're not going to have success. And every time I step on the field, I firmly have that belief that the guy across from me cannot block me."
John says he no longer rides his oldest son about football. He finally stopped this season. The firefighter is now content to sit in the stands and watch his child act like somebody special.
He wouldn't tweak a thing.