The notion that nice guys finish last is total bullshit. Just look at Houston Texans All-Pro defensive end J.J. Watt. He’s the hard-working, team-first, American-as-apple-pie poster boy of the NFL, a blitzing Boy Scout with the buzz cut to match. You might remember him from the time he “proposed” to a 6-year-old fan with a Ring Pop because she was crushed she wasn’t old enough to marry him.
But don’t ever mistake his kindness for weakness.
He’s still the league’s premier defensive lineman, a 6-foot-5, 290-pound wrecking machine on an unstoppable quest to demolish quarterbacks. Still the guy who finished with 20.5 sacks, 81 tackles and 16 passes defensed in 2012, a season so dominant he was voted Associated Press NFL Defensive Player of the Year. His destruction is deliberate, his tackling explosive and his energy inexhaustible.
Watt plays the game with unbridled jubilation (check his celebratory military salute after a big play), yet that spirit was tested mightily last season, when the Texans finished with the worst record in the league, a lost campaign marred by injury, dysfunction and a team-record 14-game losing streak. Undeterred, their defensive leader responded by training like he’d never trained before in the offseason, taking inspiration from – of course – one Rocky Balboa.
After running drills with young athletes at the YMCA for Gatorade’s Beat the Heat program, No. 99 spoke to Rolling Stone about putting the past behind him, hitting the heavy bag this offseason, and helping the Texans’ No. 1 draft pick Jadeveon Clowney make an immediate impact.
How Rocky was your offseason routine? Were you drinking raw eggs and punching sides of beef?
I just got back to the basics. No frills, no distractions. Just straight working. I went to Wisconsin and I had a mattress in a buddy’s apartment and just worked out twice a day to get better. After a season like last year, you just wanna put your head down and go to work.
What are you doing personally to become better?
I think it comes down to preparation. You need to focus every single day on doing your job and being the best player that you can be, and that’s a daily task and not something that happens overnight. You need to put in the work every single day and that’s what I’ve been doing. I’m always watching film trying to find that edge. One of the best edges is to be smarter and to be smarter you have to watch film.
How does the team bounce back after a 2-14 record last season?
We’re just taking it one step at a time. We have a new coaching staff obviously, so we’re just focused on getting in the playbook, [being] coachable and letting our coaches give us the knowledge they have to get a little bit better every single day.
What’s it like having an entirely new coaching staff?
It’s been new, but it’s exciting. As a leader, the players look to me to buy into the new system and I think we’ve done a great job of buying in.
Jadeveon Clowney joins the Texans’ defense this season. How are you helping him make the biggest impact as a rookie?
With all the rookies I’m doing everything I can right now to help teach them how to be a pro. How to come in and go about their business, get in the playbook, listen to the coaches and take care of their bodies. As a rookie, there are a lot of things thrown your way. Right now he’s working on the playbook and just trying to be a good teammate.
What’s your initial impression of him?
It’s really too early to tell a whole lot with any of the rookies. Right now we’re in OTAs, so we’re just in the helmets and running around in jerseys, so you really can’t get a whole lot of vibe right now. But down the road we’ll be able to learn a lot more.
What are your thoughts about Andre Johnson skipping workouts over his frustrations with the team?
Andre is a professional. He knows what he’s doing. He’s been a great player for a long time in this league and he’ll be just fine.
Do you think Michael Sam has a legitimate shot at becoming a great player?
I think he’s coming into the NFL and I wish him all the best like any other rookie.
You’re a team leader, but do you also consider yourself to be a role model?
The way I look at it is if you want a community to support you, you have to be willing to support the community. Every chance I get, I try to go out and do as much as I can because I appreciate how much support the community is giving me. I appreciate the fact that I am looked at as a role model in the community and I try and use this platform to help change the lives of people for the better. And I know I’m not going to be a professional athlete forever, so while I have this opportunity, I want to do as much as I can to use it for good and change people’s lives for the better.
Teammates gave you the nickname “The Milk Man.” Fans nicknamed you “J.J. Swatt.” Which one’s your favorite?
[Laughs] I enjoy them all. I love that the fans are creative and I love that they come out and support, so I’ll take any one they give me as long as they’re positive.