The JJ Watt Legacy In Houston
By Rory Jones
It’s fair to say that 2020 did not go to plan for the Houston Texans. A 4-12 record fell way below recent standards, and Bill O’Brien paid the ultimate price. Whilst there may not be many tears shed for their former head coach & general manager, it’s the potential loss of a true icon that will have Texans fans holding on to their ten gallon hats. Is it really time up in Houston for JJ Watt? And if so, what legacy does he leave in ‘Space City’?
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“I think this city knows – I hope they know – how I feel about them. I’ve tried to do everything I possibly can, and I gave everything I have.”
So said JJ Watt, who might have played his last game for the Houston Texans against the Tennessee Titans on Sunday. As he sat in perhaps his final press conference as a Texan, he looked unusually solemn, unlike the euphoric figure that has dismantled offenses, and dominated football games for the last decade.
Since being infamously booed by Texans fans when he was drafted 11th overall in 2011, JJ Watt has done more than enough to win them over. 127 games; 528 tackles; 101 sacks. His accolades are endless. A five-time All-Pro, and three-time Defensive Player of The Year, Watt was also a unanimous selection in the NFL 2010s All-Decade Team.
No player means more to their franchise than JJ Watt to the Houston Texans.
Bigger Than Football
Watt has become synonymous with the Texans, who only entered the NFL as an expansion team in 2002. A player who truly left everything on the football field, the defensive end’s arrival gave them a new identity. It’s rare for a non-quarterback to be a team’s star player, and rarer still to be a city’s biggest sporting icon. A real-life hero that brought true leadership to the franchise, not to mention the bruising hits he delivered to opponents over the years. But his value to the city of Houston goes far, far beyond just what he did on the football field. His actions in the community transcended the NFL – or even sport altogether. For in a time of crisis, he gave the broken city of Houston something to root for.
When Hurricane Harvey hit Houston and surrounding areas in August 2017, one of the greatest national disasters in living memory, Watt himself stepped in to help victims of the flood. 13 million people had been affected, and 130,000 homes were damaged or destroyed. Watt decided to donate an initial $100,000 to his own foundation to help rebuild houses, and provide food to those worst affected, encouraging others to also donate to the cause. This sparked an outpouring of support, as donations soared, rising to $30 million in just a few weeks. Watt would go on to raise a total of $41.6 million.
Shortly after, in the NFL season opener on September 10th, number 99 burst onto the field at NRG Stadium, this time hoisting the flag of Texas high above his 290lb frame. The same stadium where thousands of victims from the hurricane had sought shelter was re-energised at that very moment. A chorus of cheers filled the stadium, as over 70,000 fans rose to their feet in a standing ovation. Moments like this are bigger than football.
A Dominant Force
There are few players in the NFL who are impossible to hate, but JJ Watt is one of them. Despite playing a position in which his job is literally to bully opposing quarterbacks, few would criticise the Wisconsin native. His is a rare breed, unusually humble, level headed, and seemingly approachable, even in the age of social media, which can often be the undoing of such high profile athletes.
Not too long ago, Watt was widely regarded as the league’s best defensive player. In 2014, he became the first player ever record 20+ sacks in two separate seasons. He was a dominant force that even when double-teamed, would wreck opposing offensive tackles on any given Sunday. DJ Snake and Lil Jon’s “Turn Down For What” would blast around Houston’s stadium every time Watt made a big play, which back then was several times a game.
In recent years, he has struggled with a number of injuries, missing 32 of Houston’s last 64 games over the last four seasons. A catalogue of injuries have limited his time on the field: including a broken leg, herniated disc and torn pectoral muscle. Watt will be 32 by the start of next season, and has openly stated that he is not looking to be part of a rebuild at this stage of his career. Still desperate for a Super Bowl ring, a trade out of Houston could be his only option, if he wants to win a championship before his retirement.
With many question marks surrounding his future, Watt addressed talk of Sunday’s game being his last as a Texan:
“If it is (my last game) it’s unfortunate that it wasn’t in front of a full stadium, and all the fans, and it’s unfortunate it wasn’t a win. It’s unfortunate it was in this type of a season. But who knows? Like I said, there’s a lot of unknowns.”
His frustrations in recent weeks have been no secret. A week earlier, after a week 16 loss to the Cincinnati Bengals, an impassioned JJ Watt publicly called out his own teammates in his postgame press conference, telling them “you shouldn’t be here”. This followed reports that players had shown up late to practice, or had even given up on the season.
In this viral rant, Watt laid out exactly what the game of football, and the city of Houston means to him:
“This is a privilege, it’s the greatest job in the world. You get to go out and play a game. And if you can’t care enough to out there and try your hardest, and give everything you’ve got, that’s bullsh*t”.
“..Who I feel the most bad for is our fans, and the people who care so deeply, in this city. And the people who love it, and who truly want it to be great. And it’s not. And that sucks as a player, to know that we’re not giving them what they deserve.”
Assuming Watt will leave Houston, this is hardly the sendoff he deserves. There’s no Super Bowl confetti, no MVP-caliber season, or even a full stadium of fans to say farewell to undoubtedly the greatest player in the franchise’s history. But in its own way, this message is a fitting testimonial to who JJ Watt is; as a player, as a competitor, and as a Texan.
Rory Jones is a sports journalist originally from West Yorkshire. He has been covering the NFL and NCAA for the last four seasons for both British and American publications. Rory is also the founder and co-host of The Sports Bubble podcast, which aims to raise the profile of the NFL in the UK. Find him on twitter @Rorysjones11