T.J. Watt is the best player in football
He tied the NFL sack record in 2021, and has his sights set on even more in 2022. What makes the Pittsburgh Steelers outside linebacker such a force? Go Long sat down with Watt to find out.
LATROBE, Penn. — The best player in the sport is talking about practice.
Not a game, not a game.
T.J. Watt is seated at a picnic table that overlooks the practice fields at scenic Saint Vincent College. Teammates trudge uphill in an orderly stream of yellow practice jerseys, another dog-day of summer camp in the books. There are two wristbands on his right wrist. A camo bucket hat atop his head. Scars on his knees. And a seriousness to his voice as a cool breeze sweeps through. The Pittsburgh Steelers’ star outside linebacker cannot shake the echo of moans and groans he’s been hearing down on those fields through the summer.
This is his sixth NFL season. Guys complain about practicing here in rural Latrobe “all the time,” he says. Frankly, he’s tired of it.
“It’s like, ‘Man, this is the dream. Why could you find an excuse to not want to practice when, if you got cut today, you would be so upset saying I wish I was there?’”
Watt concedes that the summer grind is tough at times. Mike Tomlin gets it, too. The Steelers’ head coach loves telling players to smile in the face of adversity. Even then, Watt cannot put up with the “weird funks” teammates slip into. All the moping around. Repeatedly, he tells guys how downright grateful they should be to play a game for a living.
Which all sounds like a strange grievance, right? I mean, who in their right mind really wants to spend a month exiled from their loved ones in the middle of nowhere? Not to mention, this is one of the league’s richest, most talented players. For franchise cornerstones like Watt — a man who inked a four-year, $112 million extension last summer — a modern training camp is typically more Sandals than Junction Boys. Yet, it’s clear here T.J. Watt is relishing practice in the sweltering heat… and wants everyone else feeling the same way.
“It’s an incredible life,” Watt adds. “But it can be taken away quickly if you take it for granted.”
He knows this better than anyone on the roster.
Because before he was sitting here as the reigning defensive player of the year, as the latest and greatest venom-spitting linebacker legend in Steelers lore, T.J. Watt was someplace else. More specifically, he was laying down someplace else. Embargoed from the sport itself, pent-up on a bed inside a hotel at the University of Wisconsin, Watt was unsure if this whole football thing was for him. Back-to-back-to-back-to-back dislocated knees will do that. The geography was torture, too — this “Union South” hotel was located directly across the street from Camp Randall Stadium. He was so close, yet so far. So very, very far.
It helped to have his brother, Derek, with him. He was nursing a broken foot of his own.
The two Watts would shimmy downstairs to grab food, return to their room, watch TV. And even with Mom and Dad temporarily moving to Madison to assist, hobbling around a snowy campus in crutches was a miserable existence.
Mentally, he was a wreck. T.J. was fully prepared to quit this sport cold turkey. Sick and tired of his knees popping out, he asked his father flat-out how to become a firefighter. Running into burning buildings like Dad seemed like the more logical career choice for this college tight end. Why bother with football if he was only going to get hurt?
“There were moments I said, ‘I don’t know if I even want to do this anymore. Let’s see what other career paths there are,’” Watt says. “It’s ‘This is just going to keep happening, so what’s the point?’”
Life, quite obviously, soon took a turn for the better.
From afar, not much about the Watt boys makes sense. It’s hard to deduce how T.J. and J.J. pillage through NFL offenses with such beautiful barbarity. They’re too Wisconsin, too lunch pail-y, too gosh-darn Caucasian to be this freakishly dominant. J.J.’s career is winding down, but he’s a Canton lock. And, hell yes, we’ll say it in bold: T.J. Watt is the greatest player in the sport. The numbers are trending at a historic clip. Watt tied Michael Strahan’s NFL sack record (22.5) in only 15 games and, not only did he do it without Brett Favre taking a dive, but the NFL also ruled one potential sack an “aborted snap.” T.J. tied for the league lead in tackles for loss (21), registered 39 quarterback hits, five forced fumbles (bringing his career total to 22 in 77 games), seven batted balls (bringing his career total to 32) and it doesn’t get much cooler than his touchdown in the playoffs at Arrowhead.
Beyond the numbers, the timeliness of his big plays is uncanny.
He was the force of nature willing the franchise to 9-7-1 and a playoff berth last season. Nobody hijacks a game like T.J. Watt and such a skill is more important than ever with quarterback play entering a new dimension in 2022.
There are questions in Pittsburgh — Can the offensive line hold up? How long do you wait to play Kenny Pickett? Will the run defense improve? But as long as T.J. Watt is torquing around the edge, like Kevin Greene and Greg Lloyd and Joey Porter and James Harrison before him, the Steelers are fully permitted to think about championships. That’s the sign of true greatness. He instills such belief. Chatting with Go Long at length, Watt brings up the words “Super Bowl” several times. To him, that’s a real goal.
Injuries stunted his older brother’s demolition but, at this rate, T.J. has a shot to annihilate the all-time sack record. Seventy-seven games in, he’s at 72 sacks. That puts him on pace for 217 if he plays as long as Reggie White and 261 sacks if he plays as long as Bruce Smith. Yeah, both of those illustrious careers spanned from the 80s to the early 2000s, but should we really doubt T.J. Watt? These are feasible feats and, right now, he’s at the peak of his powers.
How he went from the Point A of contemplating a firefighting career to the Point B of vanquishing quarterbacks is no accident. When football was stolen from Watt, the absence intrinsically changed him.
Those two years made him.
First, he starts on the field. With a confession.
The 2022 NFL season is HERE. Don’t miss a feature by subscribing to Go Long today. No advertisers, no corporate overlords. Your support directly supports independent journalism:
Initially, this confession is hard to believe. Sacks. TFLs. Turnovers. Up until one, maybe two seasons ago, Watt admits he was too consumed by those numbers. Very specific statistical goals ransacked his day-to-day thoughts. As the team’s first-round pick in 2017, Watt was obsessed with trying to prove the Pittsburgh Steelers’ front office correct. Even as he racked up sack… after sack… after sack… and it became obvious the Steelers had committed larceny with this 30th overall selection, that pressure poisoned his psyche.
When you’re so worried about hitting “X” amount of sacks as a pass rusher, he explains, you’re bound to take chances that put teammates in jeopardy. “Because,” he adds, with a hint of shame, “you’re trying to make all of these selfish plays.” He’d take a gander at the NFL’s sack leaderboard and get pissed. He’s human. It’s probably no coincidence that Watt was also on a rookie contract. A few missed sacks equated to millions lost. Into 2020 and 2021, Watt began to realize the smartest approach was to simply play. Hard. Those sacks, he learned, come in bunches.
“That’s helped me free up,” Watt says, “and be a better team player.”
Over time, Watt became obsessed with a new purpose 60 snaps per game: “Wreck games.” Anybody can have one great practice, one great game, one great season. He started thinking bigger than this. He wanted to string seasons together because “that,” he adds, “is what leaves a legacy.” Naturally, Watt started to take on more of a leadership role in the locker room. As weird as this feels, he’s one of the older players. Watt turns 28 in October. He knows there are players watching him each day, so stats are not on his mind.
“The Super Bowl,” he says, “is by far the No. 1 goal.”
And he is the player most capable of leading an unlikely run to Super Bowl LVII. He’ll try to clear that path with these two hands that’ve already done so much damage. See that scar? One centimeter-sized welt across a knuckle is particularly visible. “That’s Corey Clement’s helmet right there,” says Watt, referencing a college collision with the former Badgers running back.
There’s a reason for those 22 forced fumbles. Watt has turned the simple act of forcing a fumble into an art form and, breaking news, nothing in the sport matters more than turnovers. From college to the pros — roughly three years into his Steelers career — Watt rigorously practiced punching the ball out of the hands of running backs. “And then,” Watt says, with a chuckle, “I started f--king up my knuckles.” Realizing he could not go full Mike Tyson every single day, Watt began simulating the punch every day in practice. Now, he balls up a fist, winds up and acts like he’s going to sock the ball out before pulling his fist away at the last split-second. If that sounds impossible, it usually is for rookies. Opposing coaches at the Pro Bowl are always telling Watt that every time their team plays the Steelers, they’re forced to ramp up the ball-security drills.
So much goes into a punch or a strip. Watt isn’t aimlessly flailing his limbs.
“There is 1,000 percent an art to it,” he says, “and it has to be practiced through countless repetitions.”
When the game arrives, it’s bombs away. At the exact moment Pittsburgh needs him, too. Take the win over Seattle last season. With 4:27 left in overtime, Watt lined up at LOLB and immediately bashed into the tight end. Then, the right tackle. Then, the entire Seahawks line shifted toward him. Yet right when he saw quarterback Geno Smith plant a foot to scramble upfield… so did Watt. He wasted the double-team, caught Smith and — Whack! — swung his right arm down at the ball like a hatchet. The ball popped loose, linebacker Devin Bush scooped it up and the devastating impact of one, T.J. Watt, was most visible in a stunned Smith.
As the Terrible Towels waved and the crowd went berserk, the visiting quarterback’s soul appeared to leave his body. Face down, Smith eventually lifted his head up and stared at his two hands in disbelief.
Three plays later, the Steelers kicked a field goal to win.
The timing of such turnovers is no accident because of Watt’s conditioning. When the man trying to block him is huffing and puffing and hovering a tick above “E,” he’s perfectly fine. The look on Watt’s face late in games always stuns Cam Heyward.
That night vs. Seattle, the defensive tackle had a feeling this fumble was coming.
“Throughout the game, he was beating a dead horse,” Heyward says. “It was revvin.’ When you keep inching forward and you hear it start kicking a little bit, once the engine drives, it’s a wrap.”
Old-timers love to point out that the pass rushers of today get more opportunities at sacks because quarterbacks throw more than they ever did in the 70s, 80s, 90s and even the 2000s. This is true. Fifteen years ago, one QB threw the ball 600 times. Last season? Eight. But it’s also true that Josh Allen, Patrick Mahomes, Lamar Jackson, Kyler Murray and even vets like Russell Wilson and Aaron Rodgers have more mobility in the cuticle of their left pinkie than most quarterbacks of yesteryear. It’s comically difficult to catch these athletes behind the line of scrimmage. The quarterbacks who aren’t juking and hurdling and stiff-arming are releasing the ball at historic rates. Tom Brady got the ball out at 2.5 seconds last season, per NextGen Stats.
Without question, it’s harder than ever to sack the quarterback. Bruce Smith was special but many of the quarterbacks he toppled most — Ken O’Brien (17.5 times), Drew Bledsoe (12.5) — would be oak trees in today’s game. Tracking down the likes of Jackson and Allen is a cruel game of tag. Early in Watt’s career, the Steelers would have a backup wide receiver serve as the scout-team quarterback ahead of a game against a mobile QB, but now? Watt laughs. That’s not practical because NFL defenses face mobile quarterbacks just about every week.
Designed quarterback runs are always a handful. On pass plays, the dilemma for Watt is this: To rush? To contain? It takes extreme discipline. He cannot simply reach into his toolbox and choose whichever pass-rush move he wants.
“It’s definitely a humongous challenge,” Watt says. “You can’t just use your speed on the edge because you fly by the quarterback and it opens up that B gap. And the quarterback can escape. It’s always a tough situation to figure out if I’m going to gamble here and give it everything I can on a rush or if I just do the team-player thing and speed rush and turn it into a bull rush basically and get my hands up to disrupt the passer. Otherwise, he’s going to get out of the pocket.”
So much of this is situational. Watt processes the down, the distance and the time on the clock. He knows that if the Steelers are in zone coverage, he can be more aggressive because there are other eyeballs on the QB. In man-to-man coverage, linebackers and defensive backs have their backs turned. So, he’s more careful. He’s in quasi-spy mode. More than ever, Watt is comfortable picking his spots. “I’m not mentally in a pretzel,” he adds, “trying to figure out what’s going on.” He ragdolled the athletic Justin Fields for three sacks. He accounted for four of the nine sacks in a Week 17 win over Cleveland.
The brain impresses Heyward as much as the brawn. He calls Watt’s disruption from the outside linebacker position “uncanny.”
“No one else is doing what he’s doing,” Heyward says. “He’s affecting the play, and it’s a game-changer. It’s turnovers. It’s sacks. It’s picks. Fumbles.”
Yet all of this has to be rooted in… something. We’re well past the point of praising the Watt boys as workmanlike or blue-collar because J.J. smashed such stereotypes to smithereens a decade ago. One month into Watt’s breakout 2012 season — in which he racked up 20.5 sacks, 16 pass breakups and 39 TFLs — he made a point to draw this line in the sand. I was with the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel at the time and the country was just trying to figure out this Watt character. An end built like this in a 3-4 scheme was supposed to be devouring double-teams and falling into three sacks per season. Not this. Not tossing around multiple 300-pounders per play. “I’m much more than just a hard worker,” J.J. said then.
As his father and high school coach detailed, J.J. was always a legit athlete. He played hockey. He threw the shotput. Exactly like another family of hooligans — the Gronkowskis out in Buffalo, N.Y. — he battled his younger brothers in games of knee hockey. The Gronks called it mini sticks. In Watts, shinny. Both families beat the snot out of each other. (Shameless plug: For more on those Gronkin’ battle royales, pre-order “The Blood and Guts!”) By eighth grade, J.J.’s feet were size 13. By college, his film study was described as “relentless” by his college coach. He gained 70 pounds from high school to the pros. None of this was normal.
“The greatest players, the greatest athletes of all time,” J.J. said, “have had the desire and the drive to do something that’s never been done. That’s what I’m striving for. I’m striving to do things that have never been done before. The only way I can do that is through extreme hard work and dedication to my craft.”
And that’s the blueprint his two younger brothers followed.
To this day, all three talk daily on the same group chat. T.J. and J.J. are constantly sharing tricks of the trade. As for the amount of work all three pour into football? “Nobody,” T.J. says, “will truly understand but us.” To him, there’s distinct line between pumping iron to pump iron and training to be the best possible football player he can be. That’s where the family’s strength coach, Brad Arnett, worked wonders. Arnett told them straight-up that they won’t be the strongest or weakest player on the field but he guaranteed they’d be the most prepared to play football from an ankle, hip and knee mobility standpoint.
There’s no benching or squatting or power-cleaning as much as humanly possible.
“I’m not here to post videos,” T.J. says, “and be the most shredded and ripped guy here but I am here to be the best football player I can possibly be. I think that sometimes gets lost in translation.”
Like Rob Gronkowski, T.J. played ice hockey as a kid. He stopped at age 8 to focus on football, but oh yes. He promises to join a beer league whenever he retires from football. The fast-paced nature of hockey supplied a foundation of balance and flexibility he carried in every sport. Which unlocks another key to his success. Watt played every sport he could growing up. Not only did that create a well-rounded athlete, but Watt is convinced that’s what makes him coachable today.
He welcomes criticism. Always. He’d rather get the “transparent, honest truth” from a coach and, no, that’s not always the case for NFL players.
He sees it all the time. Players who receive hard coaching veer one of two directions.
“Either you shut down completely and seek the comfort and say, ‘You’re wrong. You don’t know what you’re talking about.’ Or you get upset and figure out, ‘How can I do better? Where can I do better? You’re obviously telling me this for a reason.’”
No wonder Watt and Tomlin have been a perfect match.
No wonder it grinds his gears when players are bitching and complaining during training camp.
Into 2022, Watt has an opportunity to cannon-blast his game into a completely new realm. There were sacks left on the table last year. Fumbles, too. And while he’d never vocalize this himself, it’s also true that the offensive football was downright offensive for stretches in the Steel City. Competent quarterback play could maximize what’s easily one of the best receiving trios in the NFL: Diontae Johnson, Chase Claypool and George Pickens. The line should also benefit from a more mobile quarterback. You can talk yourself into these Steelers quickly.
It was another banger of an offseason for Watt, too. Whenever he trains, his mind wanders to Texas to Florida to California to all the NFL hotbeds. He can’t help but imagine how his opponents are training. That’s what fuels him. And when the ball’s kicked each season opener — Sept. 11 at Cincinnati this fall — the hard work is done.
His secret may sound cut and dry. “I truly love this,” he says. But it’s so much more.
That “love” traces back to when T.J. Watt thought he was losing football forever.
Bad kept turning to worse. And worse. And worse. To the point where the only conclusion he could draw was that his body was not designed to play football.
The chain of events reads like a football horror story.
In 2013, T.J. Watt started his collegiate career as a redshirt tight end. In bowl prep, he dislocated his right kneecap. The school told him to rehab it, that surgery was not needed. The first day of spring ball ahead of the 2014 season, three months later, he then dislocated his left kneecap. He rehabbed again. He returned by fall camp that 2014 season. And the first day in pads, Watt dislocated the right knee again. From there, T.J. flew to Houston to have the Texans’ team surgeon, Dr. Walt Lowe, operate on his right knee. J.J. was the face of the Texans by then, so it helped to have connections in high places. Lowe grafted a new ligament with a hamstring cadaver and, damn, was it excruciating to be rendered a spectator for the Badgers’ game against LSU right at NRG Stadium in Houston. T.J. missed the entire 2014 season and upon returning in the spring ahead of the 2015 season? You guessed it. T.J. dislocated the left one a second time. He finally had surgery on that one, too.
Two knees. Four dislocated kneecaps.
Here, he stares down at those knees that gave him so much agony.
“You can see how fat my kneecaps are,” he says, “because they want to slide out.”
We see it repeatedly. Colleges both big and small seem to lack the resources needed to adequately diagnose and care for injured football players. T.J. Watt is blunt: He doesn’t think he’s sitting here without that connection to Lowe. And he’s absolutely not sitting here if he didn’t bust up those knees. This was a kid who played quarterback, linebacker and punted as a high school senior at Pewaukee (Wisc.) High School. He threw for 527 yards and seven touchdowns, ran for 554 and nine scores and also had 42 tackles and five sacks. He loved everything about the sport and, on to Madison, he was being groomed as a tight end. ESPN even ranked him the 28th best prospect at the position.
Suddenly, his career was going up in flames. Life without football was unbearable.
He tried to stay positive. Watt remembers watching “Derrick Freakin’ Rose videos.” The former Chicago Bulls point guard was the youngest player to ever win the NBA MVP award before then tearing the ACL in his left knee, missing a full season, and tearing the meniscus in his right knee. He watched clips of Adrian Peterson bouncing back from ACL and MCL tears. Any visual proof that there was hope — any hope at all — gave Watt a reason to wake up in the morning.
“Because when you’re in a situation doubting yourself, you want to see if it’s possible — ‘Can I can come back?’ — and you find guys who came back from serious knee injuries. Find that motivation.”
The insult to injury was that these weren’t freak accidents, rather very basic plays required of a college football player. First, in a 1-on-1 drill, his foot got stuck and a player fell on him. The other times, running backs and fullbacks tumbled on Watt. “A guy would fall on me,” Watt says, demonstrating, “and my knee would go in like that.” It got to the point where this tight end resembled all of those corn-fed linemen, wearing his own pair of giant DonJoy knee braces. He’d run routes and the braces would click and clank like crazy.
T.J. had the busted kneecaps. Derek had the Jones fracture. Their parents were in town for about a month and a half to help drive them around. Maneuvering around campus to class and tutors and football meetings was still rough in the Wisconsin cold. “Brutal,” T.J. adds. “You’re all over the place.”
This isn’t revisionist history: T.J. seriously considered quitting football to become a firefighter. He peppered Dad with questions about the profession. To which, John Watt answered best he could… with one gentle caveat. He reminded T.J. that there was still a ton of football in him. He didn’t want his youngest son trashing his dream quite yet.
There’s no sugarcoating it. T.J. thought his body was destined to break on a football field. A “dark time,” Derek says.
“He was genuinely trying to figure out, what is the next move?” adds Derek. “If this happens again, am I done? Am I done now? What do I want to do? I don’t think he knew. I don’t think he had a plan. He was all-in on football, and that’s why he started to say, ‘I’ve got to figure out what I’m going to do otherwise.’ Everybody wants football to be their No. 1 and that truly was his passion and everything he wanted to do. Then, he realized, ‘Dang, there’s a possibility this isn’t going to happen for me.’ Reality hit.”
Once those two surgeries were complete, T.J. decided to keep going. He told himself that if this whole football thing doesn’t work out, fine. But he vowed to pour his heart and soul into it.
He thought he loved football before, but had no clue.
“So that’s where that obsession with this whole thing that is now the process — football, everything — that is where it started,” T.J. says. “It truly turned into an obsession where I am going to give everything I possibly can. My brothers both grew up in the same house I grew up in. We drank the same milk, ate the same meals, everything. And they got to the NFL. Let’s see if I can do it, too.
“At some point — when you make that commitment — you have to go all out. You have to give yourself an opportunity to believe in yourself and see what you’re fully capable of. That’s the thing I love about having brothers in the NFL: Having that blueprint and the road to how to get here. Because nobody sees all of the behind-the-curtain stuff. Nobody knows about all of the waking up early, the 4-hour workouts with the massages and eating right — all of the sacrifices that comes with being an elite player at this level. All they see is the awards and Sundays. It’s cool that I got that perspective early on. I still carry it with me today.”
To fully snap out of his funk, one more nudge was needed. T.J. Watt needed to see a speck of light at the end of his tunnel. Those Rose videos could only do so much. Same for those motivational speeches from Eric Thomas he loved so much. His shred of hope came the summer into the 2015 season. Wisconsin head coach Paul Chryst had an idea. Maybe… just maybe… playing tight end wasn’t for him. Chryst said he wanted T.J. to play outside linebacker.
At first, Watt looked at Chryst like he was nuts. He was pissed. He interpreted this as a total “slap in the face.” Like his own coach didn’t think he could hack it at tight end. To this day, ex-Badger Melvin Gordon claims T.J. Watt is one of the best tight ends he’s ever seen.
As he started practicing, however, Watt liked how he could actually see the bodies falling down around him. Detached a hair from the trenches — in more of a read-and-react mode as a defensive player — he could side-step potential injuries. So much of this came naturally from watching J.J. dominate with the Texans. His confidence began to mushroom with a few 1-on-1 wins in practice and T.J. describes himself as a total “sponge” in ‘15. Being so raw had its advantages — it felt like he was learning something new every single day, and he couldn’t get enough. Watt asked assistant coach Tim Tibesar questions nonstop. It also helped that he knew the offense’s calls. Next to the QB, nobody on offense needs to know more than the tight end. He’d hear an audible across the line and realize, “OK, it’s a power to the right.” He’d hear the lingo between the tight end and the tackle, and attack accordingly.
After making it through the entirety of fall camp — healthy — Watt said to himself: “Oh, shit. I can actually play football without getting hurt.”
Nerves were understandably out of control for his first college football game, on Sept. 5, 2015, against Alabama at AT&T Stadium. It had been 1,044 days since Watt had even played in a football game, all the way back to Oct. 26, 2012 at Pewaukee. J.J. was right there at the house Jerry Jones built to see T.J.’s college debut, too. It didn’t matter that T.J. was only set to play on the kickoff return unit — he was losing it during pregame. (“Dude,” T.J. remembers J.J. telling him. “Calm down!”)
As a backup, T.J. received garbage-time snaps behind starters Vince Biegel and Joe Schobert. But he stayed healthy. The next year? He started 14 games, finished with 11.5 sacks and — with a sense of true “self-belief” bursting through his pores — decided it was time to declare for the NFL Draft. Watt believed he was ready even if the league itself didn’t agree. In early December, he submitted his name to the NFL’s College Advisory Committee, a panel of high-ranking personnel evaluators from NFL teams and directors from the league’s two scouting organizations: National Football Scouting and BLESTO. The league’s own website strongly urges underclassmen to stay in school, noting in red that only 1.6 percent of NCAA football players make it to the pros.
After studying Watt’s film, the scouts were not encouraged. They informed T.J. that he wasn’t a first- or second- or even a third-round pick. No, Watt was flatly not ready for the bigs. They advised he return to college to improve his draft stock.
What any tape failed to reveal was how those two years without football shaped No. 42 in red.
“You people,” Watt remembers thinking, “have no idea who I am as a person.”
Through his pre-Combine training in Arizona, this belief metastasized. He found ways to separate himself at the granular level. An extra rep. An extra hour of sleep. A tweak to his nutrition. Watt saw no reason why he couldn’t compete with all of these prospects guaranteed to get drafted ahead of him. Further, he had been training with Arnett since eighth grade. The three-cone drill, the “L drill,” the vertical jump, the broad jump was all stuff he had been doing most of his life. He knew what was coming in Indy, even if nobody else did. At 6 foot 4 ½ inches, 252 pounds with 11-inch hands and a 78 ½-inch wingspan, he ran a 4.69 in the 40, logged a 37-inch vert and clocked in at 6.79 seconds in the three cone.
While he wasn’t quite as extraterrestrial as the eventual No. 1 pick, Texas A&M’s Myles Garrett, this performance forced NFL scouts to change their tune.
Any teams willing to chat with Watt at length quickly learned what made him most unique.
“It’s not always about how you look,” Watt says. “It’s about how you think, how you act, how you play. There is so much more that goes into it.”
Those home-state Green Bay Packers could’ve drafted him 29th overall. Instead, they traded out of the pick and, one slot later, the Steelers pounced. Part of Watt was upset — it was easy to add Green Bay to his list of doubters — but that feeling didn’t last long at all. Watt learned all about the history of Pittsburgh’s 3-4, the coaching staff, the city and was sold.
Ever since, he’s been terrorizing offenses.
He busted through that mental block of worrying about stats, was named the 2021 DPOY and has now been declared the greatest player in the sport by Go Long, which many, many, many pundits worldwide have been saying for ages is the greatest honor of them all.
Tomlin loves telling his players that there’s nothing “mystical” to Watt’s ascent. He earned it.
Most days, he ravages the Steelers offense.
After competing in everything from who could get chores done the fastest as kids to NHL on XBox as adults, Derek and T.J. still go at it on a football field. Derek says the Steelers running backs actually spend time gameplanning for T.J. in meetings. Otherwise, nobody on offense is going to get much accomplished that day. The best way Derek can articulate his brother’s impact? “You do special things to gameplan for him and he still wrecks the game.” Opposing offenses have learned that much. T.J. watches so much film that he knows how specific teams will try to neutralize him. From there, it’s all “heart,” Derek adds, all “not being denied.”
There’s a sense of fear sprinkled into his brother’s game, too. Derek saw the emotional toll 1,044 days without a football game took on T.J. It’s a feeling his little brother never wants again.
“You never know when your career is going to end,” Derek says. “Whether your time is just up and you don’t have it anymore or you have an injury. So, he knows now what it was like for a stint. For two years, he went without it. He obviously did not like that feeling and did not want that to be the end for him and did everything possible for that not to be the case.”
We should point out that T.J. Watt is not Superman.
He does have one kryptonite: Tree nuts.
As he revealed on a podcast last winter, Watt is extremely allergic. When J.J. received one of his DPOY awards in Arizona, T.J. had a bad reaction to lo mein at the hotel and walked the red carpet all red in the face. Another time, in Pittsburgh, teammate James Harrison needed to rush him to the hospital. T.J.’s face blew up. “Like I went five rounds with Mike Tyson,” he said. Then, once at the Super Bowl, his father jokingly threw a pecan at him. It hit him in the face and his face — again — inflated to cartoonish proportions.
Sitting here in Latrobe, something from a tree above us falls. A leaf? A twig? A bug? Watt isn’t sure, but he takes no chances. He swiftly swats the debris away to be safe.
These days, that’s about all that can stop T.J. Watt.
Finding comparisons isn’t easy, but here’s one: Larry Bird. Beyond the indomitable drive, Midwestern roots and, uh, skin tone, Watt brings to life one perfect Bird quote from the 80s. The Boston Celtics legend once said that, through an 82-game schedule, he always knew there was a fan in the stands watching him live for the first time.
Bird believed he owed it to that one fan to go all-out. He valued that first impression.
That’s how Watt treats training camp and why it was so hard to “hold in” for a new contract last summer.
“This is the best job in the world,” Watt says. “I never take it for granted. There are so many people who’d absolutely kill to be in the position that we’re in. So many fans come from all over the country and world to see us practice in Latrobe, Pennsylvania. If I’m not practicing as hard as I can, that’s a disservice to everybody who came out to watch.”
Bring up that Bird quote, and Watt nods with a loud “Of course!” He sees the fans holding signs. He hears kids yelling that it’s their birthday. The fact that families are actually spending their hard-earned time and money to watch him practice means something to him.
“It’s pretty surreal,” he adds.
Fans have had plenty of reasons to cheer. These Pittsburgh Steelers have not had a losing season in 19 years.
Yet, this is also true: the Steelers have only won three playoff games since reaching the Super Bowl in 2010. A return to true greatness means re-embracing the franchise’s true identity. The “Steel Curtain” in the ‘70s. “Blitzburgh” through the 90s. Even the ‘05 and ‘08 Super Bowl winners were loaded with mean temperaments like Joey Porter and James Harrison and Troy Polamalu and LaMarr Woodley. That ’08 unit didn’t have a flashy nickname but finished No. 2 vs. the run, No. 1 vs. the pass, No. 1 in total defense, No. 1 in points allowed, No. 1 in yards per play, all with Harrison being named the NFL’s best defensive player.
Historically, this is when the Steelers are at their best — when they’re striking offenses in the jaw with a violent brand of football that’s getting siphoned out of the sport elsewhere.
Teams in the AFC engaged in an unprecedented offensive arms race this past offseason. As Heyward told us, Tomlin wants these Steelers to play the “villain” in 2022. “We’ve got to be the Black Hat,” he said. “We have to be the Party Crashers. Nobody likes to see defense in this day and age. But we’ve got to be the guys who stir the drink and are the reason why we win and create a lot of havoc doing it.”
That’s their formula. Watt wants this defense mentioned in the same breath as those past units that’ve taken on folklore status. It’s why he’s so appalled with how the run defense performed in 2021 in allowing an NFL-high 2,483 yards. That won’t fly in 2022. Between Watt, Heyward, Minkah Fitzpatrick and Myles Jack, there’s hope that this defense will wreck a few parties. They’re relishing in the fact that other QBs and other teams are hogging the spotlight. Everything starts with Watt, a player Heyward believes already deserves a place on the Mt. Rushmore of Steelers legends.
There’s no need to draw motivation from dislocated knees or draft advisory boards anymore. Watt envisions reaching another level in 2022 because, in his mind, you’re either getting better or getting worse. And he sees only one option.
The AFC is defined by quarterback play everywhere you look, so here’s thinking the most valuable commodity is the game-wrecker making the quarterback’s life hell. That MVP award will likely go to a quarterback yet again. That’s how hardware works. J.J. was screwed out of an MVP award before and T.J. probably will be, too. “All political,” Derek says.
But that’s also all fine by T.J. Watt.
He’s more worried about the games that take place after that award is decided.
“The Super Bowl is obviously No. 1,” he says, “and it always will be.”
Miss a previous Steelers story at Go Long?
Also, ICYMI, here is our series on the Minnesota Vikings’ culture change from Mike Zimmer to Kevin O’Connell…