EDITOR'S NOTE: The bulk of this article was originally published in late February of 2021, shortly after J.J. Watt's time with the Texans came to an end. A few passages were added at the end of the 2022 regular season, when Watt announced he was retiring from the game. Now that he's going in the Houston Texans Ring of Honor, some more changes have been made.
Just an hour after meeting him, it was clear J.J. Watt was different.
The greatest defender in franchise history, Watt's name will go up in the Houston Texans Ring of Honor this autumn. He'll join former teammate Andre Johnson and Team Founder/Chairman Bob McNair.
But whenever Watt's name comes up in conversation, it usually whisks me back to late April of 2011.
The morning after the first round of the NFL Draft, from 2011 through 2013, I would meet the Texans' pick at the airport. Texans TV chronicled his first day in town, covering his arrival, meeting the coaches and media, and getting official photographs taken.
After Watt, who was the 11th overall selection in the 2011 Draft, and his parents cleared the secure area at Bush Intercontinental Airport (IAH), I stuck out my hand, introduced myself, and awkwardly explained "Now we're going to mic you up and follow you around the next few hours with this video camera."
None of us knew then he'd wind up winning the AP Defensive Player of the Year award three times by the midpoint of the decade. We certainly couldn't fathom him spearheading an effort to raise over $41 million in Hurricane Harvey relief in 2017.
For the first chunk of that journey to the stadium, he seemed like a regular football player who'd just been taken in the first round. Excited about his new surroundings. Anxious to get to work.
But after walking into the offices and shaking hands with a few folks, Watt met then-defensive coordinator Wade Phillips. They exchanged pleasantries, and Phillips asked if Watt wanted some lunch.
Very politely, Watt had an atypical response, that helped inform my opinions of him for the next 10 years.
"I don't have a whole lot of time," Watt said. "So if I could just get the playbook, that'd be great."
NFL players were two months into the lockout at the time, and nobody on either side knew when it might end. Ultimately, the owners and players came to an agreement at the end of July. Watt and his parents were flying out of town in a few hours, and once he left, he didn't know when he'd be back. So Watt, Phillips and a good chunk of the rest of defensive staff scurried into a meeting room and talked football for awhile.
And they sent a sandwich in for Watt, so he didn't go hungry.
But seeing his recognition that time is fleeting was a harbinger of what to expect from Watt. On the field, he played like there was no tomorrow, and at the end of games he very often littered the stat sheet in a slew of categories. It was common to see the box score and find Watt with a sack (or two or more), a few tackles for loss, some passes defensed, and a forced fumble. He affected the game like nobody else could.
Off the field, he raised not just millions for the hurricane relief efforts, but millions for his foundation, which helps after-school sports programs for kids around the nation. He was a regular at Texas Children's Hospital visiting sick children. The Make-a-Wish Foundation had him on speed dial, and he always brought a smile to a child who was very, very ill. The list of people he touched for the better is endless, and I'm certainly neglecting to mention quite a few folks he impacted.
Watt didn't have a lot of time that Friday afternoon in April of 2011, and sadly, he didn't have what we wish was more time with the Texans.
But his response to a very simple question the day he arrived, stuck with me. None of his heroics in football, or in helping people, have surprised me. I certainly can't say I predicted any of it, but based on what I saw in a brief interaction, all he has accomplished makes perfect sense.
I wish him well, and am fascinated to see now what his life after football will entail.
Because nothing he'll do--and I'm sure it'll be something substantial--will be a surprise.