The legend of J.J. Watt parallels tales of Sasquatch.
The trouble for the Seattle Seahawks is, Watt is real.
When they head to Houston this Sunday to take on the Texans, Watt, the reigning Associated Press NFL Defensive Player of the Year, will be waiting.
Talking to people who know the defensive end will invariably lead to a similar stream of comments. Huge feet. Huge hands. Even huge ankles. A rare sight who surprised those he came across.
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Long arms. Good speed. Tall. Can run, jump and get off the ball. Watt, 6-foot-5 and 289 pounds, is the most potent blend of defensive positives in the league.
“He’s a fantastic football player,” Seahawks coach Pete Carroll said. “He just causes so many problems.”
Watt, described as down to earth and an effort maniac, was a
teenager when he began earnest work to become an NFL force.
His dad, John, also an owner of plus-size appendages, took him to the NX Level training facility in Waukesha, Wis., about a 20-minute drive west of Milwaukee, when he was 16. Watt showed up as a 6-2, 200-pound high school junior.
“He had the frame to fill out and get big,” Brad Arnett, owner of NX Level, said. “People always ask me, did you see anything at that age or did you see anything going through the process that he would end up the way he is today? No. Not really. But, did I know he was going to be good? Absolutely.”
Watt, rated a two-star recruit, went to Central Michigan as a tight end before walking on at Wisconsin. He switched to defense in Madison. The Texans picked him with the 11th overall pick in 2011 after Watt entered the draft early. Carroll took notice of him.
“Oh, we loved him,” Carroll said. “We loved him because he was so instinctive and such a natural football player. I don’t think anybody knew that he was going to be this dominant, and maybe I’ve heard Houston say that they didn’t know that either. So, I’m saying that. But, he’s just an extraordinary player, and that did show.”
His rookie year was solid. Last year was stunning.
Watt became the first player in NFL history to have more than 14 sacks and 14 passes defensed in a season. He broke Mario Williams’ franchise-record by finishing with 20.5 sacks. He was a unanimous All-Pro pick.
Commercials followed. He made appearances on TV shows such as “The League” and was at the ESPYs.
Watt’s post-sack salutes, his short-cropped blonde hair, his whole persona were no longer his. Fame swooped in. Anonymous trips to the grocery store went out.
“I’d say it’s been nothing but enjoyable,” Watt said. “I mean obviously, there’s just some things that I can’t do any more like going out in public and things like that. But I have no qualms about it whatsoever. This is the stuff that you dream about as a kid. But it hasn’t changed me a bit as a person. I’m still just the same small-town kid from Milwaukee, Wisconsin.
“I don’t really leave my house. It’s between home and the stadium. Other than that, I don’t really do too much. It’s pretty difficult.”
It’s not only in Houston where Watt has to navigate the power of his celebrity. When he returns to workout at NX Level, word quickly spreads he’s in town. Arnett tries to keep the media away.
“NX Level is his haven.” Arnett said.
If there were cameras in the facility, they would see Watt the Worker and Watt the Joker.
Arnett said everything becomes a maniacal competition with Watt, whether it’s box jumps or lat pulls. Watt trains with a handful of other former Badgers, including Seahawks safety Chris Maragos.
After completed sets, Watt will often go back for more. He added four sprints – one for each round of the playoffs and one for the Super Bowl – after finishing his first 10 in one drill. Maragos, after walking away, would go back to compete with Watt.
“He wasn’t the five-star recruit coming out,” Maragos said. “He understands what it took for him to get to that position. Any great athlete knows what it took to get to that position. In order to stay in that position, you have to continue to do what got you there.”
In the midst of his workouts, Watt will impersonate characters in skits from the 1990s TV comedy show “In Living Color.” It’s not a side of him he has turned loose in public yet.
“That’s the guy and the kid that I know,” Arnett said.
Despite being flanked by elongated relatives – Arnett said Watt’s father is a “monstrosity” – it would be Watt’s mother, Connie, who would be the ego deflator if her son came back to Wisconsin full of himself.
“His mom would unload on him,” Arnett said.
According to Watt, Arnett and Maragos, he’s the same guy who began showing up for workouts when he was 16.
On Sunday, Seahawks offensive coordinator Darrell Bevell will use a flood of schemes in an attempt to slow Watt. One of the most basic aspects of offense, being able to run the ball, is a prime antidote to Watt’s gifts. Though, he’s capable against the run, too.
Bevell will have a main pursuit against Watt.
“Make sure that he doesn’t wreck the whole day for us,” Bevell said.