MADISON, Wis. — The stories have reached seemingly mythical proportions by now about the pizza delivery boy turned NFL superstar. So spectacular has J.J. Watt’s transformation been from out of school to out of this world defensive end that you might find one of those “based on a true story” Disney movies about him in theaters one summer soon.
Watt’s journey is well documented, but the quick recap is this: He dropped out of Central Michigan after playing tight end for the 2007 season, attended classes at a local community college and delivered pizzas. His dream had always been to play for the University of Wisconsin, so he re-shaped his body while back home in Pewaukee during the offseason and enrolled at Wisconsin as a walk-on a year later. He earned a scholarship, became an All-Big Ten selection in 2009 and 2010 at defensive end and was drafted 11th overall by the Houston Texans in 2011.
By 2012, his work ethic and freak athleticism had taken the NFL by storm. He was voted as the nearly unanimous Defensive Player of the Year in his second season.
All of those accolades, no doubt, have been great for J.J. But as his fame has grown, it has created an unusual dynamic for his younger brothers, Derek, and T.J., both of whom now play at Wisconsin just like their older brother.
“The biggest thing I tell them is to have fun but to create their own legacy,” J.J. Watt told FOX Sports Wisconsin this summer. “A lot of people try and group us together as brothers. Sometimes it kind of upsets me when people call them J.J.’s little brothers. Because they are their own men and they worked their tails off to get to where they are.
“A lot of people kind of look at them and say, ‘Well they got there because of their last name’ or this or that. Those kids, they worked their tails off to get to where they are and they deserve everything they’ve got coming to them.”
In some respects, J.J.’s success has made it even more difficult for his younger brothers to succeed on their own without drawing unfair comparisons to J.J. They are forming an identity in the shadows of one of the biggest names in Wisconsin sports — and that’s saying something considering J.J. doesn’t even play for the Packers.
In other ways, J.J. has fueled Derek and T.J. further and instilled the value of hard work, even if others have made comments about the legitimacy of their successes along the way.
“You try not to listen to it,” said Derek, a sophomore fullback for the Badgers. “But there was always people saying you’re just getting this because of your brother. You’re getting an opportunity because your brother did so well. You don’t listen to those people. You just do your own thing and try to filter those people out. We know how hard we’ve worked and that’s all that matters to us. We just keep doing our thing and see where it ends up.”
Added T.J., a freshman tight end at Wisconsin: “Obviously, both of us have gotten it before. We know at the end of the day we have earned this. Nobody sees how hard we work. Obviously, every single guy here has earned his respect. They’ve worked hard in the weight room, they worked hard in the offseason. It comes with it. But we’re willing to take it, and we’ve taken it well I think so far.”
Both players starred at Pewaukee High School to quell some of those naysayers. Derek rushed for 2,685 yards and 44 touchdowns. He also tallied 140 tackles with five forced fumbles and five touchdowns as a linebacker. His play was so good that he received nine Division I scholarship offers.
Initially, Derek gave an oral commitment to play football at Northwestern. But in 2010, as he watched J.J. dominate at Wisconsin on the way to a Rose Bowl appearance, he changed his mind, unfazed about attending the same school as his big brother. Now, he is an important piece to Wisconsin’s offense.
Derek joined Wisconsin’s program as a linebacker but was switched to fullback during fall camp last season. He latched onto the position so well that he took over as the full-time starter as a freshman.
As Derek, a 6-foot-2, 231-pounder, enters his second season, he could see an increased role as a ball carrier in third-down situations. Last season, he carried the ball just twice for five yards. He spent the summer working with running backs James White, Melvin Gordon and Corey Clement in 7-on-7 drills and is prepared for a bigger role in the offense.
“Now I have a full camp at fullback/tailback rather than just kind of focusing on linebacker, thinking about linebacker and having to switch halfway through and a whole new world hit,” Derek said. “Now I’ve had a long time to focus and prepare, and I feel confident coming in as prepared as possible.”
Meanwhile, T.J., a 6-foot-4, 235-pounder, was one of the top recruits in Wisconsin out of high school. He earned first-team all-conference honors as a quarterback, linebacker and punter as a senior. That season, he threw for 527 yards with seven touchdowns and rushed for 554 yards with nine touchdowns. He also recorded 42 tackles and five sacks and garnered scholarship offers from Wisconsin, Minnesota and Northern Illinois. As a junior, T.J. was a first-team all-conference tight end and caught 27 passes for 505 yards with three touchdowns.
During his first week of fall practices, T.J. rotated in with the second- and third-team offense. He said he had already taken advice from J.J. about how to conduct himself.
“So far, just learn as much as you can,” T.J. said. “Soak up. Be a sponge. Flip the switch on the field, flip it off away the field. Be nice off the field. He also always stresses to make sure you’re hydrated and eating right and rolling out after practices because that’s how you gain an advantage.”
Derek, too, has relied on J.J. considerably over the years. He said J.J. was instrumental when it came time for him to make a college choice. J.J. never pushed Derek to come to Wisconsin but helped him weigh the pros and cons of every school he was considering.
“He’s been incredibly helpful,” said their mother, Connie Watt. “There were times when J.J. would be at college even and I would call him and say, ‘All right, the boys need this’ or ‘they’re kind of saying these things or doing these things. And I really think if you could give them a phone call … but don’t tell them I’m calling.’
“He’s been wonderful that way, and vice versa with the boys. I’ll tell them sometimes to ask J.J., J.J.’s been through it or J.J. knows best. They have to form their own paths as well, but they do have such a great bond that that’s been incredibly helpful. And he wants to see them succeed. Our family kind of always worked well together that way and encouraged one another, so for him it’s a natural thing.”
Even as J.J. has gained national fame for his exploits on the football field as a pro, he has maintained a close relationship with his two brothers. Last August, he commissioned a private jet the week before the Texans’ season opener so he could surprise T.J. and watch one of his high school games in Pewaukee on a Friday night. The next day, on Sept. 1, he drove to Madison to watch Derek’s first college game at Wisconsin.
J.J. recognizes the challenges his two younger brothers have overcome to reach this point. College programs, after all, don’t hand out full-ride scholarships to just anybody. And he’ll continue to watch with pride from afar, offering assistance whenever either brother asks.
“As long as they go out there and they do their studies and they work their butts off to get what they want, they’re going to be just fine,” J.J. said. “I have a lot of faith in them and I’m so proud of them because it’s so fun to watch them. A lot of kids in that situation might have shut down. They might have said, ‘All this spotlight on my brother and everybody just kind of puts my brother on me.’ They didn’t. They worked hard. They created their own paths and they’re having their own success, and to me that’s so fun.”