Plenty of defensive players have made their mark in the NFL, but few have had as big an impact in just two years as Justin James Watt. In his sophomore campaign last season, the 24-year-old left defensive end carved out a niche terrorizing NFL quarterbacks, helping the Houston Texans finish with the best record of their 10-year history. We caught up with the reigning Defensive Player of the Year to discover his link to hockey’s most storied franchise and learn what he has in store for the current campaign.
Since you were drafted and joined the Texans in 2011, they’ve gone 10-6 and 12-4, even reaching the second round of the playoffs for the first time in franchise history last year. How far are you guys from reaching the next level?
J.J. WATT: I think we’re right there. We have the guys to do it; we just need to finish it at the end of the season. Obviously, things didn’t end the way we would’ve liked at the end of last season. We just have to make sure we do the things we need to do in order to be successful this season.
You had one of the best all-around seasons by a defensive lineman in NFL history last season, punctuated by you winning the NFL Defensive Player of the Year award. Pretty impressive for a guy who just completed his second season in the league.
JJW: Obviously, it was a good season. I had a lot of fun. But when you prepare for something like that, you’re not really surprised when it happens. I put in a lot of work and a lot of time in the offseason. But I’m also surrounded by great teammates and great coaches; it makes it a lot easier when you have some good people around you.
You’re a confident guy, and you’ve said in interviews that you consider yourself to be the best defensive player in the NFL. Who was the best player before you came into the league?
JJW: I’d say Jared Allen is one of the better ones. Jason Pierre-Paul is up there, too, but I would have to say Jared Allen. He’s a very good player and I respect his game a lot.
You led the league with 20 ½ sacks last season. What sack artist did you most admire growing up?
JJW: I always liked guys like Reggie White, Bruce Smith and Howie Long. Those were the types of guys I looked up to, the old-school guys. Growing up in Wisconsin, Reggie was playing with the Packers so I was a huge fan of his.
We heard you’re a pretty big hockey fan and that you played a lot growing up. How’d you get your start on the ice?
JJW: I started skating when I was three years old and I played minor hockey until I was 13. My parents just started bringing me to the rink and I loved it. Hockey is one of my favorite sports. I love the speed of the game, the hitting, just everything about it. I’m a huge fan.
What type of player were you on the ice: a power forward, a finesse guy, or a defensive specialist?
JJW: I was a little bit smaller back then. I used to play center and I was a goal scorer. That’s basically what I did. It was all about scoring goals for me.
Did you bust into a celebratory dance when you scored a goal like you do when you sack an opposing quarterback?
JJW: (laughs) No, when I was a kid, it was all about having fun. I didn’t have any special celebration.
What was your favorite team growing up?
JJW: I was a fairweather fan as a kid. I was going back and forth between the Blackhawks and the Red Wings. I was a big fan of Ed Belfour, Jeremy Roenick and Chris Chelios.
While you played at the University of Wisconsin, you became good friends with former Canadiens forward Blake Geoffrion. How did you two hit it off?
JJW: We both went to Wisconsin at the same time; I loved going to hockey games and Blake is a big football fan. One offseason we had to do an event together a little bit after he won the Hobey Baker Award. We talked a lot about hockey and obviously we hit it off. We became friends and we’ve been in touch ever since. I’ve been following his career and I was terribly saddened by his injury.
Blake told us that when he suffered his skull fracture, you told him you prepared a special dance if you’d gotten a sack that same weekend. Unfortunately you didn’t get one, but what did you have planned?
JJW: Yeah I did plan something for Blake in our game against the Bears that unfortunately I haven’t been able to use. I was going to pretend that I’d fired a shot top shelf before going on one knee like hockey players do. It would’ve been cool.
Between us, do you think you’d be a better hockey player or he’d be a better football player?
JJW: (laughs) I don’t know. He’s a little bit smaller; he’d probably be a wide receiver or a quarterback. Tough to say. He’d be decent out there but I think I could hold my own a little bit in hockey just because of my size. I can still skate a little bit.
You played in some hockey tournaments in Quebec City and Montreal when you were younger. What are your best memories from those trips up north?
JJW: I used to play in tournaments in Canada all the time. I went to Quebec City, Montreal, Toronto; I was all over the place. I had a blast, I loved it up there. I remember hearing all the French being spoken in Quebec; I had no clue what people were saying around me. I remember the fries with gravy and the Tim Horton’s. I’m a huge Tim Horton’s guy; it was one of my favorite treats when I traveled up there. There aren’t too many of them in the United States.
So you’re a poutine guy! How long has it been since you last had one?
JJW: (laughs) I remember them very vividly! Having a poutine was always a treat. I haven’t had one in a while, maybe 10 years or a little longer.
“J.J.” stands for Justin James. What’s the most creative alternate suggestion you’ve heard for your initials?
JJW: There hasn’t been any mocking really; people don’t mess around with my name too much. There’s a little bit of thrash talking on the field, but for the most part it stays pretty clean.
Bill Belichick prepared Tom Brady to face you in the playoffs by equipping his defensive line with tennis rackets to wave in practice. Is there any drawback to having such massive hands?
JJW: (laughs) There’s no real drawback, it’s a good thing. It definitely helps me out a lot.
What’s the funniest thing a quarterback has said to you after you’ve taken him down in a game?
JJW: They don’t say much to me. There’s not much conversation going on after you sack a guy. I go my way and they go theirs.
Keep up with all things Watt via the Houston Texans’ official Web site, houstontexans.com, find out more about his charity at jjwfoundation.org, or follow him in real-time on Twitter (@JJWatt).
This article, written by Hugo Fontaine, was published in CANADIENS magazine Vol. 28 No. 1.
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