MADISON, Wis. – J.J. Watt had no guarantees that his college football career would continue past his freshman year at Central Michigan. He just believed.
Not many others did, and the fact that the Badgers' best pass rusher was delivering pizzas and mopping floors as a lightly regarded prospect who had already walked away from one college program is where Watt's career could've ended.
Wisconsin coach Bret Bielema gave Watt an opportunity and the 6-foot-6 Watt wasn't shy about making some bold predictions.
"I'll never forget, he asked me what he had to do to earn a scholarship," Bielema said. "I said, 'You've got to be in the two-deep or the major playing rotation.' He said to me, 'Coach, I'll be there at the end of spring ball.' And that's exactly where he was. We gave him a scholarship and it's been a good story ever since."
It was a good story even before then and hardly seemed possible when Watt was in high school and looking at Division III schools instead of looking at No. 1 Ohio State's offensive line when he takes the field on Saturday night at Camp Randall Stadium.
"The one thing people ask me is, 'Would you change the path to get here. If you could come to Wisconsin right away, would you?' I always say no because the process it took me from high school to all the recruiting issues to Central Michigan to Wisconsin, it was such a character builder," Watt said. "It taught me perseverance and what type of work ethic you need to have to succeed.
"I'm working at Pizza Hut; I'm paying my way at Wisconsin for a whole year, just hoping to earn a scholarship. There was no guarantee I'd even have a spot on the team."
Watt initially committed to Minnesota before going back and forth between the Chippewas and the Gophers, Bielema said. The one school that wasn't interested? Wisconsin.
"I know in the recruiting process out of high school we evaluated him and it probably shows how good of evaluators we were, we didn't project him as a scholarship player," Bielema said.
Watt even looks the part now after playing one season as a tight end for Central Michigan for then-new coach Butch Jones before leaving the program for a chance he wasn't sure the program would even give him. He moved to defensive end for Wisconsin.
"Coach B, thankfully, gave me a spot. I earned a scholarship, earned a starting spot and now here I am. It's like a dream come true," Watt said. "When I was in high school, I was looking at (Division III schools) Oshkosh, I was looking at Whitewater, just hoping to be able to play football. Now, here I am playing for the Wisconsin Badgers. It's an unbelievable privilege and honor and I just love it."
Watt acknowledges that at night, his mind wandered as he waited for his opportunity.
"Some of them got long. Some of them got bad. I started to think to myself, 'Am I really going to be good enough when I go to Wisconsin, is all this worth it?' But then, I would always think back to yes, yes, it is worth it. Yes, it is going to pay off. I look back now and all those hard nights paid off 100 times over. This is more of an unbelievable experience than anything I've ever seen in my life," Watt said. "It wasn't easy, but it was something I had to do to get to where I wanted to be."
Watt leads the team with 8 1/2 tackles for loss and is tied for second with 30 tackles. He's also got two sacks, 12 passes broken up or deflected, 1 forced fumble and one blocked kick.
He's also fanatical film watcher — studying the likes of NFL stars Jared Allen, Dwight Freeney and Clay Matthews. He also watches his counterparts, including Buckeyes end Cameron Heyward and Iowa's Adrian Clayborn, He'll see Heyward on Saturday night, and Clayborn on Oct. 23.
Ohio State Jim Tressel puts Watt among the conference's best pass rushers.
"There are some real good ones, but in my mind, Watt matches up with a lot of those guys," Tressel said. "He's very difficult for a tight end to handle when he has to block them."
Watt has gotten stronger through conditioning, though there's a menu item he's quick to turn down when he gets together with friends.
"I definitely don't eat pizza anymore," he said. "I stay away from that to keep the figure clean."