Published October 25, 2012
HOUSTON – It only took J.J. Watt a few mighty swats of the football for Houston Texans fans to fall in love with him.
He had two solid seasons at Wisconsin before declaring for the draft, but Texans fans booed when the team selected the defensive end with the 11th overall pick in the 2011 draft.
He quickly won them over.
Now fans have latched onto the outgoing and animated Watt and his J.J. Swatt nickname, making signs and T-shirts, carrying fly swatters and oversized hands to games, swinging them wildly when Watt makes a big play. And he makes plenty of them.
There are Facebook and Tumblr pages dedicated to the nickname, and Texans fans proudly call themselves members of the "Swatt Team."
"I love it. It is one of the coolest things ever," he said of his newfound celebrity status. "It's what you dream about as a kid: you've got fans asking for autographs, asking for pictures. It's getting a little crazy, chasing my car and places I go, seeing me at breakfast and stuff like that, but it's all part of the fun. It's a blast."
Fans were already warming up last season to Watt before he made perhaps the biggest play in the Texans' short history. In the team's first-ever playoff game in January, he tipped a pass by Cincinnati's Andy Dalton and grabbed it for the interception, which he returned for a touchdown, catapulting him into superstar status in Houston.
But he hasn't forgotten a time when almost nobody in Houston knew who he was.
"It is really special," he said of his popularity. "But I also know it can all go away quickly, so I'm working very, very hard to keep it that way."
Watt's penchant for batting down balls is helped by being 6-foot-5 with a 37-inch vertical jump, mitt-sized hands that measure more than 11 inches from thumb to pinkie, and wingspan of almost 83 inches. It also isn't anything new: Watt led Wisconsin in passes broken up in his last season with the Badgers.
After he uses those gigantic hands to swat ball after ball, he often turns toward the crowd with a huge smile to shake a finger as if scolding the quarterback for deigning to throw his way.
While he loves the fans, Watt doesn't really care for his clever nickname. Sure, he knows it's a compliment to his astonishing knack for batting down balls, but he'd rather people just call him Watt.
"I'm not a huge fan of it," he said. "I like my last name, so I don't like people messing with my last name."
He also thinks the moniker downplays the fact he can do much more than knock down passes.
"I feel like I'm a more complete player than that," he said.
Indeed. Along with the 10 passes he's defended this season, the second-year player leads the league in sacks with 9½, and is a big reason the Texans (6-1) have one of the NFL's top defenses and the best record in the AFC entering their bye week.
Watt leads a defense that is second in the AFC in yards allowed (283), interceptions (9) and sacks (21). He's the first defensive lineman in NFL history to have defended 10 passes through seven games, and four of those tipped balls have led to interceptions.
He's closing in on Reggie White's NFL record for passes defended by a defensive lineman in a season of 13 set in 1991.
He was a big fan of White and would love to break that mark, but he'd rather outdo the late Hall of Famer's sacks mark.
"I also know he had 21 sacks in a season, so hopefully I can get that one, too, at some point," he said. "That's a goal. There's so many goals from an individual level, but every goal is second to the big goal, the team goal — that trophy."
Watt's college coaches worked with him on batting down balls, and in Houston's he's refined the skill under defensive line coach Bill Kollar, who emphasizes it.
"You won't hear too many other D-line coaches that say a batted ball is the same thing as a sack," outside linebacker Connor Barwin said. "We continue to hear that for years now, and I think guys remember and think about that when they're out there rushing the quarterback and they see they're not going to get there, they remember to put their hands. You'd be surprised ... how much you can hit balls down when all you have to do is put your hands up."
Watt's ability to knock down passes has left opposing coaches and quarterbacks clueless as how to stop it. Ravens coach John Harbaugh said they knew what Houston was going to do, but couldn't stop it after Watt batted down two of Joe Flacco's passes in a 43-13 loss on Sunday.
Jets coach Rex Ryan was also at a loss after Watt swatted down three of Mark Sanchez's throws in a 23-17 Houston win earlier this season.
"J.J. Watt's the real deal. You would think the Knicks would pick him up, too, with all of the shot-blocking he did," Ryan said. "It's not like he doesn't do it to everybody, but he certainly did it tonight."
Kubiak, a former offensive coordinator, wasn't sure what advice he'd give if his offense had to stop Watt from knocking down passes.
"Boy, I tell you what, it's difficult," he said after a long pause. "It's not like you can duck and throw under him and stuff like that."
Veteran defensive coordinator Wade Phillips said Watt has mastered his scheme so thoroughly that he gives him freedom to make his own decisions and attack each play the way he wants to. Phillips says that's what you do when you have great players.
"I am amazed that he can continue to just dominate people the way he has," Phillips said. "He has a great knack for football, he plays football. Some guys play hard or maybe they can whip somebody up front. But this guy, he sees the ball, knocks the ball down, makes tackles for losses that other people don't see."
Not bad for a player who gave up his scholarship at Central Michigan as a tight end to walk on at Wisconsin. He delivered pizzas when he first enrolled at Wisconsin because he wanted to help his parents pay for school. He didn't have to pay for school for long. He earned a scholarship after a year on the scout team.
It was while at Wisconsin that Watt first began working with children and realized what a small gesture could mean to a young fan. Ask the man who makes his living terrorizing quarterbacks about that work and his eyes soften and a wide grin spreads across his face.
"As a kid I grew up watching the Packers practices and just getting a high five from a Packer was the coolest thing in the world to me," he said. "So I know what it feels like and so if I can put a smile on one kid's face by signing an autograph or just giving them a handshake or talking to them then there's no reason for me not to. It would be very selfish of me not to do that."
He's bonded with three local children who were orphaned in 2011 in a car accident which also left two of them paralyzed. Since then Watt and the children talk or text several times a week.
"Every time I get a call from them," he said, "it puts a smile on my face."