If there’s still a few days left on the 2023 calendar and time left in this increasingly bizarro season, we might as well have had another bombshell dropped on us.
It happened two days after a wistful Cardinals defensive end J.J. Watt had walked off the field following another home loss. Watt, with obvious emotion in his eyes, did a full circle, and headed to the State Farm Stadium locker room. As it turns out, it was for the final time.
Watt tweeted a simple 29-word message Tuesday morning along with a photo of him holding his son, who was born 65 days ago, on the sideline:
Koa’s first ever NFL game.
My last ever NFL home game.
My heart is filled with nothing but love and gratitude. It’s been an absolute honor and a pleasure.
— JJ Watt (@JJWatt) December 27, 2022
With that, Watt let it be known the next two games for the Cardinals at Atlanta and San Francisco will be his last after an illustrious 12-year career that included being Defensive Player of the year three times, an All-Pro seven and the Walter Payton Man of the Year in 2017.
There were also a boatload of injuries, including a shredded shoulder in 2021 when the Cardinals were 7-0. He missed the remainder of the regular season, willed himself on the field for the playoff loss to the Rams and then was in the team facility a few days later working like a fiend in the offseason to set the stage for his 14 games in 2002 that have included 6.5 sacks, 33 tackles (26 solo and 14 for loss), 21 quarterback hits, six passes defensed and one forced fumble and fumble recovery.
After missing the season opener because of a calf injury, at the age of 33 he has gotten better as the season progressed.
His snap percentages (check out last four games) have been 63, 62, 79, 75, 78, 83, 77, 77, 73, 67, 80, 75, 84 and 95.
That just might be super-human, which Watt has often been on and off the field. He will become eligible for the Pro Football Hall of Fame in 2028.
Tributes poured in on social media:
“One of my favorite teammates of all time. Hall of Fame player, Hall of Fame person. Unbelievable career my brother!! – Cardinals tight end Zach Ertz
“Football player of the highest order…thank you.” – Cardinals broadcaster Ron Wolfley
“Congrats on a Hall of Fame Career that we were all blessed to witness.” – Former quarterback Robert Griffin III
“Five years ago, in the days following Hurricane Harvey’s devastation, I went to Houston to witness @JJWatt’s fundraising efforts. He helped raise more than $37 million, changing my perspective on the impact athletes can make. His legacy extends beyond the field. – ESPN broadcaster Jeff Darlington
“I remember sitting on a bus with J.J. Watt riding back from a donation drop off during Hurricane Harvey. I remember his team of people telling him the insane schedule of national TV appearances that were slated for the next day. I remember seeing him completely overwhelmed.
“I remember him looking at them & saying, ‘I have a game I have to get ready for at some point guys.’ The opener was days away. But Watt also realized the more he appeared publicly promoting his relief fund the more people would donate. More money & supplies would come.
“Following J.J. throughout Houston for that story is my favorite assignment of my career. I don’t know how he did it. Congrats on your retirement @JJWatt But I’m assuming helping others isn’t something you’re giving up anytime soon.” – NFL Media reporter James Palmer
“One of the most dominant defensive players ever!! Loved watching you play every Sunday. Congrats on an incredible career and welcome to a new chapter” – Former major league baseball pitcher CC Sabathia
“As a @titans fan I had a moral obligation to hate you, but damn it did you make it hard. Incredible to watch on the field and even more inspiring to watch the things you’ve done off the field. Congrats on a great career.” – Fan Zack Hunt
“First, I’m sorry to see this day. Second, thank you not only for all the great football but also your support of people in Houston through those many years. You represented all of us so well and will not be forgotten.” – Fan Sig Christenson
Watt has been featured often on Hard Knocks this season, and it will interesting to see Wednesday’s episode. Might he have given a tip of what was to come?
Watt provided some hints on the show recently when he was driving and said, “There’s a reluctance at first to be that figure because you don’t want to admit you’re getting old. But then it just naturally happens and the progression comes along. The closer I get to the end, the more difficult it is to wrestle with the reality of how hard it is to win in this league. We’re going through this season and trust me I’ve gone through some very difficult years. But I do think that as you get closer to the end, it does become more difficult because you are much more understanding of how finite your opportunities are.”
He added, “My wife and I talk about this all the time because she’s a professional athlete as well. We have a very small window to do what we do. Other jobs in this world, you can do them for your whole life and then you decide when you retire. Our job is a job that you cannot physically do for your whole life unless you’ve got whatever serum Tom Brady’s got.
“I talk to her because she’s in a similar situation. If you want to play, go out and do it because this is an opportunity that unfortunately we won’t have forever, so you’ve got to take advantage of it while you can.”
The cameras caught Watt running sprints during practice as defensive coordinator Vance Joseph watched and said to linebacker Ezekiel Turner, “Look at J.J. getting those sprints. That’s what make him him, bro. He can’t keep still. In his mind, he’s still a walk-on. First ballot, bro. I was with him when we first drafted him in Houston. The work ethic was always there.”
Showing the care he has for others, Watt addressed the team during the practice week and said, “In your meeting rooms, we’re gonna have a sheet for the holiday gifts for the people in our building. We have a lot of people that take care of us every single day. People wash our clothes, people cook our food. They clean up after us, janitors. Try and take care of those people.
“Please take it seriously and when you’re thinking about what you’re gonna put down, think about all the shit that we don’t have to do because of the people that do it for us. Unload the plane for us at 3 am when we land from Mexico. Cleaning our shit so it’s ready for the next day and all the money we’re able to make because they help us do what we need to do.”
After another disheartening game in the current five-game losing streak, he spelled out the omnipresent reality to the team in the locker room.
“I can’t stand up here and tell you it doesn’t suck; it sucks. It’s brutal,” he said. “What I do have respect for is everybody busting their balls. I appreciate the work. I appreciate the willingness to come in every day and be the man and go about your work and go about your business even when we all know what the situation is. Don’t lose that. You gotta try and get better each fuckin’ day.
“Please. Like for yourself and for us as a team. Both equally. Because right now, the reality of the situation is you’re also doing shit for next season. Because the unfortunate reality is that we’re not fuckin’ going to the playoffs. So take care of yourselves. Study. And don’t fuckin’ let up. Hit the weight room, hit the books. It’s not time to pack it in. It’s time to work and put yourself in a better situation.”
He is also always available for the team’s young players.
He said, “We got young guys that are eager to learn who want to get better, who want to improve and they ask questions and if there’s something I can do to help their progression go faster so they can skip some steps along the way, I’d love to do that.”
And he does. There was one interaction he had with rookie linebacker Cameron Thomas.
Watt told Thomas, “It is a mental game, but at the end of the day, remember it’s fuckin’ physical and if you’re out of options and if you don’t know what to do, run somebody over. It’s practice. If you fuck up in practice and get yelled at; I got yelled at.”
He then laid out what his rookie season was like after being selected by the Texans in the first round of the 2011 draft. That was the year of the lockout and there was no offseason program. The lockout ended as training camp was beginning.
“I got yelled at all the time,” he recalled. “I hated football for like the first eight games of my rookie year. I sucked; I was just bad. I wasn’t doing great, I wasn’t pass rushing great. I had a rough game, a really rough game. I got pulled from the game three times because I was a 3-technqiue and I got cut out of my gap three times, so they finally took me out of the game.
“The d-line coach told the trainer, ‘Take his helmet away. I don’t want him going back in.’ And I was just sitting there, like (thinking) ‘I’m a first-round pick.’”
The epiphany came that night when he said, “I was like, you know what, I’m a good player, I know what I’m doing, I know how to play football. I’m trying to please everybody and take every step right and take every hand right. There’s a reason I got here because I know what I’m doing. So the next day, I kinda said, ‘I’m sucking already so why not suck doing it my way?’ And I was so much more free and I was so much more trusting myself and just playing football.
“It was like a weight had been lifted off me. I didn’t care if I got yelled at because I was already getting yelled at. I already sucked. If they’re going to cut me, they’ll cut me, but I’m at least going to know I did it my way.”
His final message to Thomas was a prescient one: “The No. 1 thing you got to remember is that you also have strength. Never talk yourself out of being successful. So, you have a great bull rush and just because this guy is good against it, doesn’t mean you can’t win with it. I’m in Year 12; I’m still learning. You’re on the right path.”
Many players and people find themselves on the right path and J.J. Watt is a big reason why.
Don’t hesitate to comment or ask questions on Twitter @hbalzer721 or email me: firstname.lastname@example.org