T.J. Watt’s football career hasn’t always been easy. The former Wisconsin linebacker lost two seasons to injury and had to abruptly switch positions from tight end to linebacker midway through his collegiate career.
All of this occurred while his brother J.J. was dominating opposing NFL offenses with his relentless defensive play for the Houston Texans, and his brother Derek was selected by the San Diego Chargers to play fullback.
It would be easy to assume that the Pewaukee, Wisconsin native could be frustrated or even a bit resentful, but that’s not how the Watt family works. Setbacks are simply speed bumps on the long road to playing professional football. And T.J. might be better off overcoming them.
Setback After Setback
T.J. was a Jack of all trades for the Pewaukee High School football team. He played tight end, linebacker, quarterback and punter, receiving accolades for his performance at each position.
He was also a top shot put thrower. “We all threw shot put in high school. J.J. broke my dad’s school record and then Derek came along and he claims he threw further than J.J., but he didn’t because he scratched at the state finals,” T.J. recalls. “I came along and I broke everyone’s records.”
T.J. entered his first collegiate season as a highly touted tight end prospect, and he was prepared to continue the Watt family legacy at Wisconsin; both of his brothers also played for the Badgers.
However, things did not go as planned. T.J. suffered a patellar subluxation in both of his knees on two separate occasions. A patellar subluxation is a dislocation of the knee cap that knocks it out of its natural position.
“The first time it happened, it was four or five months of recovery,” T.J. says. “I was dreading it and I wasn’t attacking it with the right mindset. The second time it came around, I knew what to expect so I did a lot of prehab beforehand. I just handled it the right way. I wasn’t walking around on it and I always had my brace on and it only took me three months.”
At that point, T.J.’s coach suggested that he switch to linebacker to help save his knees and his football career. The decision paid off. During the 2015 season, T.J. played in 13 games as he learned how to play the position. In 2016, he started every game and logged 63 tackles and 15.5 tackles for a loss. After playing defense for only 18 months, he is now considered a top linebacker prospect in the 2017 NFL Draft.
“I’m just kind of scratching the surface of what I can do and what I’m capable of, but I credit a lot of that to having this surgery,” T.J. says. “As much as it’s a downer to go through two knee surgeries that aren’t great, and it’s not promising even to come back a hundred percent, it definitely made me stronger and made me realize how much I love the game of football, because it can be taken away at any point in time.”
Training and Competing
T.J.’s first workout experience was similar to many other American kids—the Presidential physical fitness tests. But unlike most kids, T.J. actually trained for it.
“My dad would have a pull-up bar in the basement and we’d be doing Pull-Ups getting ready for the Presidential physical fitness test,” he says.” I think Derek, J.J. and I still have some records.”
Once he got to high school and was playing football and throwing shot put, he got more serious with his training. He began to work out with Brad Arnett at NX Level, a top performance training facility in Waukesha, where his older brothers also trained.
“I would do that workout four times a week and then in the offseason. I would work out NX Level four times a week as well,” T.J. recalls. “I’d go to school, work out at NX Level and then I’d go to track practice right after. So it was pretty hectic. When I got home, I had to eat right after that because it was kind of hard to get meals in.”
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To some, this may seem like a grind or an unpleasantly busy schedule that would not be worth the effort. But like his brothers, T.J. relishes the work that’s required to become a better athlete.
“I truly just love putting on the pads, going out there and practicing. I love the process,” he says. “I’m not here just to play games and make big plays. I’m here to do it in practice and improve myself as a real player.”
Along his journey, T.J. had two older brothers who were years ahead of him on the football field and in the weight room. Yes, they were stronger and more experienced, but T.J. was always trying to surpass them.
“I just love competition. It doesn’t have to be football. It can be running the 40-Yard Dash or anything,” T.J. says. “It doesn’t have to be sports-related. I just have so much fun, me versus you, my team versus your team, let’s see who is better.”
This strong competitive spirit still exists among the brothers. For last year’s Super Bowl, T.J. traveled to J.J.’s house to watch the game, and an epic pool volleyball game broke out.
“We were starting to spike the ball in each other’s faces and my dad had to calm us down after a little bit,” he says. “But anything we do, it always just turns into a really good competition.”
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Carrying on the Watt Legacy
J.J. set the tone for his brothers. He’s a physical force on the field, plays with relentless effort and is dedicated to improving his athleticism with training and nutrition.
One might think that T.J. will have a difficult time matching the qualities that make J.J. such an exceptional athlete. However, his rare mindset and approach to football were instilled by his family at an early age.
“[My parents] didn’t have college degrees. My mom worked her way up from the bank all the way up to vice president of her independent inspections company, and my dad has been a firefighter for 25-plus years,” T.J. says. “We saw what hard work did for them and how successful they were over time. I think it just showed us the blue collar mentality to come in and work our butts off. We weren’t the big 5-star recruits. We came in, we understood we weren’t going to play right away our freshman year. We trusted the process, and once we got on the field, we were just so hungry to show people what we can do. That’s why we love making plays.”
So far, T.J. is proving doubters wrong. Despite his relatively brief defense experience, he’s projected to be a top linebacker selection in the 2017 NFL Draft. You could even argue that he posted better scores than J.J. at the NFL Scouting Combine.
Beyond game film and numbers on a test, T.J. is likely garnering additional attention from coaches and scouts for the one quality that the Watt brothers are famous for: Their “motor.”
“The non-stop motor . . . people are going to say that about me throughout this draft process, as they said it for J.J. too. As cheesy, as corny, as cliché as it sounds, it’s the truth,” T.J. says. “We play with the same non-stop motor because we love football. If that football is in play, we’re going to find the ball and we’re going to make the play.”
T.J. takes pride in being compared to his brothers and sharing the traits that make J.J. and Derek successful athletes. But he’s ready to come out of their shadow and make his mark on the NFL after he hears his name called in the NFL Draft, which he plans to watch at home with the people close to him.
“It’s going to be insane. I’ve seen it twice with my two brothers firsthand. For this whole experience to be my turn, it’s so surreal to me because I’ve wanted this for so long,” he says. “And to finally be my turn . . . it’s incredible and I think that day is going to be probably the best day of my life.”