'My Turn': T.J. Watt Ready to Show the NFL He's Not Just J.J.'s Little Brother

Dan PompeiNFL ColumnistApril 24, 2017

Wisconsin linebacker T.J. Watt, left, celebrates with fans after an NCAA college football game against Iowa, Saturday, Oct. 22, 2016, in Iowa City, Iowa. Wisconsin won 17-9. (AP Photo/Charlie Neibergall)
Charlie Neibergall/Associated Press

The instruction is to run a simple "fives drill"—move five yards in four different directions, and then finish with a sprint. But as J.J. Watt, Derek Watt and T.J. Watt line up and banter, it is apparent this will not be a drill. It will be a race—an all-out, maximum-effort race. 

J.J. is in the lead as they near the end of the sprint. But then T.J. has a burst, and he dives across the finish line to edge out his brother. T.J. beats his chest. J.J. wants a do-over.

It's March, months and months from when the real competition begins for NFLers, and this is how the Brothers Watt are going at it, as if gold medals are on the line.

Brad Arnett, their trainer at NX Level Athletics in Waukesha, Wisconsin, deals with it every time he has the brothers in the gym. He has to allow about 45 extra minutes for his workouts because of their competitions.

"We will compete in anything you can think of," Derek says. "Who can jump the highest wearing the vert bands? Who can run the fastest in 20-yard sprints? Get the stopwatch out. Who can touch the most light-up discs in 30 seconds? Who can jump farthest in the sand pit? Who can lift the most?"

When T.J. returned from his combine workout, Derek and J.J. looked at him like he was fresh meat. They challenged him to a 10-yard sprint.

"I kicked both of their butts," T.J. says. "They were really sore losers about it because they had been training for weeks without me there, and I beat them my first day back. They probably won't admit it happened. The video was deleted because they were embarrassed."

The point of all this? To prove who is best, of course.

And people who know the Watts will tell you T.J. is the best athlete in the family. That is, he is a better athlete than Derek, the fullback for the Chargers. And yes, a better athlete than J.J., the defensive end for the Texans and perhaps the greatest football player alive.

"When you look at that from a standpoint of measurables—how high you can jump, how fast you can run, change of direction-type stuff, catching balls, soft hands, versatility—T.J. has always been more natural, smoother in doing a lot of things," says Arnett, who has trained them all for years.

At the combine, T.J. finished in the top three among linebackers in the vertical jump (37"), broad jump (128"), short shuttle (4.13 seconds) and three-cone drill (6.79 seconds).

David J. Phillip/Associated Press

He was so good at baseball that he played on his brother Derek's Pewaukee Junior Pirates team through grammar school, even though he was the youngest on the roster by two years. The Watt boys all were hockey stars, but T.J. is the best skater of the family. "It's crazy how good of a skater he was," their father, John Watt, says.

And T.J. is a pretty fair football player, too. In high school, he was dominant playing four positions: tight end, linebacker, quarterback and punter. After one season as a starter at Wisconsin, he has been projected by some, including B/R's Matt Miller, to be a late first-round pick.

Former NFL general manager Charley Casserly believes even that projection is underrating T.J.

"I'm not sure what's not to like about the guy," says Casserly, now an analyst for NFL Network. "He's got a motor. He plays the run. He can move forward well. He's strong and explosive. He has athletic ability. He has instincts and he finds the football. He does not look unnatural playing off the ball."

The Cowboys, Redskins and Broncos have brought T.J. in for visits. The Cowboys and Redskins have also come to see him in Wisconsin, as have the Dolphins, 49ers, Lions, Panthers, Patriots and Saints.

"T.J. is just scratching the surface over what he can do over the next five or 10 years," his father says. "If you want to see somebody blow up, it's going to be him. His ceiling is crazy high."

How did T.J. Watt's ceiling get so high? The answer, as you could guess watching him with his brothers, is that he has learned well from the people around him.

Grandpa Watt

To understand T.J. Watt, you have to go back to a scaffolding high above the city of Chicago in the early 1940s. That's where Jim Watt made his living washing windows on the tallest downtown high-rises, buildings like the Chicago Board of Trade and the Wrigley Building. He once dangled on the side of a tower for several hours after the ropes on one side of the platform had given way.

After punching the clock at the end of the day, Jim Watt did not return to his home on the South Side of Chicago. He went to a tavern, perhaps to forget what it felt like to have his scaffolding sway in the wind 40 stories above the ground.

When he finally made his way home after closing time, his son James Watt was there to make sure he was OK and help him to bed. He was just a kid, but even then little James was always looking out for the people closest to him.

After serving in the Korean War, James became an appliance repairman for Westinghouse, and then an area service manager. In the late 1960s, he moved his family from the South Side of Chicago to a sprawling suburb of Milwaukee.

It was James who lit the family flame that now burns brighter than ever.

In Pewaukee, James became known as "Grandpa Watt." He was the grandfather of T.J., Derek, J.J. and their two cousins, but he acted like he was the grandfather of every kid in Pewaukee, taking his place on the sidelines of any youth sporting event in town and looking out for all his boys and girls.

He didn't just watch the games of his own grandkids. "He was at every single one of my games and practices," T.J. says. "Even when it was 30 degrees and snowing."

When health problems prevented Grandpa Watt from taking his folding chair from his car and walking to the edge of the practice fields, the high school coaches let him drive his car on a closed path so he could watch from his car.

Grandpa Watt died a little more than three years ago, but his spirit is very much alive.

"He taught me to treat everyone with respect," T.J. says. "I'll take that with me forever. Always try to put a smile on someone's face."

Grandpa Watt was the kind of man everyone wished was their grandfather. And now T.J. is the kind of player every coach would like to have.

John Watt

If you ever should meet T.J.'s father, you will understand where the Watt boys get their size from. He is nearly as tall as J.J. and T.J. (6'5") and weighs about the same as J.J. (290s). At 54, though, he jokes that his weight is distributed a little differently.

In 1980, John, the youngest son of Grandpa Watt, set the Pewaukee High record with a shot put of 54'5½". Twenty-seven years later, J.J. beat his father's record and won state with a put of 59'11¾". And three years after that, Derek won the state title with a throw of 57'5". On his final attempt, Derek threw it 60', but he was disqualified because his foot hit the toeboard.

Next up was T.J. in 2013. His throw went 60'6" to win state and set a new school record.

More importantly, he beat the throws of dad, J.J. and Derek.

John began training his son to shot put when T.J. was in the seventh grade. On so many Saturdays and Sundays, John and T.J. would take the three-block drive to the high school track and throw and throw and throw.

John had his youngest son working out since T.J. was in third grade, running a mile on the track, hill training and exercising in the basement—pull-ups, push-ups, bench presses, curls and more. When Horizon Elementary administered the Presidential Physical Fitness Test, T.J. was ready to blow away the other kids. And he did.

What John, a Waukesha firefighter for 28 years before retiring three years ago, taught T.J. more than anything was how to work.

"My father instilled in me to always work as hard as I can, and if I do I can accomplish whatever I want," T.J. says. "It's because he sees the potential in me. He always has."

Says Arnett: "You never see him take a rep off, never take a break. He's applied that to his workouts, his effort on the field and everything related to the game. It's disciplined—the same way all the time. From a consistency standpoint, the kid is second to none."

Connie Watt

The square fire pit in the Watt's backyard sits in the middle of a brick patio. It is surrounded by brick benches and pillars. The Watt family plays spoons and makes s'mores there.

It's around that pit that they center themselves.

They were sitting around it one day recently, doing things families do: taunting, laughing, playing games, reminiscing, dreaming, bickering.

While the boys made noise, Connie Watt buzzed around them, tidying up the yard and putting things in place. She would not, could not, cease.

"Nonstop motor," T.J. said of his mother, echoing the words that many scouts have said about him.

Every solid family has a backbone. In the Watt family, it is Connie. "She is the driving force," her husband says. "None of us could do what we do without her."

As a young mother, she went to work for a building inspection company as a secretary. When she left the company a few years back to run J.J.'s charitable foundation, she was a vice president.

Having a career did not prevent her from making sure the boys had a hot breakfast every morning. Or from packing peanut butter and jelly sandwiches for them to eat between classes. Or from serving the family two dinners every night—one at about 4:30, and another at about 8.

Having a career also didn't prevent her from keeping T.J. and his brothers on task. When his friends were sleeping until 11 or 12 on summer mornings, T.J. was expected to be awake no later than 8:30. That meant going to bed early too.

Before summer breaks started, Connie asked teachers what T.J. and his brothers would be studying in the fall. Then she would come up with assignments to prepare them. On most summer nights, T.J. had an hour or two of schoolwork to do.

From the time he was three years old, T.J. was assigned chores. As he grew, he was responsible for cutting a third of the lawn, taking out the garbage, doing the laundry and putting it away, and loading and unloading the dishwasher. The Watts had a three-bathroom house, and each of the boys was assigned to keeping one of them clean.

T.J. and his brothers were also taught to put their share in the collection basket. Part of their allowance went to charity, and they regularly raked and shoveled for people in the neighborhood who needed help.

If young T.J. ever stepped out of line, he wasn't T.J. anymore to his mother. He became "Trent Jordan."

Now, he is "maintenance free," Connie says. T.J. still makes sure he eats right and gets plenty of sleep. He keeps a tidy house. He gives back.

And he says, "Thanks mom."

Derek Watt

Early in his high school days, T.J. had his dreams. But like a lot of kids at that age, he was looking for the easiest way to achieve them. He really didn't get it.

Physically, he had shot up but had yet to fill out. "The Spider," they called him.

Then Derek went to Wisconsin. He told T.J. how different the expectations were from high school.

"He said I had to start treating myself like a collegiate athlete even though I was still in high school," T.J. says.

Watching Derek ramp up his workouts and tailor his approach left an impression on young T.J. He would have to do the same.

Over his last two years of high school, T.J. came into his own. He filled out physically and applied himself like never before.

It wasn't the first time T.J. had benefitted from following Derek's lead. He played on Derek's big boy teams, and he also competed with Derek and his friends in almost anything you could compete in.

"We would try to win at anything—baseball, football, basketball, track, rollerblading, hockey in the court in front of our yard, trying to do our chores the fastest," Derek says. "It came down sometimes to a little bit of dirty play. We did what we needed to do to win. And he held his own."

As is the case with most brothers who are close in age, Derek and T.J. had their scrapes. There were bruises, both on bodies and egos.

Sometimes, the baby of the family is the softest. Given the challenges Derek presented, that wasn't going to be the case with the youngest Watt.

The sibling rivalry faded when T.J. followed Derek to Wisconsin and they became roommates. Derek looked out for T.J. They watched tape with together, and Derek gave him pointers. They bonded to the point it was difficult for T.J. when Derek left for the West Coast after being drafted by the Chargers.

"My dad always would tell us when we grew up that we were going to love each other," T.J. says. "He was right."

J.J. Watt

When T.J. was a freshman in high school, his mother wanted to know why he had done poorly on a test.

"Well," T.J. said, "I'm not J.J."

J.J. almost always aced his tests. And at the time, he also was a breakout star at Wisconsin.

All T.J. ever heard about was J.J. this, J.J. that. If T.J. was given a promotion on a team, it was because he was J.J.'s brother. If he didn't do something very well, he was not living up to J.J.'s impossible standard.

During this time of T.J.'s life, being J.J.'s kid brother was a burden. Admittedly, T.J. was envious. "My excuse for everything was 'I'm sorry, I'm not J.J.,'" T.J. says. "I didn't know how to handle my brother's success. Anything I did wrong, I blamed on that. It was immaturity, not owning up to my actions."

If T.J. were to fail, he would be the first and only Watt boy to underachieve.

"That," his father says, "is a big motivation in T.J.'s life."

Now that T.J. is no longer a boy, there is another aspect to being J.J.'s younger brother.

T.J. watched J.J. struggle to make it as a college tight end. Then he watched him walk away from his free ride at Central Michigan and walk on at Wisconsin in order to play defense. He watched him make deliveries and mop floors for Pizza Hut to have some cash for kicking around. And then he watched him become the 11th pick of the 2011 draft and a three-time NFL Defensive Player of the Year.

So when Wisconsin coach Paul Chryst asked T.J. to switch positions from tight end to defense two years ago, T.J. never blinked. After all, he had watched J.J. do it.

"I have a role model who is a text away," T.J. says. "J.J. is the person I go to about anything in life. To have him as my older brother is awesome. He has done everything I hope to achieve. It's an inspiration."

T.J. does a lot of things J.J. does. T.J. lived with J.J. for the past couple of months. In addition to working out together, they shopped for groceries and cooked together. T.J. adopted J.J.'s diet—chicken, steak, pasta and rice every day. Neither of them is much of a drinker, and they don't party on the weekends.

"We're really two peas in a pod," T.J. says. "We click. We think the same way."

J.J. has been, is and probably always will be a towering presence in his baby brother's life. He understands how dark it can be in his shadow. He wants his little brother to have his own moment at draft time.

Holding T.J. up against the highest possible standard, J.J., could have diminished his draft stock. They have not. Instead of seeing how dissimilar the brothers are, talent evaluators have noted how similar they are. J.J. has about 40 pounds on the 252-pound T.J., but both are defined by aggressiveness, hustle and tenacity.

One scout told Bob McGinn of the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel that he gave T.J. a higher grade than he gave J.J. in 2011. "He's so similar to me, but he's farther along than I was at that point in the process," J.J. said when he met the Houston media at the start of offseason workouts. "He's a lot better player than I was at that time, and he has a lot more to grow even than I had."

T.J. wouldn't be who he is without Grandpa Watt. Or without mom and dad and Derek. And of course he would not be who he is without J.J.

But this isn't about J.J. anymore. It's about T.J.

Last summer, there was a cookout for family and friends at J.J.'s house. In between games of a bags tournament, Arnett and T.J. had a seat around the fire pit that mom and dad had built at J.J.'s house. The smell of steaks, burgers, brats and chicken on the grill was in the air.

T.J. was coming off a season in which he made just seven tackles. He'd missed the season before that because of one of the two knee surgeries he had during his time at Wisconsin. And the season before that was a redshirt year. All that time, his brothers had been making big plays.

"I'm tired of waiting my turn," he told Arnett. "I want it to be my time."

Andy Manis/Associated Press

T.J. and Arnett came up with a plan for training, nutrition, recovery and sleeping. Then T.J. went out and recorded 11.5 sacks and 15.5 tackles for a loss. He was voted first-team All-Big Ten and first-team All-American by Sports Illustrated.

He lived up to the family name and showed what he had learned from those around him.

But of course, the goal isn't to be as good as his brothers. The goal is to be better.

Dan Pompei covers the NFL for Bleacher Report. Follow him on Twitter: @danpompei.

Related

    Brady Is the GOAT, and It's Not Even Close

    NFL logo
    NFL

    Brady Is the GOAT, and It's Not Even Close

    Mike Freeman
    via Bleacher Report

    Tom Brady Misses Media Session for Treatment

    NFL logo
    NFL

    Tom Brady Misses Media Session for Treatment

    Alec Nathan
    via Bleacher Report

    NFL Requiring Reporters to Provide Race on SB Media Application

    NFL logo
    NFL

    NFL Requiring Reporters to Provide Race on SB Media Application

    Alec Nathan
    via Bleacher Report

    Infamous 'Index Card Ref' Will Officiate Super Bowl

    NFL logo
    NFL

    Infamous 'Index Card Ref' Will Officiate Super Bowl

    Rob Goldberg
    via Bleacher Report