WHITE SULPHUR SPRINGS, W.Va. — Nearly a year ago, the scalpel sliced into his back.
For two months, J.J. Watt couldn't run, couldn't lift, couldn't even think about getting into a three-point stance. He couldn't drive an offensive tackle into his quarterback's lap with a gritty bull rush. He couldn't make his helmet cut into the bridge of his nose until blood ran down both sides of his face.
While his teammates carried on in Houston, Watt was stuck at home in Wisconsin. For the first time since he was in fifth grade, he couldn't be a slave to a football season's routine.
There were two things he could do, his doctor said—walk and lie down. So for two months, he walked. And walked and walked. Every day, on the side of a road he went six miles one way, then six miles back. Past dried-out cornfields, up and down hilly streets, over orange and red leaves.
Watt's mind moved faster than his feet. He thought about everything that happened in his life, how he got here, why he was here, where he was going. He asked himself questions. Can I live without football? What would it be like if I never played again? What really matters to me?
J.J. Watt never would be the same. But not in the ways you might expect.
Watt never has looked better in a bathing suit. At least that's what sources close to him say.
It makes sense, though. Watt is leaner than ever. He weighs the same as he used to, about 285 pounds, but his body fat is below 10 percent. In the past, it would get as high as 13 percent.
He has not, however, lost any strength, according to his longtime trainer Brad Arnett of NX Level in Waukesha, Wisconsin.
"This is the best running, conditioning and recovery shape he's ever been in," Arnett told Bleacher Report recently.
Watt's workouts have changed. Flipping 1,000-pound tires is out. So are power cleans, hang cleans and snatches. For squats, he's using a belt loaded with weight around his hips instead of a barbell across his shoulders. There is more work with kettlebells, medicine balls and sleds.
"There is no less effort, no less work involved," Watt said last month while sitting in a white wicker chair on a deck overlooking the Allegheny Mountains near the site of the Texans' training camp facility. "It's just working smarter, making sure the risks are as low as possible. When you are on the field playing, there isn't a whole lot you can do. But in the weight room, I can control things."
Texans doctors held out Watt from some practices at the Greenbrier this summer. Whenever he did practice, his production, effort and energy were noticeable, according to defensive coordinator Mike Vrabel.
In three preseason games, he played a total of 14 snaps. Against the Patriots, he looked very familiar, blasting past center David Andrews to tackle Rex Burkhead for a loss of two. He showed enough for his coaches to believe he is ready to return to form when the Texans open the season against the Jaguars on Sunday.
Texans head coach Bill O'Brien told The MMQB's Peter King he thinks Watt will be better than he was before the injury.
Vrabel said this: "I would never put expectations on a player of J.J.'s caliber because they would potentially fall far short of what he may end up doing."
In the small of Watt's back is a thin, vertical scar, about a couple of inches long. It's a reminder of the herniated disc that needed to be repaired twice, and of one terrible year. In the same 12-month stretch, he also broke his hand, tore two ab muscles, tore three groin muscles and had a staph infection.
If Watt never played another down, he probably would be a first-ballot Hall of Famer. He was named NFL Defensive Player of the Year three times in his first five seasons. The only other player in history with three Defensive Player of the Year awards is Lawrence Taylor.
So why does he keep doing this?
In an article Watt wrote in the Players' Tribune, entitled, "Am I Done?" Watt acknowledged he considered retiring during some of his dark days of rehab. Now, he won't even think about when that day might come. Watt somehow has managed to become more aware of his vulnerabilities but less concerned with his football mortality.
Some players who go through what Watt did might begin to give more priority to their physical well-being. They might begin wondering what their quality of life will be like at 60, or if their thoughts will be scrambled at 50.
Watt, the son of a firefighter and grandson of a war veteran, refuses to let his mind go there.
"We all understand what we get into," Watt said. "A firefighter understands he probably is going to have to run into a burning building. A soldier understands he's going to have to get shot at. Football is a very violent game, but the reward has been high enough that the risk is mitigated."
Despite how high he has climbed, there are more mountains, bigger mountains, waiting. Of course there is a championship. But the goals he focuses on are more organic.
"It's striving the best to be the best every day," Watt said. "I know it's boring, but it's true."
And if he is the best he can be every day, he knows dominoes—and quarterbacks—will fall.
"You see a lot of people who have one great season," he said. "The fun of it is being able to do it very, very well for a very long time. Stringing seasons together is difficult. When I won my first Defensive Player of the Year, I didn't say, 'That's it, I won it.' I said, 'Now I want to win another.' Once I got the second, I wanted a third. There is not a number that would make me satisfied. There is not a sack number that would make me satisfied. Never have I ended a season and said, 'Good job, you don't need to top that.'"
Watt, 28, has so much ahead of him. If he plays another six years and accomplishes what he accomplished in his first six years, he will have eight All-Pro honors and 152 sacks.
"If you aren't trying to be the greatest of all time," Watt said, "then why are you doing it?"
If you aren't trying to be the greatest of all time, then why are you doing it? — J.J. Watt
Watt has talked like this before. But now, he said, there is a "brand-new fire." There is no need to verbalize—it's there in his icy blue eyes.
Since his setback, Watt can see beyond the next snap.
"Now he understands he can't just be in the moment," Arnett said. "He looks at the big picture."
Part of the big picture is there isn't anything Watt enjoys as much as being part of a football team. Watt begins every day with four-square games with teammates. They dive and accuse each other of cheating. And they laugh like kids.
"I'm having a ton of fun," Watt said. "I love it. I do love it. It's a blast out here. I'm really, really enjoying it. We have a great group of guys. Practice is fun, especially when you are a part of a really good defense."
It's a blast out here. I'm really, really enjoying it. We have a great group of guys. Practice is fun, especially when you are a part of a really good defense. — J.J. Watt
In Watt's absence last season, a few of his young defensive teammates stepped up. Watt is enthusiastic about being able to be a part of a Texans defense that allowed the fewest yards in the NFL in 2016 and rushing the passer alongside improved Jadeveon Clowney and Whitney Mercilus.
As a seventh-year veteran who has experienced the full gamut of NFL life, he finds fulfillment in passing along lessons to younger teammates. He organizes extra work for the defensive line after practice, and he takes teammates in the film room for more study. He gives and takes with them, knowing full well they all can't be wired like he is.
"It's cool to have young minds who want to soak up some of the knowledge you want to give them, and I try to give as much as I can," he said. "I've always tried to have that, but I think it's coming to fruition even more now with everything I've gone through."
Watt missed not being able to put an arm around a young player and tell him there's a better way. He missed the locker room shenanigans. He missed getting the chills when he's coming out of the tunnel.
"I definitely appreciate it more now," he said. "I appreciate my teammates, my coaches, the camaraderie, the competition. I love this game so much, and you learn how much you really love it when it's taken away."
Perspective comes easy to Watt. It has come easier than ever since he felt that pain in his back.
He has taken advantage of his fame as much as any NFL player. When he sees Arnold Schwarzenegger, he gets a bro-hug and Hollywood advice. He sits courtside at a Rockets game and gets almost as much face time on the videoboard as James Harden. He found out his little brother T.J. had a big game for the Steelers from Kendrick Lamar's text.
The price he pays is privacy and freedom. Between his height—6'5"—and his omnipresence—Papa John's, anyone? Gatorade? Verizon?—Watt is recognized wherever he goes. At times, he said, he has allowed fame to become a bigger burden than it should have been.
Something has changed though.
"I'm trying to do more in public and not let it affect me," Watt said. "I've realized the positives of the situation I'm in far outweigh the negatives. I'll take having to spend a couple minutes to sign autographs and take pictures in return for everything that comes along with this."
If he gets annoyed, he just thinks back to 17 years ago when he visited Packers training camp and held out a white T-shirt for a player—any player—to sign.
"I remember what it was like to be that kid who looks up to the NFL player, to be that fan who buys the jerseys, to be somebody who sits in the stands and cheers," he said. "I always have to remember I'm somebody's favorite player and I want to be the best player I can be for that person. I want to be the best person and role model I can be for that kid.
"There are millions of kids looking up to us and seeing how we conduct ourselves. I'm always doing everything I can to provide the best example for them."
The new version of Watt has a clearer understanding of his place in the universe. Having football temporarily taken away helped him see he lacked balance in his life.
"There was a point where the scales were tipped one way," he said. "I've worked hard to make them more balanced. You need to make sacrifices if you want to be great at whatever you do—football, business, whatever. I try to be the best at everything I do, but you can't. I have a lot better balance than I used to. The more I grow up, the better I get."
Before his surgeries, Watt acted in movies—Billy Lynn's Long Halftime Walk and Bad Moms. He did a skit on Jimmy Kimmel, hosted the CMT Awards and appeared on The League and New Girl. He probably led the NFL in endorsements.
Not anymore. At least not now.
John Caplin, who handles Watt's marketing for CAA, said there have been many offers in the past year, but he has been a "rubber stamp of no." Watt still invested time in designing his own line of shoes and workout apparel for Reebok and his own line of dress shirts for Mizzen+Main. He enjoys that. But he has cut out much.
"I have gotten good at minimalizing unnecessary things in life," Watt said. "I've gotten better at prioritizing what's important. I'm learning to pick and choose what matters."
What matters? Family and friends matter. Watt spent more time this offseason around his fire pit than ever before.
Kealia Ohai matters. She is the lovely captain for the Houston Dash, a professional soccer team. And she is Watt's girlfriend. She helped him through his back ordeal; he is helping her through ACL rehab. A relationship like theirs would not have worked with the old J.J. Now, he makes the time. He said he is trying to share more and listen better.
Charity matters. It always did, but now more than ever. This year Watt has been more involved than ever in the day-to-day affairs of the J.J. Watt Foundation. And when Hurricane Harvey hit Houston, Watt, as Watt will do, found a way to take his commitment to another level.
Floods prevented the Texans from flying back to Houston after their game in New Orleans on Aug. 26, so they went to Dallas. The next day, Watt was stuck in his room at the Marriott Los Colinas with nothing to do but watch the hurricane overwhelm his city.
He thought about the power of his fame—4 million Twitter followers, his 2.7 million Instagram followers and his 2 million Facebook followers. Then he did some research. He looked into crowdsourcing websites with low fees. He found one he liked—YouCaring.com. On his own, he set up an account with the website. He composed a speech, held his mobile phone at arm's length and hit the red dot.
JJ Watt @JJWatt
Recovery efforts from Hurricane Harvey will be massive. We must come together to help rebuild our communities. https://t.co/SR6DmnNbyM https://t.co/iiMsG2i4dl2017-8-27 21:28:07
I'm sitting here watching the news and checking the internet and seeing everything that's going on with Hurricane Harvey and the damage it's causing back home. It's very difficult, very difficult. Not only because we have families and friends back there—some guys have young kids, some guys have wives and families. But that's our city. It's very tough to watch our city get hit with such a bad storm and not be there to help. Not be there to help with the recovery, not be there to help with the process. It's very tough. So what I want to do is start a fundraiser, because I know these recovery efforts are going to be massive.
Watt's goal was $200,000, and he offered to match the first $100,000 in donations. That was achieved in less than two hours. In a few hours, YouCaring's website crashed because it was overloaded with traffic. Watt couldn't find a contact at the website who could help, so he called a Silicon Valley friend who knew how to get in touch with the entrepreneurs behind YouCaring. The website soon was humming again, and after Watt did interviews with CNN, CNN International and CBS This Morning, the donations kept streaming in.
As he has in football, Watt kept setting new, seemingly unattainable goals. Within 24 hours, $500,000 was raised. Four days later, Watt had raised $6 million, with help from a $1 million donation from Titans owner Amy Adams Strunk, $50,000 from Jaguars running back Leonard Fournette and $50,000 from Rockets guard Chris Paul. The total reached $18.5 million in one week. Watt oversaw the distribution of 10 semitrucks of donated supplies Sunday and had yet to spend a cent of the $18.5 million. He said that he had been in contact with some of the organizations that helped rebuild New Orleans after Hurricane Katrina and that his commitment to help rebuild Houston was long-term.
All of this makes Watt the preseason favorite to win NFL Man of the Year, and he should be considered an early front-runner, too, of course, for Comeback Player of the Year and Defensive Player of the Year—which would make for an unprecedented triple crown.
Watt is more than a football player. He is a community healer. He is a designer. Maybe he is the next Terminator. Whatever he is, he is because of football.
"With everything that's happened, I learned this—aside from my family and friends, football is the reason people care about me," Watt said. "I'm OK with that. I understand the dynamic. So it all boils down to if I'm going to be any good as a football player again. People don't care how nice of a guy you are, how funny you are. They care about how good you are as a football player."
He talked for quite a while about the changes in him as he overlooked the Allegheny Mountains, and he could have kept talking. But the afternoon sun was beating down on a grass field. Sleds were there to be pushed, kettlebells to be swung, medicine balls to be thrown.
There is a new level of greatness to chase.
This is the new J.J. Watt.
Dan Pompei covers the NFL for Bleacher Report. Follow him on Twitter: @danpompei.