Try to imagine J.J. Watt as "the guy from Pizza Hut." It almost happened.
It's amazing to think Watt was a shattered dream away from possibly being remembered as one of the best pass-rushing pizza delivery guys in the state of Wisconsin, rather than as one of the NFL's most dominating defensive linemen.
Before Watt was the award-winning, pass-deflecting, quarterback-eating, touchdown-scoring sackmaster NFL fans have grown to respect and admire, he was a guy who nearly had his football dreams turn to dust. He worked at a local Pizza Hut in Pewaukee, Wisconsin, after leaving a scholarship at Central Michigan.
Watt took the job before enrolling at Wisconsin, where he chose to play football as a walk-on. Either he was going to make it as an FBS-scholarship defensive end after leaving Central Michigan as an unsatisfied tight end, or he was going to be a statistic, someone who had a shot elsewhere but threw the opportunity away.
It was definitely a gamble. Needless to say, Watt gambled and won. In fact, he won big.
"It's been a long journey," Watt told USA Today in 2012, "but it's been a lot of fun."
The recruiting woes
Most of the football world now knows Watt as the 6'5", 289-pound dynamo who makes his living as a defensive end but also moonlights as a tight end, H-back or whatever other position he's called to play. John and Connie Watt, however, know him as the relatively shy Justin James Watt.
A member of the 2007 recruiting class, Watt was a fan of all sports growing up but especially loved playing hockey. He competed on youth travel teams before putting the stick down to focus on football, despite the fact that he was a tall, lanky athlete who weighed 220 pounds his junior year.
"He had an athletic body, but the muscle maturity wasn't quite there yet," said John Watt, J.J.'s father and a retired firefighter for 30 years who also served two years as a lieutenant paramedic. "After his junior year, you could see his body starting to catch up and get to a point where there certainly was some potential there."
But Watt didn't have the monster list of offers that some may assume. As it was, there wasn't a high demand for undersized defensive ends.
Clay Iverson knows. He coached at Pewaukee High School for seven years, including Watt's junior and senior years, and he saw Watt earn offers from schools such as Minnesota, Colorado, Wyoming and Northern Illinois before ultimately signing a letter of intent to Central Michigan.
"I think if anyone said they saw this coming, they should do some pre-NFL scouting—or, they're lying," Iverson said of Watt's pro career. "No one could have predicted he'd be one of the best football players in the world, but everything he told me, I never doubted. Everything he said came with a lot of hard work."
After finishing his junior year earning all-conference honors, mononucleosis robbed Watt of the chance to showcase his skills during the offseason entering his senior year. The recovery forced him to miss all of the multiple school camps and combines that would have given him the opportunities that some of his peers received.
"The end of his junior year, that was supposed to be his big opportunity," John Watt said. "He was told to take it easy or risk doing damage. [He] was kind of a dark horse, because coaches didn't get to see him. It was hard for J.J. to see some of the guys he knew get interest that he knew he should have gotten."
Connie Watt, J.J.'s mother, said that span between his junior and senior year "drove him crazy," but it also motivated him. For her, she was grateful that mononucleosis wasn't something more serious, but she noticed her son growing more and more impatient with every passing day.
"We originally thought it was leukemia. It was scary," said Connie, who runs Watt's charity, the J.J. Watt Foundation, which reaches out to schools with insufficient funding for after-school athletic programs.
"Recruiting was incredibly stressful and challenging for all of us. There were times I'd get up in the middle of the night, and he wasn't sleeping because he was worried about it. We kept telling him to stay positive and that things were out of his control. That was something he had to learn to accept."
Shining late in the process
Despite Watt's then-unremarkable dimensions, Iverson was struck by how his young lineman played bigger than his size.
"He was always very aggressive and always a very hard worker," Iverson said of Watt. "He had to fight through his growth spurt, but he was always aggressive. He had a knack for making the biggest plays in the biggest games. I don't know if you can coach that."
Watt, rated only a 2-star prospect in the 2007 class by both Rivals.com and Scout.com, was able to build his reputation by way of game film—and, in some cases, other teammates' game films. John Watt remembers a time when Iverson sent film out on another Pewaukee athlete, but the coaches "asked about that No. 9 kid." That kid was Watt.
Watt also shined in big games. He had a chance to line up against St. Frances High School and offensive tackle Josh Oglesby, the top-ranked player out of Wisconsin in the 2007 class and a 5-star prospect by Rivals.com. It ended up being one of Watt's best games—one that made a solid highlight tape.
Wyoming took notice and was the first school to make an offer. Though it came late in Watt's senior year, the offer helped to get a slow recruiting process going. Central Michigan was next to make an offer, followed by Minnesota, Northern Illinois and Colorado.
Watt committed to Central Michigan following an early December 2006 visit, as he was a fan of then-head coach Brian Kelly, who now is at Notre Dame. But days after Watt's pledge, Kelly took the head coaching job at Cincinnati.
Watt switched his commitment to Minnesota later in the month, as he had become a fan of head coach Glen Mason. On Dec. 31, however, Minnesota fired Mason, leaving Watt once again without the head coach he was expecting to see as a freshman. Watt ultimately recommitted to Central Michigan on Jan. 30, 2007, and played for then-new head coach Butch Jones, who is now at Tennessee.
Central Michigan, however, wasn't what Watt expected. For starters, he was playing out of position.
"They wanted to use him as a tight end, but they used a spread offense," John Watt recalled. "His freshman year only [saw him catch] eight passes. He said, 'This isn't what I signed up for.'"
Watt decided to leave Central Michigan, give up his scholarship and give things a shot at Wisconsin, a school he admired and cheered for as a young boy. It was a huge gamble, but it turned out to be one of the best moves he's ever made.
Perseverance trumps all
Watt decided to walk on at Wisconsin, but to do so, he had to ask his parents to pay for a year of tuition, and he also picked up a part-time job.
Presenting J.J. Watt, pizza delivery guy.
"It definitely gave him a look at what would happen if he didn't go to college," Connie Watt said. "It gave him the idea of working hard and show[ed] that it wasn't something he wanted to do his whole life."
"Seeing how much faith my parents put in me, knowing what it took for me to leave a scholarship, leave a MAC championship team [Central Michigan] and take a gamble, I would look like a fool if I was wrong," Watt told the Houston Chronicle back in 2012. "And I don't like looking like a fool."
Watt, who changed positions with the change in schools, knew if he didn't make it at Wisconsin, his football career was done. But he went from being a walk-on to being named the Badgers' defensive scout team player of the year as a defensive end in 2008.
He became a scholarship player who earned all-conference and All-American honors. He then decided to forgo his senior season and enter the 2011 NFL draft, where the Texans selected him with the 11th overall pick.
The rest is history.
"I don't know if anyone could've predicted that this is how it could go," Watt told JerryBarca.com before the draft. "It's been an unbelievable ride. I feel like I should ask myself, 'When am I going to wake up?'"
Watt's story, indeed, is one of perseverance.
"[He] always had lofty goals, but you never doubted him," Iverson said. "I've never seen a young man so committed and so quick to put all the foolishness around him on the back burner at such a young age.
"Whatever he has inside, it's what makes the special 'special.'"
Damon Sayles is a National Recruiting Analyst for Bleacher Report. All quotes were obtained firsthand unless otherwise noted. Follow Damon via Twitter: @DamonSayles.