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The Watt Legacy

T.J. Watt has long lived in the shadow of his All-Pro older brother. With the 2017 NFL draft approaching, he wants do more than just forge his own path — he has his sights set on outperforming J.J.

(Getty Images/Ringer illustration)
(Getty Images/Ringer illustration)

NX Level, the longtime offseason training facility of Wisconsin football’s first family, sits on a sparsely developed parcel of land in Waukesha, about 20 minutes south of the house where the Watt brothers grew up. The lobby of owner Brad Arnett’s 43,000-square-foot fitness cathedral is filled with memorabilia commemorating his most famous client. Magazine covers featuring J.J. Watt’s face dot the walls. A collection of jerseys for some of Arnett’s other accomplished clients — like Joe Thomas, Chris Maragos, and former NBA player Joel Przybilla — line the hallway toward his office, but only Watt’s Texans uniform is visible from the front door. It’s signed, with a simple message written in silver Sharpie: "I wouldn’t be where I am without you."

Four days a week, Watt’s youngest brother, T.J., almost six years his junior, walks past this shrine, through a glass door, and onto the 25-by-75-yard turf field on the other side. T.J. was in 11th grade at Pewaukee High School during J.J.’s rookie season in Houston in 2011. Nearly every moment of his football life has come with his big brother as a household name. "The way people look at me is, ‘J.J. Watt’s little brother,’" T.J. says. "It’s just something I’ve grown accustomed to."

T.J. Watt (Getty Images)
T.J. Watt (Getty Images)

That label followed him to the University of Wisconsin, the alma mater of J.J. and middle brother Derek (now a fullback for the Chargers). When T.J. made the transition from tight end to pass-rushing outside linebacker as a redshirt sophomore in 2015, a whole new set of comparisons rained down. The move to defense made it easy to peg the 6-foot-4 252-pounder as a miniature version of the three-time NFL Defensive Player of the Year, and T.J. understood the expectations that came with it.

The position switch happened only after a series of injuries had torpedoed T.J.’s time as a tight end for the Badgers. A pair of faulty ligaments near his kneecaps tore a total of four times — twice in each leg — during his first three seasons in Madison. All the setbacks meant that winter 2016 was his first full healthy offseason, and by the time spring practice rolled around, Watt was penciled in as a starter. In his lone true season on defense, Watt tallied 15.5 tackles for loss and built himself into a prized NFL prospect.

T.J. is projected as a late-first-round or early-second-round pick in this week’s draft, and whichever team takes him will get a player with proven NFL bloodlines. It’ll also get someone with aspirations far beyond being the other Watt. One weekend last May, not long after Wisconsin’s spring game, a few dozen people gathered at J.J.’s cabin for an afternoon of grilling and cornhole. During a quiet moment, when everyone else had scattered, Arnett remembers having a conversation with T.J. about his hopes for that season. The youngest Watt was ready to break free from his brother’s considerable shadow. "He said, ‘I’m tired of waiting for my turn,’" Arnett says. "‘This is going to be my year. It’s my time to make my own statement.’"

T.J., 22, and Derek, 24, were born only 23 months apart, and spent much more time together as kids than they did with their oldest brother. When they were young, each looked at J.J. with burning envy, but not for reasons that had to do with sports. "We would always ask, ‘Why does J.J. get to stay up late every night?’" T.J. says.

Because they were so close in age, T.J. and Derek could round up their friends for evenly matched backyard football games. For most of their childhood, they were able to challenge and rib each other when it came to virtually anything. T.J. spent years as the leadoff man on Derek’s youth baseball teams, up until the latter went to high school.

Derek filled out faster than either of his late-blooming brothers — he was a "brick shithouse," T.J. says, who could squat more than 400 pounds by roughly the time he got his driver’s license. Like J.J., T.J. took longer to grow into his frame. As a freshman he was 5-foot-6, 150 pounds; he was 6-foot-4 by the beginning of his senior season, and college programs came calling. It was during that stretch that the weight of T.J.’s last name became a boulder he had to lug around. "The biggest negative was all the backlash," he says. "‘Oh, you’re just getting recruited because of the name,’ or, ‘You just got an offer from Wisconsin because of the name.’"

When T.J. was 18, J.J. ascended to superstardom in his second NFL season. By then, any association with his brother started to feel like a burden. Any time he fell short, regardless of the setting, T.J. attributed his failings to the specter of his famous sibling. "I would always blame little stuff on being his little brother," he says. "If I did bad in school, it would be, ‘I’m sorry I’m not J.J. Watt.’ Just little stupid stuff. I was trying to blame everything on it."

Two years earlier, Derek had faced the same challenge. As he went through the recruiting ringer, he initially committed to Northwestern before flipping to Wisconsin. T.J. was enamored of Northern Illinois after his visit there in 2012, and planned to take a trip to the University of Minnesota once the Watts returned from a cruise the first week of that April. Yet as the family sat in the Milwaukee airport waiting for their flight to Florida, T.J.’s phone rang. The voice on the other end of the line belonged to Ben Strickland, then a Wisconsin assistant coach, who wanted to offer him a scholarship.

Both brothers now admit, even if they wouldn’t then, that the size-19 shoes J.J. left to fill in Madison were daunting. And though T.J. had spent months saying he wouldn’t play for the Badgers, he experienced a sudden change of heart. Derek recognized the look in T.J.’s eyes. "Ultimately, it’s just so hard to pass up when you’re a Wisconsin guy, born and raised — especially when your brothers go there," Derek says. "He’s been to so many games and seen so much of the program. He had literally a firsthand look at just about every aspect of it."

It took five minutes for T.J. to call Strickland back and accept the offer. "I knew part of him wanted to stretch his own legs and look elsewhere," says the boys’ father, John. "But when it boiled right down to it, and finally when the opportunity was there, you could tell [it’s what he had wanted]."

(AP Images)
(AP Images)

Last week, with the Chargers gathered in San Diego for the team’s voluntary offseason workouts, a reporter approached Derek in the locker room to ask about his younger brother. Seated nearby, running back and fellow Wisconsin product Melvin Gordon’s ears perked up. "Melvin was saying how much he remembers that T.J. was going to be such a great tight end," Derek says, "because he killed it in Madison when he first got there."

Needing to add some muscle mass to his lengthy frame, T.J. redshirted during his freshman season in 2013. But his potential was already evident. For his height, T.J. could move. His hands were as massive as they are now, 11 inches from the tip of his pinky to the top of his thumb, almost identical in size to J.J.’s gargantuan paws. During his senior year at Pewaukee, T.J. had moonlighted at defensive end in certain situations, and his upside as a pass rusher was so apparent that his best friend and high school teammate, Doug DeVoe, implored him to consider embracing the position full time. "[T.J.] would always say, ‘No, dude,’" DeVoe says. "‘I want to carve my own path. I want to do it my way.’"

Derek also made purposeful choices to sidestep J.J.’s legacy in an effort to create his own. Because he came to Wisconsin at linebacker, he was offered the chance to wear no. 99, a number his brother has made famous at two stops. "I didn’t want to do that," Derek says. "I didn’t want to try to be him."

Wisconsin went 9–3 in the 2013 campaign, earning a spot in the Capital One Bowl opposite Jadeveon Clowney and South Carolina. During a practice in the lead-up to the game, T.J.’s right knee buckled in a one-on-one blocking drill. He’d dislocated his kneecap, resulting in a torn medial patellofemoral ligament — a thin strip of tissue that connects the kneecap to the femur. Doctors told him surgery wasn’t necessary; he’d heal in a few months, in time for the start of spring football. And by April, Watt’s knee was healthy. Then, after only a few days of practice, the MPFL in his left knee shredded in almost exactly the same way.

When the same thing happened to his right knee, again, two days into 2014 fall camp, T.J. threw his hands in the air. Healing naturally was no longer an option. He elected to have surgery, and when it came time to choose a doctor and procedure, J.J.’s connections proved useful. The Texans team doctor, Walt Lowe, did the operation, using a method involving part of a cadaver hamstring that he’d noticed had been performed on multiple players he inspected at the combine. The surgical route meant a longer road back, five months instead of three, but T.J. hoped it’d permanently put his injury troubles behind him. But halfway through his second spring practice in 2015, his left knee betrayed him again.

John Watt remembers the call he got that afternoon. His youngest sat bawling in the hallway outside the Badgers locker room. T.J. thought this might be the end — that unlike his brothers, he wasn’t meant to play football. But as his anguish, physical and otherwise, subsided, he began to prepare for a second surgery, determined to cut his recovery time to three months in order to be ready for the fall.

That July, only a few weeks before camp was set to begin, new Wisconsin head coach Paul Chryst came to T.J. with an idea. All of his injuries happened in a similar way: He was blocking, with little autonomy over where he’d move on a given play. With an eye toward a solution, Chryst — of his own accord, without any input from his defensive staff — proposed that Watt consider moving to outside linebacker. "I took it as a joke at first," T.J. says. Chryst was deadly serious, and after a meeting in his office with J.J. providing his insight on speakerphone, T.J. reluctantly agreed.

T.J. never had a chance to be a regular contributor that fall. Tim Tibesar, who was then in his first year as the Badgers outside linebackers coach, says he’d spoken maybe "15 words" to T.J. since arriving on campus in January 2015. And if the short time frame and limited familiarity wasn’t enough, T.J. opened camp on a pitch count and was able to go full bore in only about two-thirds of every practice. By the time 11-on-11 sessions began each day, he was on the sideline, ice slapped to his knee. "It wasn’t, at first, like, ‘Bang, this guy is going to be a superstar,’" Tibesar says.

As the 2015 season wore on and Watt’s health progressed, Tibesar began to understand what he had. And he came to view Watt’s inexperience as a positive. Tibesar had been handed a 6-foot-4, 240-pound, ultra-athletic lump of clay, a player without a single bad habit. "He was like a blank canvas," Tibesar says.

Pass rushing came naturally to T.J.— he is a Watt, after all — and he worked in certain packages as an interior option early in the season. By Wisconsin’s final two games, an injury to a teammate had afforded Watt more reps at outside linebacker, and those were enough to show Tibesar what T.J. might be capable of the following season. As spring practice wound to a close in 2016, Watt was an entrenched starter making splash plays on a daily basis.

From the moment the Badgers started their season against LSU at Lambeau Field, T.J. knew he was in for a dominant campaign. His new position felt right, and he went on to finish with a Big Ten–leading 11.5 sacks — 4.5 more than J.J. recorded during his last year in Madison. J.J. also made the move from tight end to defense in college, and as he watched his younger brother from afar, he saw a pass rusher more advanced at that stage than he was.

"He’s a better player than I was at the same point in our careers," J.J. says. "The guy’s only played the position for 18 months or whatever it is. And for him to have the innate abilities that he has, a nose for the ball and the way that he can rush the passer with no true experience or a ton of time being coached at it … he just picked it up."

It’s a Thursday afternoon two weeks before the draft, and T.J. is going through a workout with Arnett at NX Level. The drill he’s doing involves T.J. hopping off a small platform and then exploding off a pad that registers his vertical leap. Each round consists of a standard jump followed by a jump where he grabs a pair of green bands tied to the top of a clean rack, slingshotting his body skyward in the process. The last time he did the drill with J.J., about a week earlier, the four-time All-Pro mocked his little brother for never hitting 50 inches on his second jump.

As T.J. goes through his reps, Juvenile’s "Slow Motion" blares throughout the cavernous facility, and a trainer and a young woman halt their workout on a nearby squat rack to start sneaking glances in his direction. He hits 49.1 inches, then 49.4, then 49.6. On T.J.’s final jump, he leaps so high that he actually gets scared. At the apex, he lets out a yelp before returning to earth and smashing onto the pad. Arnett looks at his monitor — 51.3 inches. The oldest Watt brother is aware of the number within a matter of minutes. "I think [T.J.] told Brad to text me midworkout," J.J. says.

Watt at the NFL combine (AP Images)
Watt at the NFL combine (AP Images)

Battles between the Watt clan at NX Level have become the stuff of legend. Jumping days are the worst. At the combine in early March, T.J. recorded a 37-inch vertical, the exact mark that J.J. hit in 2011. Six years later, J.J.’s hops haven’t fallen off, and workouts in which the two try to one-up each other in the vertical almost always result in a standstill. Over and over, the brothers will leap the same height, each convinced that the next jump will put him over the top. Non-compression clothing gets ditched, and other gym-goers will halt whatever they’re doing to watch the best athletes in the place go at it. This spring the charade ended without a winner. "We literally hit the exact same mark three weeks in a row," J.J. says. In the event of a stalemate, big brother owns the trump card. "If I tie him in a race or we have the same vertical, I’m quick to say, ‘Hey, man, [I have] 40 more pounds going up in the air.’"

The shit-talking between the Watt siblings, especially oldest and youngest, can be downright harsh. T.J. remembers the first time he bested his brother in a significant way, when he broke J.J.’s high school shot put record, which had once been held by their father. "There’s something about when J.J. and I are competing," T.J. says. "It’s, ‘Screw you. I’m better than you, how does it feel?’" T.J. recounts one of their recent clashes as he sits behind the wheel of the 2015 GMC Yukon given to J.J. for winning Defensive MVP at the Pro Bowl. The brothers were messing around at the gym one afternoon, seeing if they could flip a 55-pound plate and catch it with the same hand. T.J. laid down a bet: If J.J. could do it with his left hand, T.J. would chauffeur him around for the length of J.J.’s offseason stay in Wisconsin. Let’s just say T.J. has gotten used to how the Yukon handles. "That was just a stupid bet on his part," J.J. says.

All the driving came, in part, because from the day after the combine until April 14, T.J. crashed in his brother’s voluminous cabin about 15 minutes from their parents’ house. "I don’t know that I ever invited him," J.J. says, laughing. "I think he just kind of showed up. Honestly, though, that’s just kind of the way it goes." Bunking in the same house gave T.J. a chance to fall in line with his brother’s routine. They got on the same sleep schedule. T.J. picked J.J.’s brain about NormaTec, Game Ready, and other recovery technologies. The two (along with Derek, who made a short stay at another house on J.J.’s property) shared every meal. Dinner consisted of a chicken breast, De Cecco noodles, and two teaspoons of Italian dressing. J.J.’s obsession with the TV show Chopped rubbed off on his little brother, and together they’d watch and long for the meals onscreen.

Now, hearing T.J. talk, it can sound like he’s a musician covering J.J.’s greatest hits. He emphasizes making the most of his time around the game, knowing that he’ll have plenty of chances to enjoy life’s frivolities when he’s retired. He maintains a homebody lifestyle, imagining opposing offensive tackles staying out until 3 a.m. and taking comfort in knowing that the game means more to him. DeVoe has been Watt’s best friend since they were 10 years old. They’ve never set foot in a bar together.

Following J.J.’s day-to-day is part of what’s helped T.J. start to replicate his brother’s on-field production, but ask anyone who knows the Watts, and they’ll tell you that little brother has always had more tools with which to work. "He just picked things up a little quicker, a little smoother, initially," Arnett says. Before J.J. left for Houston, the brothers were shooting hoops at NX Level, and out of nowhere T.J. threw down a windmill dunk. "I was like, ‘What was that?’" J.J. says. "And he said, ‘I don’t know, I just did it.’ He’d never done it before. I mean, it was awesome. The kid just randomly did a windmill dunk." Athleticism is often described as the ability to mimic certain movements after seeing them only a few times, and even more than his older brother, it’s a gift T.J. has long possessed.

That seamless mastery of particular actions positioned T.J., like J.J., to dominate combine testing. And that’s just what he did. The youngest Watt grasped the importance of his performance in Indianapolis ("Yeah, it’s the Underwear Olympics and it can be stupid in some people’s eyes, but so much — not just money — is on the line," T.J. says), and before each test, he would close his eyes, take two deep breaths, and calmly mutter seven words under his breath: Your life will change after this event. Among all linebackers since 1999, Watt ranked in the 82nd percentile or better in both shuttle runs, the three-cone drill, the broad jump, and the vertical.

T.J. is a favorite among many scouts, and Phil Savage, the former general manager of the Browns who now runs the Senior Bowl, says, "You give credence to family history, and I think it’ll be the same with T.J." And while Watt notes how he’s most frequently compared to "Clay Matthews, Paul Kruger … all white guys," his athletic profile stacks up with anyone. On MockDraftable.com’s list of players with testing scores similar to his, 2016 Defensive Player of the Year Khalil Mack shows up third. "That’s not bad company," T.J. says.

(AP Images)
(AP Images)

On March 12, 2015, a few weeks before Watt would suffer his fourth patella subluxation, he sat down with a pen and a black Five Star notebook. He wasn’t even an outside linebacker at that point. His NFL dreams seemed far away. That didn’t hinder his ambition. On the right side of a page, in large, block letters, he wrote, "Why not me?" Down the left side, he answered his question with a series of goals. Among them: weigh 250 pounds, run the 40-yard dash in under 4.7 seconds, and be named first-team All–Big Ten. Only one line remains unchecked: be a first-round NFL draft pick.

Some of his more far-off goals haven’t made it to the notebook yet. At some point in the not-too-distant future, he’d like to build a house on J.J.’s property in Wisconsin. In his perfect world, Derek — who will soon get married — would do the same. "That’s the dream," T.J. says, "to have all of us on one compound, one neighborhood, whatever you want to call it."

For his part, J.J. hopes that his youngest brother gets a chance to make his own way. As he talks about T.J. and Derek, he concedes that they must have had moments along their path that weren’t easy. "It’s very difficult to be in that situation, when everyone’s constantly comparing you to someone else or calling you somebody else’s little brother," J.J. says. In describing what he admires most about T.J., he points to how unfazed his little brother has always been about the name on the back of his jersey. "There are so many people looking at him like, ‘Is he going to be able to live up to the hype?’ He should never have to. He should always be able to be his own person. But he’s never shied away from that."

T.J. has grown to appreciate the ubiquity of his brother’s presence, both in how it affects his life and others’ opinion of him. But it’s done nothing to satisfy his need to leave J.J. in his wake at every turn. As T.J. describes his long-term career aspirations, he mentions another goal, one that might just make its way into the notebook. He wants there to come a day when he and J.J. walk down a street and are approached by a young fan. In T.J.’s vision, the kid asks him for a picture — and doesn’t even recognize the hulking man standing at his side. "I’ll just give him a smirk," T.J. says, "and he’ll know."

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