“I will play in the NFL some day."
Terry Jannsen remembers those words clearly, spoken by JJ Watt as the Pewaukee High School senior stood in the Jannsen’s kitchen during a night when several friends had gotten together.
“I was thinking, ‘OK, JJ, great goal, I’m really glad you’re looking for something that big,’” Jannsen recalled. “I didn’t discourage him. My wife and I wondered later if that was really realistic.”
Seven years later, Jannsen’s son Taylor, a classmate and lifelong friend of JJ’s, was getting quoted in the third paragraph of a 2014 Sports Illustrated story titled “The Next Effing Play.” It was a detailed profile of the NFL superstar JJ Watt.
“He’s not just playing,” Terry said. “He’s one of the top five players in the league.”
The path to greatness
The cover of Men’s Health Magazine. Lengthy profiles by ESPN, USA Today and NFL.com. Host of the Country Music Television Awards. Appearances on late-night talk shows, some scripted shows and even a feature film. A contract in 2014 that made him the highest-paid non-quarterback in football. The star of JJ Watt has risen astronomically, and yet most fans are aware of his Wisconsin roots, mentioned frequently as the origin of the three-time NFL Defensive Player of the Year.
“It’s a tremendous source of pride (in Pewaukee) and a big credit to those boys, not just because what they’ve done, but they reference their hometown and talk about Pewaukee all the time,” former Pewaukee football coach Clay Iverson said, referring to JJ and his brothers, Derek and TJ. “They reference their family, their friends, their high school, all the things that made them who they are. They let people know they’re a product of their environment.”
JJ’s career in Pewaukee began with a boom, a 98-yard touchdown run in his first-ever football game as a fifth grader. Almost.
“It was called back because of holding,” JJ said with a laugh. “I do remember (who committed the penalty), and I’m not going to throw him under the bus, but I know exactly who he was.”
It wasn’t the first detour his road to the NFL would take. After a late-blooming surge of success in high school, he committed to play for Central Michigan coach Brian Kelly as a tight end, believing he’d see the field sooner on the offensive side of the ball. But Kelly left for Cincinnati (and now coaches at Notre Dame), and in a maneuver that fans may have gotten forgotten in time, Watt switched his commitment to Minnesota but never played for the Gophers after the program fired Glen Mason.
Watt went back to Central and played for new coach Butch Jones. He caught eight passes for 77 yards in his lone season with the Chippewas.
“Some schools had been offering me at tight end, others at D-end, so there was definitely some thought put into it,” JJ said. “I thought tight end was the way to go. I wanted to play early on. … By the end of my recruiting process, there had been so many things that had happened, Central Michigan was just where I was most familiar. I knew the players and knew the campus well; that’s just where I felt most comfortable.”
Everyone knows what happened next. Watt transferred to Wisconsin to become a walk-on, delivered pizzas to help pay the bills, and subsequently blossomed into a dominant defensive end.
“They just put me there because they needed a scout team player there,” Watt said of his transition to defense. “I don’t think they saw anything in me that screamed out, ‘This kid’s a D-end,’ they just needed a body, and it just happened to work out.”
In the biggest way possible. He declared for the NFL Draft after his junior year and became the No. 11 overall selection in the 2011 Draft. As a rookie, he intercepted a pass and ran it back for a touchdown against the Cincinnati Bengals in the playoffs, the first of three postseason trips in his career heading into 2016. It was a launching pad for a player who’s now done something only one other player –- Lawrence Taylor –- has done in NFL history: win three NFL DPOY awards.
“With all the stuff I get to do, covers and all this different stuff, it’s incredible, and I’ve enjoyed every second of it and tried to take advantage of as much of it as I can, because I know it won’t last forever,” Watt said. “But I’m in my house right now, and I don’t have a single thing that relates to football in my house right now except my three Defensive Player of the Year trophies. Those are honestly the only things I have on display here. I’m sure someday, I’ll want to tell my grandkids I could throw a football over a mountain. But there’s so much I want to accomplish still, I don’t have enough time or wherewithal to reminisce, I guess.”
A laminated copy of “The Next Effing Play” may not be on his wall, but it is an additional example of his grounded roots. The story details how Taylor Jannsen, visiting his buddy in Houston, woke up to find Watt gone and off to the gym in the early-morning hours on the same day he signed a six-year extension worth $100 million. A lengthy profile in Grantland also told the story of when Watt, already a star after two seasons in the league, crashed on the floor of Taylor’s apartment in the offseason –- spending time there in the rare moments he wasn’t working out at NX Level a few miles away.
“JJ loved it; he thought it was one of the best summers he had ever had,” Terry said. “It was his second year (after college), and he said, ‘I don’t want to live with Mom and Dad.’
“The first time I sat there and watched him play on the field, we walked out of the stadium with him that day and all these people are mobbing him for autographs,” Terry added with a chuckle. “Why do people want his autograph? He's not that special. I said it out loud to another guy at the game, and JJ turned around and looks at both of us and said, ‘I heard that,’ and I said ‘Good. I'm not going to treat you any differently.’”
Even with Watt injured and lost for the season, Dec. 4 will be a quiet day on the streets of Pewaukee, when fans will either be glued to their TVs or visiting a couple hours north as the Houston Texans play the Green Bay Packers at Lambeau Field. It was supposed to be Watt’s first game at Lambeau since joining the NFL.
“Lambeau just has an aura about it, whether you’re from Wisconsin or not.” Watt said. “Being from Wisconsin, I look forward to playing there. But once the game starts, it doesn’t matter where you’re playing, honestly. It could be anywhere. As soon as the ball’s kicked off, it obviously doesn’t matter.”
Watt has faced the Packers once, in a nationally televised night game on Oct. 14, 2012, when Green Bay came to Reliant Stadium in Houston and defeated the Texans, 42-24. Watt had two sacks and five tackles overall in the loss.
Even if the environment will be unfriendly overall, Packers fans will have a soft spot for Houston’s No. 99.
“He came in my room after the Badger game his junior year,” said Judy Keefe, Watt’s fourth-grade teacher at Horizon Elementary School. “They always come back and visit. He was a great example and always takes a few minutes. I was just thoroughly impressed with the way he interacted with kids and the way he carried himself and the respect he shows for people.”
Keefe said Watt was motivated and kind, but also quiet as a student in her class.
“He wanted to make his parents proud, and he wanted to do a good job for myself,” Keefe said. “(When he told me he wanted to be in the NFL), I said, ‘You’re going to really have to work hard, but you can do it,’ like you say to every child. And he did it, and he did it very well. It’s wonderful to see a local young man have that success.”
Watt said coming home, where he has a house and lives roughly four months out of the year, is a little bit of a respite from the swell of attention in other parts of the country.
“I think it’s definitely a little bit of a more-private mix than the rest of the country because they’ve seen me grow up,” Watt said. “That’s the vibe I get from them. They’ve known me my whole life, and they realize that’s my home, and I go there to get away from everything. There’s definitely still some photos, autographs, things like that, but it’s more subdued than the rest of the country.”
He tentatively plans to be back, assuming other post-football career ventures don’t take him elsewhere. Watt has said many times he’d love to coach high school football when his playing days are over, and though he’s playing in a state where high school football is king, he still imagines he’ll need a winter coat as he stands on the sidelines.
“I do envision it back in Wisconsin,” he said. “I love the four seasons, I love the people of Wisconsin, I love the atmosphere, the vibe. Having grown up there, it holds an extremely special place in my heart. I think there’s something to be said for having to go through the tough winter and having to wake up early to go to morning workouts in the snow and having to shovel the driveway. I like that. I can’t promise that’s exactly what’s going to happen because my career could go 100 different ways when I’m done playing. But in my ideal world, the way I see it happening, I see myself coming back to Wisconsin and settling in there.”