Having developed into somewhat of a cult hero throughout the state and especially in southeast Wisconsin, J.J. Watt sent most of them into applause once again when he was selected No 11 overall by the Houston Texans.
"Coming from where I came from and going through all the processes, it's unbelievable for me," said Watt, who became the first Wisconsin Badger to be drafted in the 2011 NFL Draft and the first first-round pick since Cleveland selected Joe Thomas in 2007. "It's just a testament for hard work."
Watt brings immediate relief to a Texans squad that finished third-to-last in total defense, giving up 376.9 yards per game, and tied for 23rd in sacks with 30.
The 2010 Lott IMPACT Trophy winner, AP second-team All-American and consensus first-team All-Big Ten, Watt led Wisconsin in tackles for loss (21 for 91 yards), sacks (7 0), quarterback hurries, forced fumbles and blocked kicks (3) and second on team in tackles, pass breakups and passes defended.
At the combine, Watt's stock rose even higher, finishing second at his position in the vertical jump (37 inches), in the 3-cone drill (6.88) and the 20-yard shuttle (4.21), third in the broad jump (120.0) and fourth on the bench (34 reps).
"I wanted to show them my athletic ability because a lot of those people probably didn't see me on film or know who I was," Watt said of his combine mentality. "I just wanted to chance to get out there and show them what I can do. I am very proud of how relentless I am and how hard I work."
Watt's journey has been well documented since he decided to skip his senior season and enter the NFL Draft, but it bears reminding of what hard work can accomplish. A solid, but not amazing, tight end at Pewaukee, Watt committed to Central Michigan, Minnesota and back to Central Michigan after both schools went through coaching changes in 2007.
After one season, Watt left Central Michigan and became a pizza delivery boy while taking six credits at a community college. Eventually, Watt transferred to Wisconsin, switched to defensive end and spent his season sitting out due to transfer rules by bulking up in the weight room for the hopes of NFL glory and spent the next two seasons terrorizing opposing offenses.
As he sat in Radio City Music Hall in downtown New York City, Watt was rated by Scout.com as the No 1 defensive end in the draft.
"When he was a 14, 15-year-old kid, he was athletic, he had drive and he was good at everything," said Pewaukee varsity football coach Clay Iverson, who was the head coach for Watt's last two high school seasons. "He was a great basketball and hockey player and football was probably third on his list. When he found the weight room, he just fell in love and after two or three workouts, he stopped playing all the other sports and he committed to getting better."
Not only is Watt committed to make himself better, he's committed to making life better for other kids that might not have the same opportunity he did growing up. Last August, with the help of the UW Law and Entrepreneurship Clinic, which provides legal services for students jump-starting their own business enterprises, Watt began the groundwork for the Justin J. Watt Foundation; a foundation whose goal it is to bring after-school athletics into middle schools in the Madison area that lack funding or have had their funding cut because of tough economic times.
He never forgets his roots either, a main reason why he paid out of his own pocket to fly Iverson and the school's defensive coordinator to thank them for motivating him to be a better football player and person.
"If he saw a kid sitting alone at a lunch table, he would go and sit by him, which is rare for the star athlete to do," Iverson said. "He was never really concerned what the popular crowd thought of him. He had a big heart that way. When more things came his way, the better person he became. A lot of times you see it go the other way but with the more accolades he received, the hungrier and humble he becomes, which is a rare attribute and why I think he'll keep getting better as long as he plays."
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