North Korea threatened to launch a nuclear strike against the United States last week. Austin, Texas - the city in which I live - was among the stated targets. This did not cause many here to lose much sleep, with the exception of the guy who stayed up all night making a list of reasons why Kim Jong-un hated our city. For myriad reasons, the lack of a delivery capability being prime among them, headlines such as "North Korea threatens United States with talk of nuclear war" are just not that scary to the brave people of Austin. Headlines like this, however, are terrifying:
Terrifying to the world, that is.
That Watt played hurt last year is not news. The extent of the injury, revealed in his interview with Nick Scurfield last week, is. An elbow devoid of any intact ligaments sounds a lot more serious than what I thought a dislocated elbow entailed. And yet Watt certainly didn't seem to be affected by it in any way, not with the 20.5 sacks and the 16 passes defensed that earned the second year player an NFL Defensive Player of the Year award; nor with the 18 games played, a stat that included back to back overtimes over a five-day stretch in November. The omnipresence of that giant black brace on his left arm should have served as constant reminder of the injury he suffered in training camp, but with the way he was playing, it transformed into evidence that Watt had become a bionic man at some point during the offseason following his rookie year.
The sight of that brace became an iconic image of the entire season, a timestamp along with the new Nike jerseys that serves as a way to differentiate photos of the 2012 Houston Texans from the ten versions that preceded them. The brace itself became almost a symbol of dominance, as did the salute, the wheelchair dance and the number 99 so ubiquitous upon the torsos of Houston sports fans today. The most surprising thing to come of The Leap Watt made last year is that the Texans' team store didn't start selling giant foam versions of the brace for $9.99, 99 percent of the proceeds going to some J.J.-sanctioned charity that aids orphans of the 1999 NATO bombing of Yugoslavia, with the remaining one percent going towards the current efforts to make sure we can afford to resign him when the time comes for his record deal. That the brace also happened to make it easier for his grandmother to spot him on television fit in too perfectly with the overall J.J. Watt Experience. It's also why I don't believe him when he says he hopes to not wear it this year. J.J. is exactly the kind of guy that would help the proverbial old lady carry her groceries up the stairs, and he's the kind of guy that would keep wearing an inhibiting elbow brace just to make life easier for his grandmother.
J.J. Watt was so close to human perfection in 2012, there was a rumor swirling around the Vatican that Pope Benedict was pondering a papal bull which would have decreed it acceptable for Watt to "throw the first stone." That Benedict decided last February to resign may be a sign that he did not want to face the pressure to issue such a decree - tentatively titled #PapalBullOnParade - were Watt to put up even better numbers in 2013. From the Scurfield interview:
Watt said Tuesday that he took two weeks off before the Pro Bowl and has been working out ever since. He does two-a-day workouts three times a week; the second workout is "kind of a secret session" that involves cross training.
"I'm doing a lot of cool things and have a lot of great opportunities, but I'm always making sure I get my workouts in," Watt said. "I make sure to get in plenty of work. That's the foundation. That's how I got to where I am today, and I'm not gonna let that slip. I'm not gonna let myself get complacent. I have so many bigger goals and so much more I want to do in this league.
"There's a lot to my game that I can improve on, and I'm really looking forward to making that next step this year."
Thinking back to the 2011 NFL Draft should be an exercise in gratitude for all Texans fans. We have a GM that blocked out the clamor to pick someone like Nick Fairley. Though many average football fans didn't really know who Watt was at the time, there were plenty of obsessive Texans fans around to inform the others as to why opting for him over the Auburn star was the dumbest thing since uncut bread. I didn't really have an opinion, as I was - and am - totally unqualified to form educated ones when it comes to evaluating college talent. I would have chosen Vince Young or Reggie Bush over Mario Williams in 2006, after all. All it took for me to feel good about the pick was seeing someone with credibility say on ESPN that Watt was a "high motor guy."
I will now advocate for the Texans to draft every high motor guy available until Shiloh comes.
Ten teams had a shot at Watt that day. It's hard to rag too much on the six who selected future Pro Bowlers. Carolina (Cam Newton), Denver (Von Miller), Cincinnati (A.J. Green), Arizona (Patrick Peterson), Atlanta (Julio Jones) and San Francisco (Aldon Smith) all at least came away with players who have displayed star potential. The other four - Buffalo (Marcell Dareus), Tennessee (Jake Locker), Dallas (Tyron Smith) and Jacksonville (Blaine Gabbert) - are more deserving of our taunts. Especially Dallas. Which is fitting, considering that the tears J.J. shed following his final collegiate game were caused by a defeat to a team from Fort Worth.
The TCU game was the only reason I even recognized Watt's name on draft day. Wisconsin had made it to the Rose Bowl his senior season, and the Badgers landed a date with the undefeated Horned Frogs on a New Year's Day matchup. I still remember the contrast of the brightly lit southern California sky emanating from the TV screen inside the dark room that was serving as the recovery center from the previous night's festivities. It was a great game that ended with a star player defensive player batting down a last gasp pass on a two-point conversion in the final minutes. But the player was not J.J. Watt. It was Tank Carder, now a linebacker for the Cleveland Browns; Carder had no sacks and seven combined tackles in 2012.
The quarterback for Carder's team that day was a ginger named Andy Dalton. Dalton didn't realize it at the time, but postseason matchups against Watt were soon to become a thing for him. And he was to throw the ill-fated pass late in the second quarter of the second annual edition that catapulted Watt into stardom. Another deflected pass, another game's outcome all but decided, and a madhouse reaction in my living room in Austin which left bruise marks on my girlfriend's arms from the violent celebration that ensued.
It was the soft hands of the former tight end turned DE that jumpstarted Watt's emergence as a Houston sports legend. Hands much softer than mine, to which said girlfriend can attest. And it was the elbow that connects to one of those hands that J.J. says prevented him from doing even greater things in the season that followed. So let Pyongyang try as it may to strike fear into the hearts of the American people with its threats of nuclear annihilation. The only thing we have to fear besides fear itself is a fully functioning J.J. Watt who wants much more than a chance to beat up on Andy Dalton every year. It's times like these that it's good to be from Houston.