Of Concussions and Carp...
The offseason sucks. Badly. However, it does have its benefits. It gives people a chance to recharge their batteries after months of yelling at large men smashing into each other. For some, it's a chance to reconnect with long-neglected friends and loved ones, sometimes even by choice, and discuss important topics such as global hunger and which part of the toothpaste tube is the only acceptable area to squeeze. For the players, it's a time to recover and go on a long, long overdue vacation.
And then there's J.J. Watt, for whom none of those things apply.
"Damn, J.J.," said Tom as he watched Watt flip yet another tractor tire, "you keep this up, you're gonna re-tear your groin again."
Watt chuckled and squatted down to grip the tire again, "That groin's exactly why I have to keep flipping tires, and jumping on boxes and battling ropes; I gotta get back to playing shape."
"But eight hours straight?"
Watt lifted the tire, grunting with the effort, until the tire stood on its tread, "Longer if I have to."
Tom shook his head in amazement, "Okay, I'll leave you to it then. Just don't go overboard."
Watt didn't stay at it long, at least not with the tire. As the tire fell back down to the floor, he walked over to far side of the gym he'd worked out at since he was a sophomore in high school. He hooked a resistance band onto the wall.
Since rising to notoriety as a professional football player, Watt had trouble shaking the feeling that he was being watched; even something as mundane as going to the grocery store was fraught with people watching what kind of produce he prefers. Here, in his sanctum, nobody so much as looked askance at him. To the other gym rats, he was as familiar to them as the banners on the walls around them, the field turf beneath their feet, or the weird guy out in front always asking for spare change.
As he twisted and torqued his body for his daily warm-up, Watt looked to his right where a kid, who couldn't have been more than 16 years old, mimicked his every move; or tried to at least. Where Watt could bend and flex with ease, he could hear the kid next to him struggle, straining at every movement.
He stopped and spun toward his shadow.
"What are you doing?"
The kid looked up, "I...I was--"
"You were going to blow out your knee if you kept it up," Watt said, not unkindly. "How long have you been at this?"
"A couple of months. I wanted to make the football team next year and I thought I could pick up some pointers."
Watt examined the kid. He was a tall, lanky kid without a speck of meat on his bones. His steel blue eyes shone through an oily curtain of brown hair. J.J. recognized this kid. He'd seen him in the mirror 12 years ago when he first set foot inside this gym.
"What's your name, kid?"
Watt extended his hand, "J.J."
Sam shook the proffered hand excitedly.
"Which band did you use, Sam?"
Sam pointed at the bundle of resistance bands that J.J. had gotten his from.
"No wonder you're having trouble, then."
He went to the rack of resistance bands and grabbed one from the first rung. As he returned, he tossed it to Sam who caught it easily.
"You're starting off with way too much resistance there. Start slow and build your way up."
Sam kicked his leg backward; his eyes lit up as his leg lifted behind him and came back down, then his face fell, "But if I do this little stuff, I'll never make the team next year!"
J.J. smiled at the kid. "You'll get there, you just gotta work for it. Remember--" he said, pointing at the writing on his shirt.
Sam nodded, "Dream Big, Work Hard."
Sam and J.J. continued to work out together for another half hour, all the while talking about why Sam wants to play football, what are his plans after high school is done, and the like, when the alarm on Watt's phone beeped.
"That's my cue," Watt said and he unhooked the band from the wall. "Great to meet you, Sam, keep it up!"
"Thanks, J.J.," groaned Sam.
What could be so important that it would drag J.J. out of his gym? Well, aren't you impatient? If you would have just waited a second, you would learn that he had just pulled up to the family home and opened the front door. But no, you had to hurry it.
As Watt pulled into the driveway, a short woman with long blonde hair came out onto the lawn with a beaming smile on her face. J.J. bolted from his truck, ran into the front yard and hugged her.
"It's so good to see you," she said, slightly out of breath due to squeezing.
"I missed you, Mom," J.J. said.
This went on for a good 30 seconds. Watt's mom squirmed for a moment, then managed to squeak out "air," prompting her son to let go.
"Derek and T.J. get here yet?"
Mrs. Watt gasped for a second, "I...just got a text from T.J., they're about 20 minutes out. They got held up because of spring ball. You want to wait for them in the kitchen?"
Watt nodded and they both went inside. By no means was the kitchen small, but it was customary for Watt to make any room he entered look smaller. He took a seat by the island in the center.
"Where's Dad at?"
"He's off running errands. He should be back in a little while. Can I get you something to drink?"
Mrs. Watt grabbed a glass and went to the refrigerator. "I'm surprised you want water since you'll be surrounded by it in a little bit."
J.J. took the water from her and thanked her.
"Did...did you see the news about that tackle for the Jets?"
Watt nodded but didn't say anything.
"Kind of surprising he just up and retired like that, isn't it?"
"Yeah," Watt said, a little uneasily.
"And he'd never missed a game due to injury or anything. Why would he just up and leave the game like that for no reason?"
"Mom, what are you trying to say, exactly?"
"I just worry about you, honey, that's all. I mean, D'Brickashaw Ferguson retired when he was still healthy. You've got one serious injury under your belt now--"
"It's just a torn groin, Mom. I didn't get a concussion or anything."
"First, it wasn't 'just a torn groin.' You ripped five muscles there. Second, sure it was your groin this time, but what about next time? Or the time after that? You throw yourself around on that field so much that who knows what might happen to you...what might happen to you next time you get hurt."
Watt took a sip of water, "Mom, I can't retire now. There's still so much that I haven't accomplished yet. I haven't won MVP, I haven't taken the Texans to the Super Bowl. I only have so much time on the clock to do these things. If I retire early, I'll never know just how great I could've been."
"And if you do, but can't remember it in 15 years time? 20 years time? Will it matter how great a player you were if you can't remember who you are when you're 50 years old?"
A horn sounded in the distance. J.J. wanted to visibly sigh with relief, but didn't dare.
"That'll be Derek, Mom, I need to get going. We'll talk more about this later, okay?"
J.J. dashed out of the house and into Derek's car.
"Drive. Now," said J.J. stonily.
His younger brother obliged.
"You...want to tell us what that was all about?"
J.J. sighed. "Mom. She said she's worried about me."
T.J. chuckled, "Did she give you the D'Brickashaw speech?"
"She led off with it."
The brothers laughed, "Yeah, she's talked to us about it too," said Derek. "She saw that 'Concussion' movie a while back and she's been worried about us ever since."
For the rest of the car ride, J.J. remained silent, mulling over his mother's concern all along the way. Concussions and CTE were scary. They had kept him up some nights, but he wasn't done yet and he knew it. More and more, though, the thought kept creeping into his head, "When will I know I'm done with football?"
The car arrived at Pewaukee Lake and the brothers Watt all got their gear out from the back of the car.
All thoughts of football and concussions and training disappeared the moment J.J. saw the light shimmering on the water. The skies above him were cloudless and the bluest he'd ever seen them. The gentle sound of water lapping against the shore and the comforting drone of bees off in the distance were a welcome change of pace.
"Hey J.J.! You gonna help me get these poles outta the trunk or what?"
His reverie broken, J.J. helped slog out the poles, the tackles, the waders, and the rest of the fishing gear. After a brief struggle to get into his waders, he hooked a fly onto his lure and set out into the lake. He could feel the water surrounding him as he moved further and further toward the depths of the lake. His brothers soon followed suit.
Once he felt he was at an acceptable depth and far enough away from his brothers, he cast a line into the water. The reel spun freely until he could hear the lure hit the water with a satisfying plop.
Then there was silence as the brothers focused on their lines. Or at least there was silence...for 10 minutes.
T.J. was the first to chime in, "Any luck yet?" he hollered.
J.J. closed his eyes irritably. You're scaring the fish, he thought.
In what felt like an eternity but was probably only about 20 minutes, nothing much happened. Then J.J. felt a brief tug on his line. Then another. Then a jerk.
"I got something!" he shouted excitedly.
T.J. said something about scaring fish, but J.J. was too distracted to care. The fish pulled the line much harder than the average lake bass did. He pulled, reeling the line back in as hard as he could, but the resistance wasn't backing down one bit. Suddenly all the resistance he felt disappeared. If anything, it felt like the fish was coming right at him. J.J. kept reeling like his life depended on it. There was no more fight left, but he could still feel something on the lure.
With an almighty jerk, he flung up the pole to pull up his prize and the fish, as it came out of the water, pulled the lure out of its mouth and splashed down into the water right in front of J.J.
For a long moment, J.J. and the fish stared at each other in some confusion. J.J. peered down at the fish, half submerged in the water. The fish mirrored his reaction with its googly eyes focused on his would-be catcher.
"Hello," the fish said, rather pleasantly for someone who just had a hook stuck in its mouth. "Who are you?"
J.J., unsure as to how to respond to a talking fish, stammered out his name.
"What do you want? What's so important that you had to drag me out of the water like that?"
"Um...I didn't...I didn't mean to--"
"To what? Go on."
There was no way this ended well for J.J., and he fully knew it.
"Who are you," asked the defensive end.
"They call me Kevin."
"I--I'm sorry, Kevin. I didn't mean to hurt y--"
"Didn't mean to hurt me? You got a funny way of showing it." He jumped out of the water and smacked J.J. in the face.
"Sorry, didn't mean to smack you in the face, J.J.," Kevin said, his voice dripping with sarcasm.
Watt wiped the wet off his face, along with a few fish scales, and focused his glare on the malicious trout. Without warning, he lunged for the fish, who jumped into the air before Watt could get his hands around him. The fish splashed harmlessly back into the water, this time several feet further away from J.J.
"You want to start something? Come on, come and get me."
Kevin sunk into the water and reappeared another foot or so away from his original position.
Watt had had enough. He squatted down into the water. He could feel the water seeping into his waders, but by that point he no longer cared about staying dry. He sprung at the mouthy trout and landed a few inches away from Kevin.
"Impressive. But I dare you to take one more step closer."
Watt chuckled, thinking of what he was going to serve alongside this fish for dinner tonight, and took one more step.
The chuckle vanished as Watt couldn't feel ground beneath his foot. His other foot slipped on the muck and the next thing he knew he was...falling through the air.
TO BE CONTINUED...