Five years ago, the man who would go on to be the most disruptive force in the NFL was delivering pizzas near his home in Pewaukee, Wis.
J.J. Watt had just finished his freshman year at Central Michigan, where he played tight end and caught eight passes for 77 yards. Discouraged by his lack of playing time, Watt left school and enrolled in a community college in Waukesha, Wis. He took a delivery job at Pizza Hut on the side so he could have some extra cash when he walked on at Wisconsin.
Now, that same man leads the NFL in sacks and is an early favorite for Defensive Player of The Year and a dark horse for MVP. His personal slogan, "Dream Big Work Hard," could not be more fitting.
"I understand what it took to get on the cover of [Sports Illustrated] and I also understand what it’s going to take to stay at this level and keep playing this way and our team to keep playing this way," Watt said last week before playing the Buffalo Bills. "It’s a 'what have you done for me lately’ league. They can love you one minute and hate you the next. You just got to keep playing, keep doing what you do. I was brought up to work hard. Hard work is always going to be the basis of everything I do."
In addition to taking classes and delivering pizzas in the winter of 2008, Watt hit the gym. All the time. He worked out four days a week with a personal trainer, transforming a 6-foot-6 frame that once weighed 207 pounds into nearly 300 pounds.
Watt credits one particular pizza delivery for re-instilling the work ethic that would ultimately lead him to the NFL. A young boy opened the door one day and recognized Watt as the town's former high school star. Watt noticed that the boy was crestfallen to see Watt delivering pizzas after watching him dominate on the gridiron.
"When I saw the look on his face, that for that split second he didn’t see me as that anymore, that hurt," Watt told the Houston Chronicle. "It didn’t change my life or make me want to go back and be a football player. But it re-instilled the drive in me to become great again, to become that kid’s role model again."
It was difficult for Watt to turn down his scholarship at Central Michigan to walk on, but the lack of a scholarship in Madison motivated him to work even harder. Watt redshirted at Wisconsin in 2008, but he impressed the coaches so much on the scout team that he got his long-awaited scholarship before he even stepped on the field the next year. He started every game in 2009 and 2010, tallying 106 tackles and 11.5 sacks. He helped lead the Badgers to the Rose Bowl in 2010 and was named the team's co-MVP.
Watt declared for the NFL draft after his junior year, and despite only having had played two years of football at Wisconsin, scouts were drooling over his size and potential. The Texans snatched Watt with the 11th overall pick and never looked back.
Working under defensive line guru and Texans defensive coordinator Wade Phillips, Watt turned in a solid rookie season. He started every game, recording 5.5 sacks and 48 solo tackles. In Houston's first-round playoff game against the Bengals, Watt returned an interception for a touchdown. The next week, he sacked Joe Flacco 2.5 times. Coach Gary Kubiak says Watt's playoff dominance was a sign of things to come.
"You could see this coming, I think, in the playoffs last year," Kubiak said. "[In] the two playoff games he was exceptional."
Watt's 2012 campaign got off to an inauspicious start when he dislocated his left elbow in training camp. Despite missing all four preseason games while his elbow recovered, Watt came into the season hungrier than ever.
"I missed all four games, and I said at that time that I felt like an animal in a cage," Watt said in October. "And they finally let me out of the cage in the regular season."
Playing on one of the NFL's top-ranked defenses, Watt has benefited from opposing offenses' inability to devote two or three players to him. It's hard for offensive lineman to deal with Watt's combination of speed, size and motor, and when he gets into the backfield he almost always finishes the deal. His 10.5 sacks are tops in the NFL.
When Watt doesn't beat his man on the offensive line, he is just as dangerous at the line of scrimmage. He has tipped 10 passes this year, four of which were turned into interceptions. His propensity to misdirect balls at the line of scrimmage has earned him the extremely suiting nickname, "J.J. Swat."
"The biggest compliment I can give J.J. is in my four years he's probably the most instinctual player that I've been around," Watt's teammate, Connor Barwin, told ESPN 1000 in Chicago. "He just has a real knack for getting to the ball. Usually you find that with inside linebackers or safeties. You don't usually see that from a defensive tackle. But he definitely finds a way to get to the ball almost every single snap."
The same work ethic that led Watt to success as a pizza guy is now leading him to tips, picks and sacks galore in the NFL. Simply put, the man knows how to deliver.