Jim Corbett, USA TODAY Sports
Houston -- As NFL fans across the country watched Houston Texans star J.J. Watt deliver a dominating performance against the New York Jets Monday night, few would have guessed that a mere five years ago, the only thing the defensive lineman was delivering came with pepperoni and mushrooms.
The man ESPN analyst Jon Gruden dubbed "J.J. Swatt" has gone from being out of football and delivering pizzas to taking over games, such as he did Monday with three pass deflection that turned into two interceptions. The game further solidified Watt's reputation as one of the game's rising stars, and also emphasized how important he is to the Texans, who are 5-0 for the first time in franchise history but lost defensive leader Brian Cushing to a season-ending injury.
"That J.J. Watt's the real deal," Jets coach Rex Ryan said. "You'd think the Knicks would pick him up, too, with all the shot blocking he did."
The second-year lineman has been enjoying his new-found fame while living out the "Dream Big, Work Hard" mantra on his red wristband. On the field Watt is leading the league with 8½ sacks, eight passes defensed and is an early Defensive Player of the Year candidate. Off it he is set to appear Friday on NBC's Today show, and those "MegaWatt" T-shirts are now selling at Houston supermarkets.
"It's been a long journey, but it's been a lot of fun," Watt tells USA TODAY Sports.
Yet what coaches and teammates love is that as fast as Watt's star has risen, the former University of Wisconsin walk-on has stayed true to his Pewaukee, Wis., roots making occasional returns to the suburban strip mall that spawned his legend.
"I've been back to that Pizza Hut a couple of times and every time I drive by, I get that feeling, 'I used to work here, delivering pizzas, mopping floors and now I work in the NFL,'" says the 6-5, 295-pound Watt.
But don't let the small-town humility fool you, on the field Watt can be as cocky as anyone.
After Watt's third swat of the night help close out the Monday night victory , it was celebration time. Watt started to do a mock version of injured Jets receiver Santonio Holmes' "Flight Boy" celebration and then went right into former NBA center Dikembe Mutombo's finger wag.
He followed that by unknowingly boasting before a national audience. "You can't try throwing over my head!" ESPN mics caught Watt yelling.
Told by USA TODAY Sports afterward the line had been broadcast and was all over Twitter, Watt grinned.
"Those tweeters are some smart people. They got it right," he said. "That's just one of those things, I was excited, in the moment and it was a good way to end the game."
Former Oilers coach Bum Phillips, 89 and a bit of a Houston legend, is the father of Texans defensive coordinator Wade Phillips and when he visits his son's team, he often meets with Watt. Bum has picked up on Watt's humble and competitive personality and sees a similarity to a Hall of Famer and former rival.
"J.J. plays a lot like (former Oakland Raiders defensive end) Howie Long with that same relentless attitude," the elder Phillips says from his Goliad, Texas ranch. "J.J. is the same type of kid, friendly until they snap the ball.
"Howie Long was real good for a long time. It looks like this kid will be, too, if he stays healthy."
Wade Phillips, who knows a thing or two about superstar defensive linemen having coached Hall of Fame pass rushers Reggie White and Bruce Smith during 36 seasons as a coordinator or head coach, predicted in training camp this year that Watt would be a bust.
"Not a first-round bust, but a bust in the Hall of Fame," Phillips says. "The only players I've seen that can do what he can do, with his intensity, can be found in Canton."
Pizza changing moment
Watt played tight end at Central Michigan until his food-service industry sabbatical in 2007. He was taking classes at a community college in Waukesha, Wis., when a wake-up call came from a local kid who recognized the former Pewaukee High star on one of his deliveries.
The 10-year-old boy at the door turned that pizza run into a career-changing epiphany when he asked Watt why he wasn't playing football.
"That was a powerful day in my life, a humbling moment that reiterated my drive to be great and get to the top as a football player," Watt says.
He re-shaped his body, contacted Wisconsin coach Bret Bielema and after sitting out the 2008 season, Watt earned All-Big 10 2009 and 2010 honors.
The Texans rewarded Watt by selecting him with the 11th overall pick in the 2011 draft. He rewarded them by registering 5½ sacks and recovering two fumbles as a rookie.
But Watt looked every bit that former tight end in January when he made a leaping interception of a pass from Cincinnati Bengals quarterback Andy Dalton, returning it 29 yards for the game-turning touchdown in the franchise's first playoff game.
His uncanny prowess for batting down passes has become Watt's calling card. Texans coach Gary Kubiak said after a recent practice, "J.J. knocked down five passes today. He does it every day."
Watt's unique skill can be traced to an unusual combination of physical traits. His hands measure 11¼ inches, he ran the 40-yard dash in 4.76 seconds and posted a 37-inch vertical leap during his Wisconsin pro day.
"A pass knockdown is almost as sweet as a sack," Watt says. "It demoralizes quarterbacks."
But Watt is not without his detractors. Tennessee Titans guard LeRoy Harris, despite surrendering two sacks in Houston's 38-14 Week 4 win, said he believes Watt is "not anything special."
Wade Phillips offers a differing opinion.
"When you give up 32 sacks a year, you'll think he might be special," says Phillips, extrapolating Watt's sack total over 16 regular-season games.
A bigger role
Watt's ability to beat offensive linemen as a defensive tackle or end rendered former first overall pick Mario Williams, long the face of the Texans' defense, expendable.
Williams, who missed Houston's last 11 games in 2011 with a torn pectoral muscle signed a six-year, $100-million deal with the Buffalo Bills, where he has 1½ sacks and 11 tackles.
"We're just fine without Mario," Watt says. "We have a lot of good football players and a great coordinator in Wade."
But now Watt will have to assume an even bigger role on a defense that leads the AFC in points per game (14.6) and yards per game (275.6). Cushing suffered a torn anterior cruciate ligament against the Jets and is out for the season.
It serves as a somber reminder of how abruptly Watt's improbable journey can end.
"We were watching J.J. Monday night and then, boom, Brian Cushing went down with his knee injury," said Watt's father, John, a firefighter in Waukesha. "That truly puts everything in perspective. Aany one play J.J. could be lost for the year or suffer a career-ending injury. We're trying to enjoy this because J.J.'s put in so much hard work."
And remembering the work that got him here, Watt is still hoping for a Pizza Hut endorsement deal.
"Maybe they'll come around," he smiles.
Contributing: Mike Garafolo in East Rutherford, N.J.
USA TODAY Sports