Jan. 7, 2011
MADISON, Wis. -- When J.J. Watt woke up Thursday morning, he still had not made up his mind on whether he should return for his senior year of eligibility at Wisconsin or enter the NFL draft.
“The last thing I was thinking about was football,’’ he said. “I was just trying to relax and enjoy some time at home (in Pewaukee) with my family. But then it came time for a sit-down talk.’’
As he once again sorted through the information and potential scenarios, his parents, John and Connie Watt, were at his side — just like they had been throughout the decision-making process.
“We talked it through and we went back and forth and back and forth,’’ J.J. Watt said.
During this lengthy process, he had been collecting advice. Now he was drawing from it.
“The best advice I got? Weigh the pros and cons of leaving and weigh the pros and cons of coming back,’’ he said. “Then you have to be able to live with the best or worst of both situations.’’
From the very beginning, he knew it was not going to be a slam-dunk; one way or the other.
“It was an extremely hard process,’’ he said. “And it was a much more difficult decision than the outside world thinks. It also was a much closer decision than everyone thinks.’’
In the end, it came down to what J.J. Watt wanted to do.
“It was 100 percent my decision,’’ he said. “I took into consideration everything that everyone told me. I gathered as much information as possible. At the end of the day, it was my decision, and no one else’s. And there will be no looking back. I’ve always lived my life this way.’’
Dream big. Work hard. J.J. Watt has always dreamed of playing in the National Football League. And now he will move a step closer to achieving that goal by leaving school and entering the draft.
“It’s been a dream of mine for as long as I can remember,’’ he said, “and to have that opportunity in front of me now was extremely difficult to pass up. I’m very excited about the new challenges that lie ahead and I can’t wait to start on this journey.
“When I went to sleep (Wednesday) night, I was still undecided. But I’ve been weighing the pros and cons for a long time before the bowl game. I didn’t think about it at all during the bowl week because I knew that I had to focus 100 percent on the game.
“But I’ve thought about every single possible situation, and that’s how I came to my decision. It definitely wasn’t a case where I woke up Thursday and I decided that I wanted to go to the NFL. There was an extremely high amount of time and energy that we put into the decision.’’
His parents were there for him at every turn. And they had the biggest influence. Always have.
“Hands-down,’’ he confirmed. “We talked for hours and hours on the trip to California for the (Ronnie) Lott award. We talked after the Rose Bowl when we were in California. And there have been a lot of conversations the last couple of days between me and my parents.
“They’ve kept me grounded the whole time. They’ve always kept me coming back to what’s important to me, and what my morals and values are. They are definitely the ones that I looked to throughout the process.’’
UW coach Bret Bielema also factored into the fact-finding and decision-making. “I talked to Coach B throughout, and he gave me as much information as possible,’’ Watt said. “He’s been great.’’
And that’s what made that phone call Thursday morning so difficult.
He had to call his coach and tell him that he was leaving.
“It was an extremely tough call to make,’’ Watt said. “Obviously, he’s done a lot for me by giving me an opportunity to play at the Division I level and my home state team. I thanked him.’’
He also thanked his teammates.
“I talked to a lot of them on the phone,’’ he said. “They were among the first to know of my decision. Those guys mean the world to me and I wanted them to feel like they were part of the process, not an after-thought, especially my defensive linemen. I wanted them to hear it from me, and not read it on the Internet. I told them that I’d always be there for them; anything they needed.’’
Did anyone try to talk him out of leaving? “No, they all gave me their blessings,’’ Watt said. “They understood it was an extremely difficult decision and how I’ve worked extremely hard my entire life for this opportunity. Some of them said, ‘Now it’s your turn to go and try to dominate the NFL.’’’
What kind of evaluation did Watt get from the NFL on his draft status? “They gave me a grade that I was obviously pleased with enough to enter the draft,’’ he said. “I don’t want to release the exact statements. I want to keep that inside my family. But they gave me something I felt was good enough.’’
Did he have a rating in mind? “I did,’’ he said. “My family and I discussed it a lot, so when I got the call I knew what I was hoping to hear and I did hear it – propelling me to make my decision.’’
Is money a motivating factor? “It’s definitely not the driving factor,’’ Watt said. “This is a dream come true for me and it’s more about getting a chance to play in the NFL than it is about making money. Obviously, it’s a very good opportunity to set myself up (financially) and my family up.’’
What about the uncertainty over the league’s collective bargaining agreement and the potential for a lockout? “It’s very uncertain times and I’ve been told many different things,’’ Watt said. “A lot of people are saying there’s going to be a lockout. I guess it depends on how long the lockout is going to be.’’
In this context, Watt knows that he’s not alone in dealing with the unknown. “It’s something that all the juniors who enter the draft have to take into consideration,’’ he said. “It did factor into my decision. But it was also hard to factor something into your thinking that you have no control over.’’
Did he come up with reasons to return as a senior? “Hundreds of them,’’ he said. “Playing for the Badgers another year would have been great. The fans, my teammates and the coaches have been great. There were many positives in coming back. But there were also many positives for leaving.’’
Did the prospect of competiting for the 2011 Heisman Trophy weigh into his thinking? Did the suggestion that he could improve in certain areas and enhance his marketability also come up? “The awards and stuff like that are a big deal,’’ Watt said. “Personal improvement is a big deal as well. But at this time, I felt like I was ready for the NFL draft. I made a decision that was best for me and my family.’’
Does he feel like he’s worthy of being drafted in the first round? “I do, I firmly do,’’ he said. “I’m an extremely hard worker. I’m very dedicated on and off the field. And I’m going to give whatever team that drafts me every single thing that I have. I definitely feel I would fit very well there (first round).’’
Watt plans on training in Arizona to get ready for the NFL’s scouting combine. He will not enroll for the second semester of classes. But he’s committed to completing his degree requirements.
“I still have a little bit of a ways to go on my schooling because I transferred (from Central Michigan) and switched majors,’’ he said. “But I will complete my degree at some point in my life. That’s a guarantee. I will do a lot of work in the off-seasons because I feel it’s extremely important.
“It would be a bad message to send to my children someday – and children everywhere – if it I didn’t get my degree.’’
Watt said that he talked with UW tailback John Clay earlier this week. Clay is also deliberating over his future, whether to return for his senior year or enter the draft. “He’s going to do what his best for him and his family just like I did,’’ Watt said. “I’ll support him 110 percent in whatever he does.’’
Was Watt surprised to learn that Stanford quarterback Andrew Luck, who was projected as the No. 1 pick overall in the draft, had elected to go back to school? “A little bit,’’ he said. “But he’s pretty young (Luck has two years of eligibility remaining) and he felt it was the best decision for him. I give him credit, it was a noble decision and not one many people would be willing to make.’’
There will be no shortage of defensive linemen available in the draft. Did that factor into Watt’s thinking? “It did, and I took everything into account,’’ he said. “But I still felt this was my best option.’’
At times, it almost sounded like Watt wanted to pinch himself Thursday night to make sure that he wasn’t dreaming. After all, it wasn’t so long ago that he worked as a Pizza Hut delivery man in Pewaukee to earn some money to buy a scooter before he embarked on the UW leg of his journey.
In October, he talked about the sacrifices his family made after he transferred from Central Michigan. “My parents took a $20,000 hit to pay for my first year here (the UW) while I was walking on,’’ he said. “That’s huge when you’re 18 and you tell your mom and dad that your five years of schooling will be paid for, and, then, you come home and tell them you need $20,000. That hurt me pretty bad.’’
Watt went on to earn a scholarship before he ever played a snap in a regular season game. Dream big. Work hard.
“It’s still crazy that the National Football League is there for me and it’s a real possibility,’’ said Watt, who will turn 22 in March. “I’m a small-town kid who grew up in Pewaukee and just wanted a chance to play at the collegiate level. And now I’m going on to the NFL, which is wild.’’
When it did first dawn on Watt that he had ability to play at the next level? “As I started to play better and better throughout the year,’’ he said. “The Ohio State game was pretty big for me.’’
It was then, too, when momentum began to build for establishing his foundation – the Justin J. Watt Foundation to benefit local elementary and middle schools that lack funding for athletics. How will turning pro this season impact this portion of his dream?
“It’s a big deal, but it was not a huge part of the decision-making process,’’ he said. “Being able to have a lot of connections at the NFL level is going to be very nice for my foundation. There will be fewer NCAA hoops to jump through now and I’ll be able to contribute money because of my situation.’’
Watt stressed that he was “110 percent’’ excited about moving forward with his foundation, and everything else in his life. “I’m 110 percent committed to making myself the highest drafted player possible,’’ he said. “And whatever team drafts me, I’m going to give 110 percent effort just like I did at Wisconsin, Central Michigan and Pewaukee High School. I’m going to live my life the same way.’’
What, if anything, still lingers in his mind from the Rose Bowl? “Losing,’’ he said. “It’s very tough knowing my last game in a Badger uniform was a loss. But if I let that linger it’s only going to hurt me more. I can’t wait to watch the Badgers work towards another Rose Bowl next year.’’
Close your eyes and you can visualize J.J. Watt grinning and bringing the tips of his two thumbs together – palms open and out – and forming the shape of a W with his two massive hands.
“My time at Wisconsin was amazing,’’ he said.
Badger For Life.
But it was time to take the next step.
“I’m very excited about this new chapter in my life that is starting,’’ he concluded. “And I’m looking forward to representing myself, my family, my hometown of Pewaukee and the state of Wisconsin as a National Football League player, which has always been my dream.’’