- Jeffri Chadiha, ESPN Staff Writer
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The little boy opened the front door and stared, both wide-eyed and dumbfounded, at the silent giant standing before him. The child was so stunned by the man's presence that he whirled toward his mother behind him and asked a simple question.
"Why is J.J. Watt here?" the boy inquired, knowing full well that the former standout at Pewaukee (Wis.) High School was supposed to be playing college football somewhere. When Watt said he had a pizza to deliver, the boy remained mystified. He quickly turned back to his mother and repeated his question.
For Watt, the boy's confusion was understandable. Watt had been a starting tight end at Central Michigan during his freshman season, and people in his hometown hardly expected that early success to lead to his quitting the team. But Watt also couldn't explain to a child that his dream of playing in the NFL required that unexpected stint working at Pizza Hut. It was hard enough for Watt to make adults understand his life strategy during the winter of 2008.
So when Watt returned to his car that night, he did something totally out of character: He sat quietly and let the embarrassment of the moment eat at his spirit.
"I told myself that this wasn't what I wanted," Watt recalled recently. "But I also reminded myself that I wasn't going to become a star overnight. I was learning a lot of things about myself by the going through those times. I felt like I had so much that I wanted to show people and they just couldn't see it."
It says plenty about Watt's character that he doesn't look back on those days with any regrets or bitterness. From where he sits today, as a player projected to be a first-round pick in this year's NFL draft after an All-American career at Wisconsin, the journey has been as valuable as the rewards he will soon reap. There might have been numerous days when Watt wondered when he'd get the chance to prove his potential. What he never did, however, was find a reason to doubt his eventual destiny in football.
In a draft filled with several top prospects at the defensive line positions, Watt more than holds his own in the category of upside. He carries 290 pounds on a 6-foot-6 frame and plays the game so relentlessly you'd think his family's livelihood depended on each snap. Said Cleveland Browns general manager Tom Heckert: "[Watt] is a big kid, and he's very versatile. It's good for him because a 3-4 or a 4-3 team can take him."
"This has been my dream since childhood," Watt said. "A lot of people say going into the draft can change who you are but I feel even more humbled now. I think about all the things my family has done for me to get to this point, and it makes me want to work that much harder."
Watt isn't merely offering up some cheesy, rote comments that might play well for future fans. He really believes he's blessed. You can hear it in his words and feel it in his energy. This is the same 22-year-old man who already has started his own foundation -- to help local elementary and junior high schools find funding for athletics -- and lives by one simple mantra: Dream big, work hard.
Watt also knows a thing or two about operating with a chip on his shoulder. When he asked the NFL for an evaluation on where he might be drafted if he left Wisconsin after his junior season, he took it as a personal challenge that he received a high second-round grade.
"I told myself that I'd do everything to show people that I was a top pick," Watt said. "I did it at the combine and I try to do it every time I visit a team. I like the idea of people doubting me. I've grown so used to it that I make up challenges for myself. Even when I was an All-American at Wisconsin, I always told myself that somebody out there could take my spot if I didn't work hard enough."
Watt carried at least a 3.0 grade-point average during his three years at Wisconsin. His defensive line coach, Charlie Partridge, said Watt also more than fulfilled his obligation for community service. "We normally require that players give two hours a week, but J.J. would put in 30 to 40," Partridge said.
Watt's high school coach, Clay Iverson, agreed that there is little that distracts Watt once he puts his mind to something. "He always believes that somebody out there is working harder than he is," Iverson said. "I'd tell him that he needs to relax at times, but he's just not built that way."
"J.J.'s mental toughness is second to none," said San Francisco 49ers free safety Chris Maragos, who played with Watt at Wisconsin. "A lot of guys who are great athletes will slack off at times because they know they can get by with that. He's always pushing himself to get the most out of his ability."
Part of that intensity comes from Watt's parents. His mother, Connie, is a vice president at a company where she began her career as a secretary with no college degree. His father, John, is a local firefighter in Pewaukee, a lieutenant who taught his three boys about courage every time he left for his job. Ultimately, Watt learned plenty about how far determination, resilience and hard work can take somebody with lofty goals.
Those lessons would prove invaluable as Watt's football career evolved. Although he was an all-state tight end and defensive end, he didn't attract much interest from major colleges. Aside from Minnesota, Colorado and Central Michigan, his most passionate suitors were programs at the Division II and Division III levels.
A case of mononucleosis prior to his senior season also didn't help his cause. The illness kept him from attending summer football camps and made it easy for his dream school, Wisconsin, to ignore him.
"The coaches told me he was only 215 or 220 pounds [Watt was 6-4 and 228 pounds as a senior], and they just couldn't take the risk," Iverson said. "So they offered him a chance to be a preferred walk-on. I know he was hurt by that but we all just told him to use it as motivation."
Said Watt: "The thing that hurt me the most was that nobody got to see my work ethic up close and personal. But I kept working my tail off because I always wanted to be the best player on the field. As long as that happened, I didn't care where I went."
That attitude changed once Watt settled into Central Michigan for his freshman season. Although he loved the campus, the coaches and his teammates, he had real issues with his role. Watt was the starting tight end in an offense that essentially treated that position as an extra offensive lineman in its spread system. After playing about 20 plays against Kansas in his first game, Watt met Connie and John after the game and quietly said, "This isn't what I signed up for."
As the weeks passed, Watt became even more despondent about his chances of reaching the NFL while at Central Michigan. His breaking point finally came late in the season. After finishing the season with eight receptions for a team that won the Mid-American Conference, Watt told his parents that the coaches wanted to move him to offensive tackle at season's end. At that point, in a meeting with his family, Watt made a huge decision.
First, he said he wanted to transfer after his first semester and walk on at Wisconsin. Then he asked Connie and John how much money they could put toward his education.
"They said they had enough money for one year," Watt said. "So I said, 'OK, I'll either get a scholarship or I'll quit after a year, get a job and just go to school.'"
"You could see that he wasn't happy," Connie said. "It wasn't that he didn't know he was blessed, either. It's just hard for J.J. to give something if his heart isn't completely into it."
Still, Watt's life didn't get much easier after leaving Central Michigan. He enrolled at Waukesha County Technical College to earn six credits and discovered that the doubters were lining up against him. When Watt started working at Pizza Hut, he told some co-workers on his first day that he was planning on playing at Wisconsin the following season. The idea seemed so preposterous that one man laughed at Watt and claimed he was too small to compete in the Big Ten.
Although such moments stung Watt, he also understood how his plan looked to outsiders.
"I was an 18-year-old kid who had given up a scholarship after his parents thought his school would be paid for," Watt said. "I had a championship ring and I'd played on ESPN. But I've never been a guy who likes settling. I never want to just be content."
Watt brought that same attitude to Madison in the summer of 2008. Although he was moving to defensive end, he vowed to follow the advice his parents had given him before leaving home. "We told him to treat every practice like it was his Super Bowl," John said. "Since he wasn't going to be playing, that's all he had to look forward to."
When Watt arrived on campus, he weighed nearly 280 pounds and immediately became one of the team's top lifters. Once practice started, he'd blow up plays on the scout team so consistently that the first-team offense would have to run them two or three times. What was even more impressive about his play was the fact that he had no idea what he was doing. "I had no technique," Watt said. "I was just playing off instinct."
"When J.J. walked in the door, you couldn't have anticipated him doing what he did," Partridge said. "But once he got on scout team, you could see he was going to be a force. He took advantage of every little bit of coaching he got."
Watt's dominance during his redshirt season led to immediate rewards. He earned a scholarship when spring football started a few months later and then started 13 games in 2009, finishing with 15.5 tackles for loss and 4.5 sacks. Last season, Watt improved even more, leading the Badgers in tackles for loss (21), sacks (seven), forced fumbles (three) and blocked kicks (three). He also earned several honors along the way -- including team co-MVP, second-team All-America and the Ronnie Lott Award (for personal character and athletic excellence) -- while displaying serious pro potential.
"I started to see him as a top NFL prospect midway through last season," Partridge said. "If he had come out at the start of the year, he might have been a midround guy. But you could see him really start to trust his speed, and once that happened, everything else came. He started using counter moves, and you could see that was the last bit of confidence he needed. He was crazy during the second half of the season."
Wisconsin's regular season ended with one of Watt's favorite college memories. Although his coaches wanted to take him out of an eventual 70-23 blowout of Northwestern in the season finale, Watt argued for one more play. When he tackled a Wildcats ball carrier for a loss, he jogged off the field triumphantly. That's when the fans at Camp Randall Stadium started chanting his name so loudly that tears filled Connie's eyes.
As she looked down on her son, she could see that all of his confidence and courage had led to him realizing his dreams. But what is startling is how little time Watt has spent reflecting on what he has accomplished. He has been so focused on the draft that there hasn't been much opportunity to look back at a career that once seemed improbable. As Watt's dad said, that might be why his son has come so far in the first place.
"When J.J. left school, it wasn't about the money," John said. "It was about pursuing the next challenge. Just give him one foot in the door, and he's the kind of kid who will kick it wide open. He'll do the same thing for whoever ends up drafting him."
Watt agreed. "I've been doubted ever since I've been in high school," he said. "Whenever I told people my dreams, they usually would say I needed to be realistic. Well, I was being realistic. It's just that other people couldn't see things like I did."
Senior writer Jeffri Chadiha covers the NFL for ESPN.com.
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