MADISON, Wis. -- The most dominant NFL defensive player in the last quarter-century will forever hold a special place in the collective hearts of Wisconsin football fans. J.J. Watt's widely celebrated story involves the power of perseverance and hard work, which allowed him to rise from Pizza Hut delivery boy to Badgers walk-on defensive end to Houston Texans first-round NFL draft pick to two-time league defensive player of the year.
He has achieved money and fame while maintaining a humility that has endeared him to thousands of supporters. If there were a Disney movie to be made about him, it would probably seem too cheesy to produce.
But this is a story about another Watt who has quietly worked his way through a successful yet understated college football career. The problem is that when you are the younger brother of J.J. Watt, every story begins with the name everybody already knows.
"I knew when I got here it was going to happen that people were going to compare us," said Derek Watt, a fifth-year senior fullback at Wisconsin. "Following in his footsteps, filling his shoes as people always talked about, it wasn't going to happen. I'm not going to fill those shoes because I'm not in those same shoes. That's a tough act to follow."
How does someone carve his own path at the same school, with the same last name, immediately after one of the most famous and respected football players in the state leaves for the NFL? For the past five years, Derek Watt has tried to do just that, emulating many of the same traits that made his brother successful while also discovering how to be comfortable as his own person.
That task has not always been easy, of course. The Watt family name carries significant weight, and whenever Derek would walk around campus with his younger brother, T.J., also a Badgers football player, as well as parents John and Connie, gawkers would whisper the same refrain: That's J.J. Watt's family.
It was true. But it was Derek Watt's family, too.
"People ask me about him," Derek said. "I've been around long enough where people who know me, it's not as much of that kind of stuff as it is with people who are passing by and don't know me at all."
Derek arrived on campus from Pewaukee, Wisconsin, in 2011, one season after J.J. was named a second-team All-American and declared a year early for the NFL draft. During Derek's first year, he took a redshirt season and played linebacker. Just weeks before the start of the 2012 season, however, coaches flipped Derek over to fullback, where he has remained ever since.
The fact Derek has spent most of his college career on offense has helped to decrease the on-field comparisons to J.J. Derek is quick to point out he and his brother are totally different people and completely different football players. J.J. is 6-foot-5 and 289 pounds; Derek stands 6-2 and 236 pounds.
Still, Derek has used J.J.'s advice during his time in Madison. He was told to show up on time, listen to coaches, keep his mouth shut, work hard and play every play like it was his Super Bowl.
"And I know that's what he did," Derek said. "I know my dad told us that growing up. Play every play in practice like it's your Super Bowl. And I know that was a big thing for him, and that earned him a scholarship. He told my parents he was going to earn a scholarship after one semester, and he did just that. He just kept going from there. I try to just mimic that and take pride in everything you do and kind of let that do the talking for you."
Derek has become a vital piece for the Badgers, and he will close his college career Dec. 30 when Wisconsin (9-3) plays USC (8-5) in the National Funding Holiday Bowl. This year he has been utilized more than ever, as a blocker, a runner (four carries, 13 yards) and a pass-catcher (13 catches, 127 yards). But statistics do not adequately reflect what he means to the team. Versatility and leadership are tough to measure on paper.
"Derek does a great job just doing whatever he's asked to do," Badgers quarterback Joel Stave said. "He does a great job fitting up on linebackers, filling and clearing out holes for the running backs. And that's something that he's just kind of quietly gone and done very well for four years."
Badgers running backs coach John Settle, who also coaches the team's fullbacks, described Watt as "one of the best" fullbacks he'd ever coached. His football intelligence, coupled with athleticism, makes him a good route runner with excellent hands, someone who can rush in short-yardage scenarios or line up at tight end.
His college career may not carry the same Hollywood storyline as his brother's. But he is considered one of the top fullbacks in the 2016 draft and should be joining his brother in the NFL soon -- an accomplishment based on work ethic and drive that will have nothing to do with his famous last name.
"The sky's the limit for him," Settle said. "It might go unnoticed at the college level. But trust me, the 32 NFL teams, all of them are looking for a fullback. They recognize who he is and what he has done. He's put himself in a position to play at the next level."