Right away it was obvious when he saw the photo, he loved it. This one epitomized so much about J.J. Watt.
The Houston Texans' star pass-rusher was dressed in his uniform with white pants and a blue jersey. Photographer Art Streiber asked him to start facing the back of the room and then slowly turn, holding a lasso in his right hand, wearing a cowboy hat and a big Texas belt buckle with his name on it.
What excited Watt wasn't the perfectly symmetrical straight-on shot from the same part of the shoot. This one was a little more jaunty. Watt's body tilted toward the right as if in motion, he was looking down and the cowboy hat covered his eyes.
"Old school," Watt said, and asked for a copy.
Watt is a football player with an old-school work ethic, and he's one who cares about how he presents himself. No, he wasn't interested in putting on big Texas hair in the form of blonde wigs, or looking like a steer wearing cut-out horns and a nose ring. Watt was interested in the more classic photo options presented to him. At the same time, the tilt was just as representative of Watt, a player who doesn't fit into the usual molds of what a 3-4 defensive end should be.
That photo in particular didn't make it into the issue. A similar, but more upright, shot wound up in this photo gallery. On one of the two covers of ESPN The Magazine this week, Watt appears with a toothpick in his teeth that is adorned with a Texas state flag on the end. (Cowboys running back DeMarco Murray is on the other cover). The story by Michael J. Mooney, which accompanies his photo spread, ponders: Can Watt become a Texas legend? The goal of the photo shoot: an iconic image that answered "yes."
The day began with a tray full of sandwiches, Watt arrived after a workout, after all. An idea board on the side of a partition created so Watt could change showed photos that resembled images they might try. To the left in the dance hall at the ranch were tables filled with Texas-themed props.
Watt agreed to have the outline of the state of Texas painted onto his left arm to look like a brand seared into his skin. Before the photo that focused on his arm he did a few reps with a couple of adjustable electronic dumbbells ("That's a Cushing tip," he said with a sly smile, referring to teammate Brian Cushing) before walking outside for the first set of shots. A small crowd of workers from the ranch had gathered nearby.
A wardrobe change came soon after. Watt tried on a pair of skinny jeans, hopping around in them and asking aloud how women get into them. They settled on a looser pair of jeans, a white T-shirt and a red plaid jacket that's 66 years old and belonged to stylist Sherrie Krantz's grandfather.
The group moved into a field nearby, one right next to a fenced-off group of cattle, with their ankles taped to avoid fire ants. Two tame longhorns await their photoshoot and begin to moo. One, named Gateway, shares a scene with Watt. He sneezes, and Watt gets startled.
"He's got allergies, just like us," Gateway's handler says.
"We were about to have to go," Watt says to Gateway, sounding relieved they didn't have to go.
The longhorn is actually afraid of people.
Streiber takes a few stunning shots of Watt with the bull, then he moves over to a wooden fence and leans against it. At first unsure, Watt's enjoying himself now. He has ideas. He wants to sit on top of the fence but is told he might be too heavy. Indeed, the wood makes a cracking sound under his weight, but sustains itself under his 289 pounds. It's up there Streiber gets some of this shoot's grandest photos.