T.J. Watt and the board game bringing the Steelers together

TJ Watt is the ringleader of the game Biñho, which has become a way for the Steelers to bond and blow off steam. Philip G. Pavely-USA TODAY Sports

PITTSBURGH -- It was Christmas afternoon and Pittsburgh Steelers players were scattering quickly after practice, in a rush to get back to their families.

But Anthony Chickillo had business to take care of first.

He took the Biñho board from T.J. Watt's spare locker and placed the table-top soccer game on the team's covered pool table and dumped out the small game balls that look like marbles.

Then he turned and motioned Watt over.

"One game to five, that's it," Watt said.

The two each took a side behind a tiny goal, reached across the table and shook hands over the board, which measures about a foot wide and two feet long. Defending each goal are 10 stationary defenders, represented by markers that look like golf tees. The object is to score by knocking the marble around the defenders and into the small goal.

As the game started, offensive lineman David DeCastro walked over and leaned in over the table to watch.

One by one, more teammates encircled the pair of players, watching breathlessly as Chickillo and Watt flicked the marble back and forth. Rookie tight end Zach Gentry morphed into a de facto commentator as Watt took a shot.

“He knows all the nuances, it’s insane,” Gentry said. “He revolutionized the game.”

At one point, Alejandro Villanueva leaned in and pointed at the marble before Chickillo’s shot, trying to direct the linebacker where he should go with his next flick. Watt scolded the offensive lineman for giving his opponent extra help.

After 10 minutes, the score was tied, 4-4.

Watt was close on a number of near winning shots, yelling as one ricocheted off the bendy wall and came to rest just in front of the goal.

“I need to make that shot,” he said.

Finally, Watt finessed a soft shot through the stationary defenders and into the tiny goal, fist pumping as shot went in.

“Merry Christmas,” he shouted.

Save for the seasonal outburst, this is a typical scene in the Steelers locker room. Before and after practice, players gather around the table-top soccer game Watt introduced to the Steelers around Thanksgiving. Watt is the ringleader, but the game quickly caught fire with his teammates with between 10 to 12 playing regularly from all different position groups. Even quarterback Devlin Hodges has been seen taking practice shots from midfield.

Through the last month of the season, as the Steelers rallied from a 1-4 start and multiple quarterback changes, Biñho has become a way for them to bond and blow off steam. And Watt has been at the center of all that.

“That’s camaraderie. I like it,” guard Ramon Foster said. “This is more valuable than almost practicing.”

The game also brings out qualities in Watt that have made him an indispensable part of this year’s team. It shows his fiery competitiveness, and it demonstrates his ability to bring the locker room together as a team leader. Thursday, his teammates voted him team MVP. And he’s a leading candidate for the NFL’s Defensive Player of the Year honors.

“He's a guy that leaves it all on the field, cares about his teammates,” cornerback Joe Haden said. “He's a caring dude. He makes plays. He's a really good dude. He's a Watt."

T.J. Watt wasn't the first Watt to play Biñho. Houston Texans defensive end J.J. Watt is hooked on it, too.

The oldest Watt brother found the game from a friend and introduced it to his locker room before T.J. brought it to Pittsburgh.

"He steals everything from me," J.J. said. "He's a Steeler, that's what he does, he steals."

The two haven’t gone against each other yet, but T.J. frequently plays against his dad whenever he’s in town. When his dad, John, stopped in on Christmas Eve, T.J. took him on, playing with the board he keeps at home, and captured some of the games on his Instagram. In one video, John scores a goal and celebrates by yelling, putting his hands together and shaking them in victory. In the next, T.J. flicks the ball in from a couple inches out to score the game-winner. He points at his dad and yells, "GOOOOAL," laughing as John shakes his head.

"Winner, winner chicken dinner," T.J. tells his dad.

“Sore winner, sore winner,” his dad responds.

In T.J.'s rankings, he’s the best player in his family, followed by his dad. In the locker room, he's also the best, followed by rookie linebacker Devin Bush and Chickillo.

J.J., though, disputes his brother’s rankings.

"I'm above average in it," J.J. said. "I'm not unbelievable, but I'd beat T.J., there's no doubt. I mean, my dad scores on T.J."

Even while J.J. was on injured reserve, both brothers played the game frequently throughout the season. The Texans' locker room has multiple boards going at any given time. Polled by teammates, Justin Reid, Brandon Dunn and Greg Mancz ranked among the best players in Houston.

“There's some guys that are really good," J.J. said. "I don't know if you actually want to be really good at that game, because that means you're not doing a lot else with your time.”

The Steelers keep it limited to one board, but it’s almost constantly in use.

While the Texans’ rules dictate the first to seven goals wins, the length of the Steelers’ games fluctuate daily. The rules sometimes fluctuate, too.

Everyone agrees that you get one flick per turn, you can’t cross midfield with your head and you can’t touch the goal posts, but T.J. is notorious for adding rules as he goes along.

“Because he brought it in, he makes up rules,” Bush said. “He’ll say you touched something you didn’t touch or you did an illegal movement or, ‘Nah, you didn’t keep the right score.' Whatever he’s feeling that day. ... He cheats.”

Part of that could be because Watt doesn’t like to lose.

It doesn’t happen often to the third-year linebacker, and when it does, he does everything he can to rectify it immediately. It’s a trait that endears him to his teammates -- and drives them crazy.

“Any time you win, you always got to trash talk,” defensive lineman Tyson Alualu said, adding that sometimes the Biñho talk spills over to the practice field as teammates remind each other of scores. “Especially T.J. But with that, if you do that, you’re going to be here all day because he’ll keep saying, ‘Run it back’ and you’re going to keep playing whatever game it is. I know a lot of people stay here late because of that.”

It’s not just Biñho. Everything is a competition to Watt.

Watt is always the first guy out at practice. He also tries to be the first guy at every meeting. If Watt sees someone else trying to arrive early to beat him, he’ll engage in some good-natured ribbing, asking them what they’re doing.

"I don't know when he's not competitive," said fellow outside linebacker Bud Dupree. "If you beat him in something, if anybody beats him in something, he's going to be, 'Do it again, and again' until he wins. He just wants to get at least one win. If he gets at least one win, he's all right.

"He's going to bring the competitive side out of you. That's one thing he does. T.J., the more he's here, the more he opens up to people. He's becoming one of the guys everybody likes."

A large part of that competitive energy comes from growing up as the youngest of three brothers. Even J.J. joked that he's being driven to compete with T.J.

"He's trying to win Defensive Player of the Year awards out here," J.J. said. "Half the reason I'm coming back now is because I was leading the league in quarterback hits when I left and now he's leading the league in quarterback hits. So, I can't let that stand."

As much as he likes winning, T.J. Watt isn’t necessarily trying to win the league’s Defensive Player of the Year honors. The top priority, of course, is grabbing a playoff berth.

To do that, the Steelers need to hope the Tennessee Titans lose to the Texans -- and beat the Baltimore Ravens.

To do that, though, Watt will likely need to make another game-changing play, just like he’s done in most games this season. A week ago, Watt strip-sacked New York Jets quarterback Sam Darnold and gave the ball back to the Steelers’ offense, leading to their lone touchdown.

It was his seventh forced fumble of the season, adding to an already impressive stat line that includes a career-high 14 sacks, two interceptions, four fumble recoveries and 43 quarterback hits.

His ability to make those plays at the right times is what makes him so valuable to his team.

“It’s phenomenal across the charts,” Dupree said, giving something of a stump speech for Watt. “If you look at his stats compared to everyone else’s stats, his stats are beyond theirs. Beyond them. Particularly in the sack category, he’s doing a great job in that. QB hits, great job of that also. And also, his TFLs are at an all-time high.

“Every game, he’s making a game-changing play. You’ve got to count that in there as well. A lot of guys on that list, they’re not making game-changing plays. The team isn’t riding their back. This team is riding T.J.’s back.”

Even with so much riding on him entering the regular-season finale, Watt is keeping up his normal routine.

With just a few minutes before the Steelers had to leave the locker room for their mid-morning meeting Thursday, Watt wrapped up media interviews and grabbed his Biñho board.

He set it up on the pool table and signaled to Chickillo.

Game on.

ESPN NFL reporter Sarah Barshop contributed to this story.