This story appears in ESPN The Magazine's Nov. 24 The State of Football Issue. Subscribe today!
AS THEY CAME over one of the last hills on Highway 6, the massive stadium appeared on the horizon. The silhouette of Kyle Field cut a chunk from the mid-October sky, and it was impossible to look at anything else. J.J. Watt was excited. Ole Miss was in College Station to take on Texas A&M in front of 110,633 fans, the biggest crowd in the history of the SEC and the largest ever to attend a football game on any level in Texas. Watt had been invited by his friend and Texans teammate Shane Lechler, who was an All-America punter for the Aggies. Watt doesn't get out much -- crowds are a major challenge -- but he figured if he stayed close to Lechler and hung out with the players, he could blend in and watch the game.
"It didn't go as I thought," he says a few weeks later.
The fans' pursuit started on the highway. There were honks and waves and "cars driving up to the window just to take pictures of him," Lechler says. Then, at the stadium, even on the sideline, people swarmed for photos and autographs. Watt was standing among several Aggies greats, many of them born and raised in those quintessential small Texas towns where the post office shuts down early on Fridays when the varsity football team is on the road. But fans were jumping out of the stands for Watt, a Wisconsinite who prides himself on his Midwestern manners. It was downright awkward for him.
"Lech brought me as a guest," Watt says. "It's a fine line between feeling like you're a burden on somebody and just trying to have a good time."
For the 6-foot-5, 289-pound defensive end, the days of blending in are firmly in the rearview mirror. Watt is arguably the best, most popular player at any level of football right now, a beast on the field and a willing pitchman off it. In Texas, "popular" doesn't quite cover it. Sure, Watt attended Wisconsin -- his biggest college game was a loss to TCU in the 2011 Rose Bowl -- but the fourth-year Texan has been adopted as the state's favorite son. His No. 99 jersey is a fashion statement. His face is on grocery-store billboards along every interstate. His Verizon commercial -- the one in which he's grooving at a middle school dance -- seemingly airs on a loop. Then there's the $100 million contract he signed in September, with the most guaranteed money ever for a defensive player at $51.8 million.
Even on a middling Houston team, the 25-year-old Watt is eye candy. He single-handedly turned what otherwise would have been a boring Thursday night blowout loss to the Colts on Oct. 9 into a competitive game, sacking Andrew Luck twice, batting down three passes, returning a fumble for a score. It was the signature demonstration of how the 2012 defensive player of the year always seems to be in the offense's way. According to Pro Football Focus, Watt had an NFL-best 61 combined sacks, hits and hurries through Week 9, 18 more than the linebackers tied for second, the Broncos' Von Miller and the Chiefs' Justin Houston. This year Watt has also started playing offense in goal-line packages, and a third of the way through the season he had as many touchdowns (three) as LeSean McCoy and Calvin Johnson combined.
Three years after Texans fans booed his selection as the 11th pick of the 2011 draft, J.J. Watt is the embodiment of the way millions of Texans view their state and themselves -- outsized and better than everyone else. He's their hometown boy, without, you know, the Texas hometown. (Details, details.)
But there's something bigger than Watt's on-field prowess at play here, something bigger than football. He trots out clichés unapologetically. ("Success is not owned. It's leased.") He Googled "What do rich people buy?" after signing that record-breaking contract (and feigned disappointment with the results). He took a bold public stance on pregame social media usage and claims to have little time for dating or the kind of extracurriculars most other 20-something players revel in.
In Watt's eyes, he can't waste time on anything that might interfere with his on-field mission. And -- go ahead and call him a self-righteous scold -- he insists that both the game and the league be treated with respect. "I don't really understand the need for some of the indulgences now," he says. "There's so much time for that later. But you only get a certain age before you start to fall off from your prime. You only get that much time to be as great as you can be. If there's a day that goes by that I don't give it my all, I can't have that day back. That day is gone."
Not far from his house in suburban Houston, Watt is eating dinner on a Friday night in an empty barbecue restaurant, the kind that serves until they run out of 'cue in the afternoon. His friend, chef Ronnie Killen, has set up one table in the center of the room, with fine-dining linens and sparkling water. He's delivering dinner from his award-winning steakhouse so Watt can enjoy an uninterrupted meal. Watt is wearing a Houston Oilers beanie, a T-shirt with the words "Never quit" and long gray shorts, and he's shuffling through a list of Texas-seeming traits: He likes pickup trucks and smoked red meat. He likes ranches and country music and cowboy boots -- he bought a pair during training camp of his rookie year and now has three.
He prides himself on staying out of trouble, and he can talk for hours without saying anything even mildly offensive. He gives handwritten Christmas cards with a couple of hundred bucks to team staffers -- the guy who cooks the corn, the guy who washes his clothes, the folks who plan his community outreach. He befriends strangers on vacation and kids with cancer, and he stays in touch. After he signed his new deal, he bought a car. For his mom. And on most days, he leaves his house around 5:30 a.m., is one of the first to arrive at the Texans' training facility and stays late studying tape until he's memorized an opposing quarterback's timing and delivery patterns. Then he returns to his house in Pearland, where he lives alone.
It's a self-induced lonely existence, but Watt is elevating the art of commitment to football and enforcing his version of the rules. He's become such a towering figure that even when he taunts an opponent after a sack -- taking a seemingly rehearsed faux selfie over Titans QB Zach Mettenberger in Week 8 -- Watt can sell himself as a defender of the game, a veteran disciplining a rookie who's broken an unwritten rule about game prep and picture-taking. (In the week leading up to the game, Mettenberger had posted goofy pictures of himself, including one two hours before kickoff.)
"It's just kind of a reminder that this is the National Football League, not high school," Watt said afterward. "I take my job very seriously. If I was a rookie quarterback being named the starter for the first time in the league, I feel like I'd be a little bit more focused than that. Maybe he'll learn from it, maybe not. We won the game, so that's all that matters."
In 2014, it all reads like a playbook from an almost puritan time. Watt may not be a Texan by birth, but hell if he isn't a glossy example of the state's God-and-country values -- ones that Texans are not shy about imposing upon others. They're prideful, with an unapologetic moral streak.
"I've definitely embraced everything about Texas," he says. "I'm fortunate I landed here. And I think I fit very well here. There are big similarities between Wisconsin and Texas."
Then, between bites of a steak the size of a helmet, he trots out the oldest Texas trope of all: "Everything is bigger in Texas, you know."
Not that he has to deeply understand Texas for the state to deeply appreciate him. Winning will do it. Since the days of Davy Crockett, Texas has embraced powerful figures from out of state; the Bush political dynasty traces its roots to Connecticut, after all. Similarly, there's a long history of athletes landing here from other places, excelling and being celebrated by Texans as their own. Roger Staubach is from Ohio. Tony Dorsett is from Pennsylvania. Troy Aikman is from California. They became legends in Texas by winning in Texas, and they all decided to stay here after they retired. To think of them is to think of Dallas.
It doesn't even take a championship. In Texas, you can become a legend by coming close. Take Dan Pastorini, who was drafted by the Oilers in 1971 and traded away following the 1979 season. In between, the quarterback took coach Bum Phillips' team to two AFC championship games and became one of the most popular players of the "Luv Ya Blue" era. So when Pastorini retired in 1984, the California native settled in Houston and eventually started selling a barbecue rub that has his face on the label. "Being a Texan is probably the most special thing someone can be," he says. "We're the first in line when people need and the last around cleaning up the mess." Last year the state legislature passed a resolution bestowing honorary Texan status on Pastorini.
Watt's resolution isn't in the mail just yet. He's lived here for only three and a half years. In the offseason, or even during a four-day weekend, he still flies up to Wisconsin to see his family or his buddies. He hasn't been to the Alamo or to Hill Country, Big Bend or Luckenbach or the cow-town parts of Fort Worth. He doesn't know much about Waylon Jennings or Willie Nelson. But on most Fridays, he'll get takeout and watch a nearby high school football game from the stadium press box. He roots for Pearland High and cheered the team on to the state final last year. Kids have come to expect Watt, so they wait for his pickup by the entrance of the stadium parking lot. A security detail escorts him in. It can be a hassle, but he says watching the young players rejuvenates him.
Back in the barbecue restaurant, the dinner goes on, and Watt continues naming things he likes that seem Texan. Those high school football games, Tex-Mex, the colors in the state flag, the Rockets. He's interested in the history of the Oilers, met Phillips before he died last year and has talked to Earl Campbell about what it was like to play for the late-'70s teams. He's been to Midland and Odessa and mentions West Texas with reverence. He's proud to be a part of the traditions and history of Texas football, and he understands the pressure that comes with being compared with the pantheon of players who have become stars here, even if he won't yet allow such a presumptuous thought.
He's more comfortable envisioning the future -- greatness on the field, followed by a normal life in Wisconsin with a wife and kids, a high school coaching gig and a porch to sip beers on."I'll always be a Wisconsin boy at heart," he says, with a tinge of apology. He pauses and adjusts his Oilers beanie. "But I'll always have some sort of connection with Texas."