How the Texans' J.J. Watt became the ultimate role model for Steelers' T.J. Watt

When life went virtual this spring -- including the Houston Texans' offseason program -- defensive end J.J. Watt had to decide what people could see in the background on Zoom calls. The defensive end made sure three things were visible behind him in his home office: his NFL Defensive Player of the Year awards.

And when Watt did an interview in May during the broadcast of The Match: Champions for Charity, the golf tournament featuring Tiger Woods and Peyton Manning against Phil Mickelson and Tom Brady, he made sure to let the world know why those trophies were on display.

"I got those just for my brother, in case he's watching," Watt said.

J.J. Watt has been chasing a fourth Defensive Player of the Year award -- which would be an NFL record -- since he won it in back-to-back years in 2014 and 2015. This season he's been surpassed in the race by a familiar face, youngest brother T.J. Watt, a linebacker for the Pittsburgh Steelers.

"For me and T.J., playing the same position, fighting for the same things, trying to one up each other at all times, there's nothing better than that," J.J. said. "... For me and T.J. personally, there's obviously a whole lot of competition going on and I have no plans on letting my little brother win anytime soon."

While sibling rivalry has always driven them, J.J. has helped guide his younger brother through position changes and injuries to blossom into one of the NFL's rising stars.

T.J. broke out in his third season in 2019, finishing third in voting for the award. This season, T.J. leads the league in tackles for loss and is tied for third with nine sacks.

"That's what I expect from him," J.J. said. "I know how hard he works. I know his capabilities. I know what type of player he is. ... He should absolutely be in the Defensive Player of the Year conversation, and he's doing a great job."

Does J.J. still view T.J. as just his little brother or more like a peer in the NFL?

"Once he has three Defensive Player of the Year awards, I'll see him as a peer," J.J. said.

T.J. actually feels the same way.

"I haven't won one, so I can't really talk," T.J. said before the brothers' Week 3 matchup in Pittsburgh. "I'm just trying to be the best player that I can possibly be."

'Beat up a lot'

That competitiveness between the brothers is something their parents, John and Connie Watt, have seen since their sons were old enough to play. Shinny hockey and wrestling matches were intense. J.J. is five years older, and middle brother Derek -- a fullback with the Steelers -- is two years older. That back-and-forth between brothers is something that T.J. credits for developing his "competitive edge."

"It was super important in my development, to play with J.J. and Derek, to get beat up a lot when I was younger," T.J. said. "But [also], to be resilient and continue to grow and learn from my experiences playing with those guys."

T.J. was 16 and a sophomore at Pewaukee High School when J.J. was drafted by the Texans. He had seen J.J. transfer from Central Michigan to Wisconsin as a walk-on and play so well in his junior year that he left early for the NFL draft.

"He's been that role model for us since we were young and always set that standard; that bar was really high and it was special," said Derek Watt, who was drafted in the sixth round by the Chargers in 2016 but signed with the Steelers in the offseason. "We were there when he got drafted. We got to be in the building and some of those award ceremonies. Being there for him, and seeing all of the behind-the-scenes things that people don't notice, all the work he puts in, all the different sacrifices you have to make, we're proud of him ...

"Today, he's still that elite player. [It] definitely motivated us, for sure."

And while the brothers might compete with each other in just about every area of their lives, J.J. never passed up a chance to show his brothers what he was going through in an effort to help them.

"The coolest thing about J.J. is his openness to us," T.J. said. "Truly being an open book, in any aspect of life. That's what makes him such a great older brother."

Position change

It was July 2015, and T.J. Watt had a decision to make. He had been asked by Wisconsin coach Paul Chryst to switch from tight end -- the position J.J. also began his college career playing -- to pass-rusher.

T.J. joined the Badgers in 2013, but after four torn ligaments and two surgeries, Chryst suggested moving to outside linebacker would help alleviate the pressure being put on his knees while blocking.

When T.J. was considering the switch, Chryst called J.J. to ask what he thought of the idea. Other than helping prevent future knee injuries, J.J. remembers telling Chryst he thought T.J. would succeed at the position.

"I always thought that he would be successful at defensive end," J.J. said. "... The thing about him that's very similar to myself is that when you play tight end, they tell you what to do every single play. They tell you exactly who to block, they tell you what route to run. You have to wait for the ball to be thrown to you. There's a lot of variables that come into play where a lot of other things have to happen for you to make a play.

"On defense, you have the ability to affect the game on every single play. Now, sometimes it may be the right thing to do, sometimes it may be the wrong thing to do, but you can knife a gap, you can win a pass rush. You can get to the ball on every single play, theoretically. I think that's T.J.'s mindset and his mentality and what he does fits very, very well with that."

T.J. did not play in a game between October 2012, the end of his senior year of high school, and September 2015. During that time, J.J. was able to be a guidepost for his younger brother, helping him through not only the mental challenges of being injured and coming back but also the transition of switching positions.

But it was also important for T.J. to forge his own path.

"He wanted me to explore the position on my own and try to figure out ways where I can better myself," T.J. said. "I do remember one instance where he was back in Wisconsin and we just kind of worked on pass rush, going through the dummies and certain techniques, but nothing groundbreaking.

"More than anything, he wanted me to kind of find my own way and didn't want to overstep brotherly boundaries."

Badgers breakout

In 2015, his redshirt sophomore year, T.J. had eight tackles, three pass breakups and no sacks for a defense that ranked No. 1 nationally in scoring defense. The offseason before T.J.'s redshirt junior season at Wisconsin, J.J. had come back to his house in Wisconsin and was hosting family and friends for a cookout. T.J. was sitting around the fire, talking to Brad Arnett, the trainer he has worked with at NX Level in Waukesha since he was in eighth grade.

Arnett remembers that conversation, when T.J. told him he was ready to take a big step forward.

"He just made the comment, 'I'm tired of waiting for my time.' Kind of looking back over the path of what he had gone through to get to that point," Arnett said.

"And he wanted to be the guy. He didn't want to wait his turn anymore, if that makes sense. And I said, 'Well, you're in a position to do that. You're the guy coming in this season. And it just comes down to staying the path and continuing to stay dedicated, and go to work.'"

"... I don't want to say he rededicated himself, but in a way he kind of did. And we really fine-tuned things and really started to lock in on certain specific things. And he went out and had a hell of a year."

T.J. finished his Wisconsin career with a breakout season that put him on the NFL radar. He started all 14 games and totaled 15.5 tackles for loss and 11.5 sacks, the fifth-highest single-season total in school history. He entered the draft after that breakout season and was picked by the Steelers with the 30th pick in 2017.

"T.J. went through a lot in college with his injuries," J.J. said. "... I think he kind of realized that you have a chance to either overcome this adversity and turn it into something incredible or this could kind of be the end of the road, and he wasn't going to let it be the end of the road. He turned it into an unbelievable year and an unbelievable career since then.

"... Quitting is not really in the DNA. Whatever we go through, we're going to find a way to overcome it."

'Take a moment'

T.J. has always looked up to J.J., his oldest brother. And so when they had the chance to play in the same game for the first time ever when the Steelers hosted the Texans in Week 3, T.J. said he tried to enjoy the moment.

"I just tried to, especially toward the end of the game, take a moment to be able to see the guy I looked up to my whole life playing football, my brother, J.J.," T.J. said. "Just to see him go to work on the football field with my own eyes, it's something I'll never forget."

Both brothers were scheduled to play on Thanksgiving; J.J. and the 3-7 Texans are still taking on the Detroit Lions, but the 10-0 Steelers' game against the Baltimore Ravens was moved to Sunday because of COVID-19 concerns with the Ravens. While J.J. is still a highly respected pass-rusher -- he had a career-high four batted passes Sunday against the Patriots, and after the game quarterback Cam Newton called him "one of the best players in this generation" -- he said himself that he doesn't "think it's any secret that I don't have 10 years left in this league."

Eight years after J.J. won his first Defensive Player of the Year award, it is T.J. who is the more likely Watt brother to win that trophy.

In late September, Steelers coach Mike Tomlin was asked how T.J. has grown over the past few years. And although he has improved since he was drafted at No. 30 in 2017, Tomlin says he thinks there's still a lot more for T.J. to do.

"I think he's still writing that story," Tomlin said. "[T.J. Watt] was pretty awesome a year ago, to be quite honest with you. I know he has an intention of being continually better, so he's still writing that story. His talents are just a part of the equation. His hyperfocus, his attention to detail, his awareness, I think all add up to big playmaking ability and splash plays for us."