The remarkable day J.J. Watt paid for a funeral

In July, a desperate high school teacher in Texas tried to sell her J.J. Watt apparel on Twitter so that she could pay for her grandfather's funeral. Then an unlikely hero swooped in: J.J. Watt. Illustration by Jamie Coe

DESPERATION HAS NO BEDTIME, and that's how Jennifer Simpson ends up still awake on July 20, two hours past when she wanted to be asleep.

It's almost 11 p.m., and Simpson is well into her fourth week of sheer financial panic trying to pay for her grandfather's funeral. Jerry Roderick Sr., 73, had died in late June, and as Simpson scrolls on her phone, his body is still sitting in a backroom at a chilly funeral home in Houston.

Jennifer is a 26-year-old Texas high school English teacher, and by mid-July, she and her aunt Tara have tried everything to be able to pay the $18,000 they need to bury Jerry. Simpson has had bake sales, yard sales and plate sales, where they sell chicken or barbecue to construction crews looking for a $5 lunch.

They're on their second GoFundMe trying to rally $7 or $11 or $14 from anybody and everybody they can. Lately, Jennifer and Tara have made signs and started walking up and down busy intersections hoping people will put down their windows with a dollar or two.

It's not working. They're at around $5,000, and the painful reality is hitting home: They aren't going to be able to bake enough brownies to bury Grandpa Jerry.

So Mitchell finds herself tossing and turning in bed, head spinning about trying to get her grandfather in the ground. She normally crashes at 8:30 or 9 at night, then wakes up at 4:30 a.m. for the day, even when school is out. But lately, she sleeps when she can, and even then she feels like she has barbed wire in her stomach.

For two hours on this night, she tries to sleep but keeps pulling out her phone. By 10:40 p.m., Simpson is typing a tweet she hoped she would never have to send. But she feels like she is out of options.

At 10:44 p.m., she tweets that she is trying to pay for her grandfather's funeral, and she is going to have to sell two of her most cherished items, from her most cherished athlete hero -- a J.J. Watt jersey and a pair of Watt's line of women's sneakers. She's hoping to get $100 or so for them.

She lays her head back down, but sleep continues to elude her. Finally, 20 minutes after her tweet, she closes up everything and is just about to log off once and for all. But she decides to open Twitter one last time, just to see if anybody has reached out with an offer for her Watt gear.

She sees she has three notifications, and one reply makes her bolt upright in bed. A man in Arizona has responded, saying "Don't sell your shoes and jersey, we'll help with the funeral. I'm sorry for your loss."

The man in Arizona? J.J. Watt himself.

JERRY RODERICK WORKED MOST OF HIS LIFE as a mechanic, which means he spent decades with just his legs sticking out from under cars, with permanent gunk under his fingernails. He tore up his body all day, the nameless guy busting his ass to figure out what that rattle is on the passenger side.

His wife, Linda, died in 1999. Their six older kids were all out of the house, but Jerry was suddenly raising Tara, 11, at the time, on his own. He could be more closed off than she would have liked, and then he'd come home exhausted from work. Tara says he'd wind down some nights with a little more alcohol than she would have liked. "He took care of me," she says. "I always ate. I always had food on the table."

And Tara ate one thing more than any other: beans. Roderick loved beans so, so much.

Until Linda died, he hadn't cooked much in his entire life. So Roderick learned to cook beans. Pinto beans with bacon ends. Lima beans with collard greens. Black-eyed peas with mustard greens. Any bean dish you could come up with, he put it in his new crock pot with some garlic salt, fed Tara breakfast and got her ready for school, hustled off to his mechanic's job, then came home to a crock pot brimming with his bean dish of the day. "I ate so many beans as a kid," Tara says.

He and Tara couldn't even eat them all. He'd either hand-deliver them to his older kids living in the area or invite local family members over to hang out and crush whatever he'd made. He loved beans so much that everybody in his family started to love beans, too. His bean affection had become infectious.

When he died this summer, nobody wanted or expected a parade. But they were damn certain he deserved a proper burial. He'd lived his life in anonymity, so they wanted him to at least rest in peace with a big cement nameplate. The world might not remember Jerry Roderick. But they would.

Late in his years, he had made one very specific request to everybody who'd listen: He wanted to be buried, not cremated, and he wanted to rest in peace as close as possible to his parents in Houston's Brookside Funeral Home & Memorial Park. "He didn't ask for much from us," Jennifer says. "But what he did ask for, we felt like he'd earned that."

The day he died, Jennifer and Tara launched a mission to get him that spot. But as the days passed by and they began to realize they couldn't round up enough money, it tore them up inside, and the temperature of the funeral home didn't help.

Roderick was one of those people who was always cold. He lived in southeast Texas but his body seemed to think it was in Minnesota, so he constantly asked for long sleeves. When he moved into a nursing home a few years ago, he wore a jacket so much that you couldn't really call it a jacket -- it was just an extra shirt he put on every morning.

When he died, his family members couldn't think about him in the back room of a chilly funeral home, waiting to be buried. They were tortured by imagining him on a cold table, his soul aching for one more layer. "I just wanted him in the dirt," says Loretta Simpson, Jennifer's mom and Jerry's daughter. "In the dirt, I feel like he would finally be warm."

After a month, the family was struggling to scrounge up enough for the whole funeral. They briefly considered cremation, which would have been cheaper. A local cemetery would have been quite a bit cheaper, too, but Jennifer and Tara really wanted to honor his desire to be buried at Brookside, near his mom and dad.

To fulfill his dying wish, the total cost was about $18,000. By July 20, Jennifer and Tara, a niece and her aunt, both felt like they had maxed out what they could raise on their own. Simpson finally buckled that night and put up her treasured Watt gear for sale.

When Watt responded, her tweet took off. She texted Tara and then called her mom, who freaked out at the sight of her daughter's cellphone hours past her normal bedtime. "Something must be wrong," Loretta thought as she answered the call. Simpson told her why she was calling, that Watt had vowed to help, and Loretta couldn't believe it.

Suddenly Jennifer told her mom she had to go -- Tara was calling. When she clicked over, Tara said she was worried Jennifer was getting scammed, that there's no way that could be the real J.J. Watt.

Simpson assured her that it was, and they both felt like their prayers had been answered. In their joy, though, they both cautioned each other that Watt might change his mind or forget about it.

But the next morning, Simpson was stunned to see that a large chunk of the remaining balance had been PayPaled to her from Watt. Not from his agent or money manager or lawyer -- from Justin James Watt himself. "Thank you for supporting. I'm glad I could help. Sorry for your loss," he wrote.

Jennifer and Tara both felt like an anvil had just been removed from their backs. They felt a second wind to raise the rest of the balance, and more importantly, they felt hope. Jennifer started getting notifications that other Watt fans had begun to contribute, and it felt like the floodgates had opened on finally getting Jerry buried where he always wanted.

That's probably about the time Jennifer should have logged off Twitter because that's right about the time that people began to wonder if Simpson might be a scammer trying to rip off an NFL star.

The ugly Twitter replies began to pile up overnight. One faction gently questioned her story, wanting further verification that the story was real. A Twitter user who donated money posted that he'd called the funeral home and gotten confirmation that her story checked out. She was fine with that level of prodding to make sure she was telling the truth.

But then the freelance Twitter investigators got out their badges, and suddenly Simpson's life was under a microscope. Why had she gone to a Jonas Brothers concert if she was so hurting for money? What about that other time she tried to sell her Watt gear a year earlier? Maybe she sold it once, didn't send it to whoever bought it, and now was trying to double dip? Con artist alert!

The truth is, the concert had been in October, months before her grandfather died. And yes, the last time she was desperate for money, she did try to sell the Watt gear. If you really need to know, she was trying to help her mom pay off some outstanding medical debt. She got no bites at the time and held onto everything.

These are hard conversations for people like Simpson. She hates that she couldn't pay for the funeral herself, or rally more from within her family and friends. She hates that she has to debate with people whether she should've skipped a music concert from months earlier and put the money into a savings bond or whatever else the "pull yourself up by the bootstraps" crowd would recommend. She sounds exhausted when she says, "It's not like I wanted to sell my J.J. stuff or stand along the road and ask for money."

She sure seems like somebody who deserves a Texans game or a Taylor Swift show once in a while. Simpson is the first person in her family to go to college, and her parents never graduated high school. Simpson spent her high school days toggling back and forth between pursuing higher education, or getting a job and making a living right away. So she did both.

She says she had some teachers and school counselors who never let her stop believing that she could go for it, that she deserved to figure out what she wanted to be when she grew up and then pursue it. By the end of high school, she was working 30-plus hours a week at Whataburger, and her counselors had helped her get into Abilene Christian University. Their kindness and inspiration helped her realize what she wanted to do with her life -- become a high school counselor herself.

"I grew up without any money, or vision for what I wanted to do in life," Simpson says. "It was my teachers and counselors who told me I could make something of myself. I want to do that for kids now."

Even as some people continued to pick at Simpson's story online, the majority rallied behind Watt. Jennifer and Tara started a new GoFundMe, and Simpson posted her PayPal and Venmo again. Soon, small donations came in on top of Watt's sizeable donation -- the family has decided to not specifically say the dollar amount, other than to say it was critical to their efforts. Within a week, they had enough money to pay the bulk of the remaining balance, and suddenly they had a funeral to plan for.

Simpson scrolls through her phone looking for one particular person who sent her $5. When she finds it, she gets a little misty reading it out loud. "I want to help but I'm only 17 and don't have a job. This is all I can afford," the kid wrote.

"Even now, I want to cry," Simpson says, and she puts the phone face down on a table. "I ran into some bad people. But I ran into a lot more good people."

The donations piled up quickly, all prompted by Watt. Simpson had already been a full-on J.J. Watt stan. She's one of the only die-hard football fans in her family, and she gravitated toward her hometown Texans, who play an hour north of her house in Freeport, Texas. She shakes her head thinking about herself at home games, yelling at opposing players and berating bad referee calls. "I don't know what happens," she says. "I just go wild."

What was it specifically that made Watt her guy? Simpsons shrugs. Even she's not quite sure. She first mentions the obvious stuff, that he was a three-time Defensive Player of The Year for her hometown team, and how some of his good deeds had reverberated throughout Texas and boosted his legend.

But as she describes what she likes about Watt -- how kind and thoughtful he is all week, followed by turning into an unstoppable force for three hours every Sunday -- it sure seems like how you could describe Texas teacher/Texans superfan Jennifer Simpson, too.

"He's one of those celebrities that do stuff on and off the field," Simpson says. "I like people like that. They're not just there to be famous. He showed that from the beginning."

WHEN WATT WAS A LITTLE BOY, his mom Connie wanted her three sons to have good deeds become a part of their life. She found a website that offered small opportunities to do acts of kindness in the Pewaukee, Wisconsin, area, so she signed up J.J., T.J. and Derek.

They'd go out and shovel driveways or rake leaves, and the kids grumbled a bit at first. But she always went herself, too, and she didn't have to yell at them -- this was just going to be a part of their lives, she firmly said, and the boys accepted it, then embraced it.

J.J. was the oldest, so he often ended up doing the bulk of the work. On one of his first shoveling adventures, the boys got done and were getting ready to leave when the resident of the house came to his door. He was an older man in a wheelchair, and he thanked J.J. for his family's generosity.

But as the whole gang headed for the car, J.J. spoke up. "We have to go back," he said. "We didn't shovel the walkways wide enough for his wheelchair if he goes down to get the mail."

So the three of them all grabbed their shovels again, and they doubled the size of the walkway.

As J.J. got older and busier -- he was a high school letterman in four sports -- Connie and her husband, John, persistently reminded him of the importance of including kindness in his schedule. By the time Watt got to high school, he was juggling free shoveling for the elderly with being a football, basketball, baseball and track and field athlete.

When he went away to college, first at Central Michigan and then to Wisconsin, Connie no longer saw him every day. She worried a little bit that charity would slip from his consciousness.

But the seeds had been planted and grown roots. She still remembers him calling one day during his junior year, saying he'd been out in Madison on his moped -- yes, 6-6, 292-pound 20-year-old J.J. Watt drove a moped -- and seen some middle-school kids in shoddy football equipment.

A few weeks later, he told his mom he had decided to start a foundation that would provide safer, better-fitting gear than the hand-me-downs many middle schools get, and he wanted her to help him run it. Twelve years later, the Justin J. Watt Foundation has awarded grants worth $6.6 million to middle-school kids in 40 different states, for sports ranging from football and basketball to wrestling and cheerleading.

That charity work happens rather quietly compared to some of Watt's other acts of kindness. Perhaps the most famous example was after Hurricane Harvey devastated Houston. Watt donated $100,000 of his own money and challenged the public to match it. A few weeks later, he'd raised $37 million.

Watt also has a special place in his heart for helping people bury their loved ones. He helped pay for funerals after a 2018 mass shooting at Santa Fe High School in Texas that left eight students and two teachers dead. He also covered the burial costs for six people who died at the Waukesha, Wisconsin, parade attack last year.

So when he saw Simpson's tweet, he jumped right in and contributed. "J.J. knows burying someone you love is so, so hard," Connie says. "It was really a cool thing for him to do. To help with the funeral of someone in need is very special. At that moment, it's so important to show others that there is kindness in the world."

Simpson isn't sure how he even knew where to send the money (Watt passed on commenting for this story). She believes he must have scrolled through her social media and found a photo she'd posted a month earlier that included her PayPal. "He had to do some work," she says.

Simpson immediately passed along the money to the funeral home, and she and her aunt began booking the funeral for Friday, Aug. 19, a little under two months after Roderick died.

About 50 people showed up at the funeral home that day and spent two hours tossing around their best Jerry Roderick stories. Jennifer wrote a eulogy for Tara's oldest daughter, Jasmin, to read, and they all laughed about the many, many stories of bean pickups and drop-offs. Everybody noticed the mid-60s temperature in the room, and rejoiced in the fact that his body would soon be driven a half mile outside the funeral parlor and lowered into the hot earth of Houston.

When that time came, a long line of cars followed the hearse through the vast, winding burial area of Brookside. They saved some money by having the funeral in the middle of the day on a Friday instead of a Saturday, and they hired a pastor to only do the outside service. Simpson's high school has a floral design class, and she asked the students do the arrangements for the funeral.

At the end, the crowd watched as Jerry Roderick was lowered into the ground. As they walked to the cars, quite a few people mentioned to Jennifer and Tara that they were die-hard Cowboys fans who despised everything and everybody who's ever had anything to do with the Texans ... but couldn't help but cheer for J.J. Watt for the rest of their lives.

"The whole time, I was thinking this is happening because of generous people like J.J., and the people on Twitter who saw it because of J.J.," Simpson says. "If he could have been there, we all would have told him thank you, that this was all because of him. We're all J.J. fans now."

IN EARLY SEPTEMBER, Simpson heads to Houston to see her grandfather's grave for the first time since the funeral. Tara is going to meet her there. On the car ride, she seems a little nervous. She mentions several times that the site is a work in progress, that it's not going to blow anybody away just yet. "I don't know if it's going to look very impressive," Simpson warns. "I don't even know if his grave is marked or not."

Brookside is a vast expanse of land, thousands of loved ones buried in the warm ground right outside the funeral home. Many of the tombstones are modest, but almost everyone seems carefully curated with fresh flowers.

The cemetery is big enough that a car is mandatory, and the small roads are long and winding and surrounded by so many graves that you practically need street names and addresses to find a loved one. It feels more like a community for the dead than a series of single plots that happen to be near each other.

A funeral is happening on this Saturday in September, so the tiny roads are clogged by so many cars and people that Jennifer and Tara suggest taking the long way around the outskirts of the cemetery.

After five minutes of weaving through the small paved arteries connecting the whole cemetery, Tara points to an area up ahead, bordering the very far end. It's nestled up against some woods that act as the perimeter of the place. She points down into another pocket of headstones about a football field away. That's where her dad's parents, her grandparents who she never met, rest in peace.

The whole gang -- Jennifer, Tara and her daughter Jasmin -- walks out across the grass to where Jerry is buried. There's a rectangular chunk of grass that looks like it was just put down on top of a recent burial. But it's unmarked, and so is the spot next to it, which is where Tara says Jerry is laid to rest.

In this section of the cemetery, there are swaths of ground with no headstones on the graves yet, and Tara was right, Jerry's is still unmarked. They're trying to come up with the final $2,500 required for the headstone they picked out for him, and as of this afternoon in early September, they have all of $60. There's a twinge of sadness in their voices as they talk about him buried in the ground, anonymously.

Tara tells her daughter to be careful and not step right on the fresh plot next to her dad's spot. She points to the corner of the rectangle, where a significant chunk has collapsed down into the ground because of recent heavy rain.

The three of them carefully move off to the side of that plot and stand instead looking at the ground in front of them, talking fondly about the man buried under their feet.

They talk about the difficulty of having a loved one in a retirement home during COVID. Simpson and her mom would drive the 55 miles from Lake Jackson up to Houston sometimes and not be able to come in and see him.

They'd stand outside the window to his room, and the nursing staff would wheel him over and sit him against the glass. They tried to talk to him, but between the glass, the masks and Jerry's hearing loss, they often would just have to smile and wave and try to communicate with their hands. On many of those visits, they'd leave after only a few minutes, able to show their love visually but unable to hug him. "It was like a prison visit," Jennifer says.

Tara shakes her head and changes the subject. All three of them laugh about how Jerry's probably feeling really warm down there today, and Tara mentions how grateful she was in the past few years that he grew close with her kids. He called Jasmin "Pumpkin Pie," Jarissa was "Yellow Rose," and her youngest, Jacquees, was just "That Boy."

"Every time he saw them, he'd smile," Tara says. "Even when he'd have his mask on at the nursing home, you could see his smile under there."

This spot certainly wasn't their cheapest option to bury their grandfather. But he had made a very specific request, multiple times down the final stretch of his life, that he desperately wanted to be put to rest in Brookside, as close as possible to his own parents. As Tara talks about it, her eyes drift up and over toward where his parents were laid to rest decades earlier.

It's a busy day in the cemetery. There are dozens of people within eyesight ... yet none are close enough that they'd hear if somebody yelled to them. There is just the right amount of solitude out here.

As Tara speaks, she suddenly stops mid-sentence. A woman is approaching from the road. She seems to come out of thin air. When she gets closer, the woman says, "Is that Miss Tara?"

Tara recognizes her and gives her a warm greeting. The woman handles day-to-day operations for the cemetery, and they had had quite a few conversations leading up to the funeral about getting Jerry as close to his parents as possible. She'd made this spot happen.

The woman is out today putting down name plates on unmarked graves. She has about five under her arms right now, with 10 more to deliver after those five. As Tara and her exchange some chit-chat, the woman crouches down on the rectangular spot with the sunken corner a few feet away, the one everybody had been trying to steer clear of.

"I'm going to put in an order to fill in that spot," she says, and she points to the collapsed corner. "We've had so much rain recently. That's really sunk in."

It's at that point that she lays down a nameplate that catches everybody off guard: Jerry Paul Roderick Sr.

The whole group goes quiet for a long few seconds. Everybody is slightly shaken -- in a good way -- about the unlikelihood of this moment. It'd been a month since they'd last been there, and they stopped by for 15 minutes on this day, worried about the anonymity of the grave, and the nameplate arrives. Chills.

It's also a little haunting to realize they had been standing above another person's grave, fondly remembering their grandfather who was actually buried five feet behind them. But within a few seconds, the group is chuckling about the miscalculation and feeling happy to see his nameplate there on the ground.

As the group turns back toward the road, there's a feeling that with a huge boost from J.J. Watt, Jerry Roderick can rest in peace. Even with some money left to raise, there's a peace and finality to the moment.

It's quiet for the 10-second walk to the car, until Jasmin breaks the silence. "Now I'm in the mood for some beans," she says, and everybody laughs.