T.J. Watt and I have a lot in common—at least to some extent. The Pittsburgh Steelers prized draft pick in the 2017 NFL Draft is the youngest of three Watt boys who all play football in the NFL. While the middle Watt brother, Derek, is an offensive player at fullback for the Chargers, it's J.J. of the Houston Texans with whom T.J. is constantly compared.
This is where we have a lot in common.
I grew up with an older brother, and the comparisons were endless. My older brother was almost the perfect student, athlete and person. When I went to school, people constantly asked, “Hey, aren’t you Jay’s brother?” At first, a simple “yes” was my response, but by High School the response turned to, “Yes, and my name is Jeff.”
There's something about a younger sibling who both loves, and at times despises, their elder sibling. You can see it in their decisions. When I was in High School, I played the same sports and the same positions as my older brother. I then attended the same University and joined the same fraternity as well. You would think, if I wanted to blaze my own trail, I wouldn’t follow in my brother’s every single footstep along the way!
The same goes for T.J. Watt. He was prepared to attend Northern Illinois before he was called by the University of Wisconsin, where J.J. had made a name for himself, and T.J. became a Badger almost immediately.
Again, you wouldn’t go to the same school as your older brother if there wasn’t something about following in his footsteps you didn’t adore.
Some might say there's a fire to do things better than those who went before you, and that might be true. But T.J. Watt sure has a ways to go before that could even be discussed.
You can imagine the constant questioning about his brother would become arduous and tiresome.
Just look at the questions he fielded at the NFL Scouting Combine this offseason regarding his brother.
On advice from J.J.
"The biggest piece of advice I got from J.J. is just to be yourself, don't overthink things. We're being evaluated with everything we do and a lot of guys and even myself sometimes kind of drive yourself crazy with everything being so time-demanding and having everything to do all the time. Just be yourself, relax and you show people who you really are."
On competing with J.J.
"Have I ever beat him (J.J.) in any competition? Yes, yes. He'll admit it, too. We competed all the time growing up. I beat both my brothers in many things. They beat me in many things as well. You're not always going to win, you're not always going to lose in that house. Pickup basketball, growing up flag football, anything, eating, it doesn't matter."
On his pride in J.J.’s accomplishments
'Yeah, it's huge. Obviously he's put together a really good game plan for how to do it and he's done really well for himself and for the whole state of Wisconsin and the town of Pewaukee we grew up in. He kind of gave me the blueprint of how to do it. Obviously, he's done really good things. I'm going to try to follow in his footsteps and blaze my own trail at the same time."
On being J.J.’s brother
"Early on when J.J. first started blowing up, I didn't know how to handle it, but now definitely I love it. My brother is the best defensive player to ever play the game, in my opinion. Obviously I'm biased. When you play the sport of football and you have the person as your role model a phone call, a text away, it's special. And he does it so well and so right. I'm just trying to replicate what he does."
I even got sick of reading those answers, let alone having to answer them at every stop along the way this offseason.
But, the 2017 NFL Draft is in the rear view mirror, and T.J. is now a member of the Pittsburgh Steelers. He will play against his oldest brother on Christmas day in 2017 when the Steelers travel to Houston. But while most think the comparisons and questions could wear a person down, it could actually do the opposite.
In my personal experience, I wanted to work twice as hard as my brother. I wanted to do the things he did, but I wanted to do them better. I didn’t always succeed, but I’ve had a fire under my butt almost my entire life not just to keep up, but to go above and beyond.
The same can be said about T.J. Watt.
In a phenomenal article by The Ringer, it describes a scene where T.J. and J.J. are training together, as they did all offseason, and competing against one another in a drill to see how high you can jump.
It’s a Thursday afternoon two weeks before the draft, and T.J. is going through a workout with Arnett at NX Level. The drill he’s doing involves T.J. hopping off a small platform and then exploding off a pad that registers his vertical leap. Each round consists of a standard jump followed by a jump where he grabs a pair of green bands tied to the top of a clean rack, sling-shotting his body skyward in the process. When he did the drill with J.J., about a week earlier, the four-time All-Pro mocked his little brother for never hitting 50 inches on his second jump.
As T.J. goes through his reps, Juvenile’s “Slow Motion” blares throughout the cavernous facility, and a trainer and a young woman halt their workout on a nearby squat rack to start sneaking glances in his direction. He hits 49.1 inches, then 49.4, then 49.6. On T.J.’s final jump, he leaps so high that he actually gets scared. At the apex, he lets out a yelp before returning to earth and smashing onto the pad. Arnett looks at his monitor — 51.3 inches. The oldest Watt brother is aware of the number within a matter of minutes. “I think [T.J.] told Brad to text me mid-workout,” J.J. says.
Battles between the Watt clan at NX Level have become the stuff of legend. Jumping days are the worst. At the combine in early March, T.J. recorded a 37-inch vertical, the exact mark that J.J. hit in 2011. Six years later, J.J.’s hops haven’t fallen off, and workouts in which the two try to one-up each other in the vertical almost always result in a draw. Over and over, the brothers will leap the same height, each convinced that the next jump will put him over the top. Non-compression clothing gets ditched, and other gym-goers will halt whatever they’re doing to watch the best athletes in the place go at it. This spring, the charade ended without a winner. “We literally hit the exact same mark three weeks in a row,” J.J. says. In the event of a stalemate, big brother owns the trump card. “If I tie him in a race or we have the same vertical, I’m quick to say, ‘Hey, man, [I have] 40 more pounds going up in the air.’”
The trash-talking between the Watt siblings, especially oldest and youngest, can be downright harsh. T.J. remembers the first time he bested his brother in a significant way, when he broke J.J.’s high school shot-put record, which had once been held by their father. “There’s something about when J.J. and I are competing,” T.J. says. “It’s, ‘Screw you. I’m better than you, how does it feel?’” T.J. recounts one of their recent clashes as he sits behind the wheel of the 2015 GMC Yukon given to J.J. for winning Defensive MVP at the Pro Bowl. The brothers were messing around at the gym one afternoon, seeing if they could flip a 55-pound plate and catch it with the same hand. T.J. laid down a bet: If J.J. could do it with his left hand, T.J. would chauffeur him around for the length of J.J.’s offseason stay in Wisconsin. Let’s just say T.J. has gotten used to how the Yukon handles. “That was just a stupid bet on his part,” J.J. says.
After reading this story about the Watt brothers training together, it hit me that the comparisons won’t just drive T.J. to be better, but his brother is grooming to fill the giant footsteps he has made throughout his time in the NFL. After all, no one wants to see their sibling fail, and they represent the family name which certainly means something to all of the Watts.
So, despite the agonizing questions about J.J. and his brother Derek, and after the constant comparisons to J.J. while he was at Wisconsin, T.J. finally gets a chance to blaze his own trail in Pittsburgh.
Different position and a different city, but hopefully the same results.
Sometimes a sibling rivalry can be just what the doctor ordered in terms of getting yourself prepared and acclimated to life in the NFL.