Houston Texans defensive end J.J. Watt was featured in back-to-back commercials during ESPN’s college football game Monday night. His Reebok ad followed a Gatorade spot.
Watt has signed six other endorsement deals, with one, grocery chain H-E-B, even naming an ice cream flavor “Texans Tackle Crunch” in his honor.
Watt made his acting debut in an Ang Lee-directed film that comes out next year. He presented a CMA in Nashville with Carrie Underwood and an ESPY with Britney Spears. Justin Timberlake taught him an end zone dance. Angels All-Star Mike Trout even asked for his autograph.
Watt made the cover of Texas Monthly this month, with the magazine asking in a subhead: Can J.J. Watt really be this good?
Watt isn’t just in the backfield of his opponents. He’s everywhere.
“It’s crazy,” Watt said. “Sometimes I have to just sit back and take a look around and say, ‘Think about where you came from. Pewaukee, Wis., a small-town kid. You’re just a defensive lineman doing some of this stuff.’ But that’s what’s so cool about it is that it’s unconventional. It’s outside the box. Defensive linemen don’t normally get this type of attention. It’s awesome. I’m trying to enjoy it as much as I can, because I know at some point it comes to an end.”
I was once a kid who looked up to athletes, so I know whether we want to be or not, we are role models.
For the first time ever, or at least since Earl, a Houston NFL player can rival the Cowboys’ best players as the most popular athlete in the state.
“No Cowboys player compares to J.J. nationally,” said Houston Chronicle writer John McClain, who has covered the NFL since 1977. “Few care about the Texans outside the state, but everybody cares about Watt.”
J.J. Watt plays catch with Texans fans before every game, signs autographs at every turn and frequently shows up unannounced and by himself for hospital visits.
Two years ago, then-Texas A&M quarterback Johnny Manziel arguably ranked as the most popular player from the state. In two years, professional golfer Jordan Spieth, who played at Dallas Jesuit and one year at the University of Texas, could earn that distinction.
Almost always, though, America’s Team has ruled.
Earl Campbell was the exemplar Texan, playing at Tyler John Tyler, winning the Heisman at the University of Texas and becoming the No. 1 overall pick of the Houston Oilers in 1978. But for two years, his career overlapped that of Captain America, Roger Staubach.
Jersey sales: Dez Bryant ranks sixth, J.J. Watt is 11th, Jason Witten 15th and Tony Romo 24th, according to NFLShop.com
“Roger Staubach was up there with God-type status,” said Star-Telegram columnist Randy Galloway, who has written about the NFL since 1982. “No jock in this state has ever been as popular as he was and never will be, but Earl and Nolan [Ryan] are tied for 1B. They’re just a notch below Roger.”
So how do we judge popularity? Jersey sales? Endorsement deals? Commercials?
Dez Bryant ranked sixth in jersey sales on NFLShop.com in the latest numbers available from the NFL, with Watt 11th, Jason Witten 15th and Tony Romo 24th.
“Witten, Romo and Dez are without a doubt the Cowboys’ best three, and nationally, they hold up with anybody,” Bill Priakos, the Cowboys vice president for merchandising, said. “All the national retailers buy our three guys. They set their floor with those three pretty much identical, and the customer kind of decides who to buy among those. Now, Tony and Witten have been in the league 13 years, and that’s a lot of jerseys. That’s 13 bites of the apple that our fans have had. When a new guy comes along, whomever that may be, usually their first couple of years, they’re just explosive [sellers].”
Bryant, in his sixth season, made All-Pro for the first time in 2014. That combined with his signing with Jay-Z and Roc Nation have increased his Q Score. He made the regional cover of Rolling Stone in September.
“I’m not a celebrity, man,” Bryant said. “God blessed me with a gift, and I’m trying my best to take full advantage of it each and every day, and try to stay as positive as I can, because I know young ones are watching me, including my own.”
Like Watt with his signature finger wag, Bryant throws up the X. He said it started as a way to “X out” all the negativity in his life, but it’s helped him connect with fans.
“He’s got a unique ‘thing,’” said Emily Cruz Robbins, the Cowboys’ senior director of community relations and alumni affairs. “He’s got the X, and it appeals to kids. I think it shows his youthful heart.”
Make-A-Wish kids request Romo and Bryant more than any other Cowboys players, according to Robbins.
Romo’s popularity comes naturally by being a Pro Bowl quarterback of the Cowboys. Just this off-season he made guest appearances on Jimmy Kimmel Live! and presented an award at the Country Music Awards. He shot national commercials for Pizza Hut and DirecTV, and signed an endorsement deal with Under Armour. He attended the premiere for the Judd Apatow-directed Trainwreck after an appearance in the movie.
“I still think Romo is the most popular player in the state, because he is the quarterback of the Cowboys,” said Gil Brandt, the Cowboys former director of player personnel who now works for the NFL. “But Watt is close.”
Couples name their babies after Watt, and fathers hope for their daughters to marry him. A team of people, including Watt’s parents, John Caplin of Creative Artists Agency and Amy Palcic, director of corporate communications for the Texans, handle requests for the fifth-year veteran. Palcic estimates Watt’s interview, autograph and appearance requests top 500 a week.
Watt admits if he tried to do everything for everyone he’d “be a mess.”
“He’s hands down the face of our franchise and the city, and the most recognizable athlete in all of Texas,” Palcic said. “He’s the best ambassador the NFL could ever hope for. It’s special to have the best player in the NFL be equally as good a person.”
Some skeptics mocked Watt after the first Hard Knocks appeared on HBO last month. But those close to Watt insist he wasn’t playing for the cameras, pointing out he plays catch with Texans fans before every game, signs autographs at every turn and frequently shows up unannounced and by himself for hospital visits.
That’s who he is, they vouch.
“I was once a kid who looked up to athletes, so I know whether we want to be or not, we are role models,” Watt said. “So I take that responsibility extremely seriously. Anytime I have a chance to interact, I try to, because I know if it’s even playing catch with a kid before a game or it’s a wave or a smile, that can change somebody’s life, and who am I to waste that power.”
He’s a Texan even Cowboys fans can love.
“I know how prideful people are in Texas, but you even get Cowboys fans who’ll tell me, ‘Hey, I’m a Cowboys [fan] until I die, but I like the way that you handle yourself, and I love your game,’” Watt said. “To me, that means so much, because I know how heated this rivalry is.”
A lot of Watt
J.J. Watt is big off the field, but his popularity began on the field.
▪ First-round draft choice in 2011 who has started all 48 games in his career
▪ Has recorded 36.5 sacks, six fumble recoveries, eight forced fumbles and 27 passes defensed
▪ Leads the NFL with 108 quarterback hits and 74 tackles for loss and ranks fifth in the NFL in sacks since 2011
▪ Emerged on the national scene in the playoffs following the 2011 season with 3.5 sacks and an interception return for a touchdown
▪ Became the first player in NFL history with 14 passes defensed and 14 sacks in the same season in 2012