J.J. Watt Speaks Softly and Does Good

Long before he realized he could use his platform to bring in nine-figure donations, the three-time defensive player of the year had been doing the little things.

Scott Halleran/Getty

It can be difficult to get a read on where J.J. Watt’s politics lie.

Unlike some of his more outspoken, activist NFL brethren, the Houston Texans’ star defensive end and three-time NFL Defensive Player of the Year has largely kept his opinions close to the vest. For example, when asked about the ongoing protests by NFL players against state-sanctioned violence and the failures of the criminal justice system, he spoke in vague terms about the need to “come together for a common cause” in the face of natural and other disasters, declining to offer either support or criticism.

Nor did he offer much in terms of commentary following yet another horrific mass school shooting, this time in his adopted hometown of Houston, aside from a tweet Friday afternoon in which he wrote, “Absolutely horrific.”

But while Watt has said little, his actions over the years have spoken volumes. On Saturday, Watt announced he would be personally paying for the funeral expenses of all ten individuals from Santa Fe High School who were murdered, allegedly by 17-year-old Dimitrios Pagourtzis.

It’s hardly Watt’s first time doing good in the face of tragedy. In August, following the devastation wrought by Hurricane Harvey, Watt raised an astounding $37 million. It began innocuously enough, when he posted a video to his social media platforms, asking anyone with the means to help. He kicked things off by donating $100,000 with the hope that he’d attract enough matching dollars to reach $200,000.

He blew past that target within hours. In the days that followed, Watt continued to raise the bar higher and higher, as his charitable drive was given a signal boost by gobs of athletes, celebrities, and a groundswell of positive coverage. When all was said and done, he’d amassed $37 million from over 200,000 total donors. Of the total raised, $31.5 million was initially delivered to four charitable organizations, Americares, Feeding America, SBP and Save the Children, to be disbursed over a period of 18 to 24 months. The remaining funds will be paid out in 2018 to organizations selected by the Justin J. Watt Foundation, which is largely devoted to assisting and promoting after-school athletics groups.

Watt’s efforts didn’t end there. Per Sports Illustrated, he cut short his workout regimen and preparations for the season-opening game to meet with relief groups and organizers, even if that meant working deep into the night to ensure that supplies were directed to those most in need.

“The kind of involvement and investment J.J. made was singular,” Reese May, the chief strategy and innovation officer with the St. Bernard Project, a charitable organization that aids in disaster recovery efforts, and who worked extensively with Watt in the days following the category 4 storm’s landfall, told Sports Illustrated. “I’ve never experienced someone in his position taking [relief work] more seriously. I think he was deeply influenced by the amount of money he raised.”

For his efforts, Watt’s been able to add a few more shiny trophies to his case: The 2017 Walter Payton Man of the Year Award and Sports Illustrated’s Sportsperson of the Year, and Time magazine deemed him one of 2017’s most 100 influential people.  

But long before he realized he could use his platform to bring in nine-figure donations, Watt has been doing the little things. After the 2012 school shooting at Sandy Hook Elementary, Watt scrawled an inspirational message on his cleats. Then he spent time with a group of students from the school who were in Houston to watch the Texans practice at then-Reliant Stadium, snap some photos, and line up in a few mock scrimmages.

“I just kind of wanted to give them as normal a day as possible, just running around, having fun, going out on the field. We were kicking field goals. They were trying to put it through the uprights,” Watt told USA Today. “Just be kids. And to see them in a normal setting, having fun and big smiles on their faces was awesome.”

He also befriended three young children in 2011, two of whom had been paralyzed in a horrific car crash that left them orphaned, helping to bring attention to the fund that had been established by the family to pay for their ongoing medical expenses. In a gesture that evokes the slightly embellished story of Babe Ruth promising to mash a home run during the World Series to buoy the spirits of a sick child he’d met in a hospital, Watt mimed rolling a wheelchair after registering a sack against the Jacksonville Jaguars.

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“I was eating dinner at their house on Friday night,” he said. “They said they’re going to be watching the game. They said give us a signal. I said okay, when I get a sack, I’ll do the wheelchair.”

On Sunday, Watt was tickled when he caught a glimpse of some fans wearing the jersey of his girlfriend, Kealia Ohai, who plays for the Houston Dash in the Women’s National Soccer League. So of course, he went up and invited them to meet their hero.

Then there was the time he popped in to surprise his favorite high school teacher on the day of her retirement, thanking her profusely for all she’d done not only to inspire him, but all of the kids she’d taught during her 41 years as an educator.

If there is one note of criticism worth leveling here, it’s Watt’s and his foundation’s association with NRG Energy, the massive electrical power conglomerate which has contributed to Hurricane Harvey relief efforts and holds the current naming rights to the Texans’ stadium. Despite recent efforts to go green and increased investments in renewable energy, NRG is still pumping massive amounts of carbon dioxide into the atmosphere, all of which served to increase Hurricane Harvey’s impact. (The Justin J. Watt Foundation did not respond to a request for comment via an online submission form prior to publication.)

Still, for a league that has seen interest dwindle and TV ratings tumble, thanks to a bevy of factors, including cord-cutting, the growing recognition of the inevitable damage football causes its participants, and its role as a cheap political punching bag by bad-faith actors, Watt has provided a series of rare, unblemished feel-good stories.

Keep it up, J.J. The NFL needs all the good guys—and good press—it can get.