J.J. Watt was standing in front of a throng of media in Manhattan Thursday morning, cradling his new training shoe, the JJ I, like a proud father holding a newborn baby. At the same time, Pro Football Talk’s Mike Florio was sending a needling tweet about the event.
Florio was making light of a dustup he and Watt had earlier this week over seemingly harmless support of the U.S. men’s soccer team.
And that right there is the Watt experience.
The Houston Texans defensive end has gone from a two-star high school recruit to the most dominant NFL defensive player of the decade. His public image is squeaky clean and blue-collar. He’s like a Sports Hero Role Model from Central Casting.
The backlash to his success is confounding to some, but certainly real. It’s been the subject of internet thinkpieces. Some have taken to viewing every Watt story through such a lens in tongue-in-cheek fashion.
So how does Watt handle the snarky headlines and keyboard detractors? I was happy to finally have the opportunity to ask.
“There’s so much negativity,” said Watt. “It’s everywhere. I think you have to be positive whenever you get a chance — especially with social media. The negativity grows and grows and grows if people let it. I think you have to continue to try to be a positive person in this world, you have to continue trying to be somebody who lifts other people up and motivates other people.”
Watt is the face of Reebok’s Hunt Greatness campaign. Launched in May, it “is built from the idea that, at our core we are all predators, but we longer hunt to eat, we hunt to become our best selves.”
It’s easy to see why such a partnership exists. The NFL’s eternal optimist is the perfect face for a push built on positive energy. It’s also easy to imagine a few eye rolls over the motivational tone.
“I’m human, said Watt. “I let the negativity get to me every now and then too, but every time that I do I try to come back stronger, to come back more positive. You have to realize there’s a whole generation of kids coming up behind us. If we let them see this negative, cynical side of us, they’re going to think that’s the way the world works and they’re going to continue to perpetuate that negativity. For me, and this generation, we need to positive, we need to be strong.”
One of the arguments that the anti-Watt crowd loves to bring up is his perceived lack of self-awareness. It’s time to retire that opinion. There is purpose behind the persona.
“We need to show [the next generation] that you can be happy, that you can be positive, said Watt. “You don’t have to sweat almost everything everybody does and wonder if someone’s being real. You go out there and you be the best version of yourself. You try to be a good friend. Someone once told me that you become like the five people you hang out with most. So I try to surround myself with people who lift me up and build me up. At the same time, I have to be somebody else’s five, so I need to lift people around me up.”
The ironic thing about Watt’s journey is that he may never have achieved such greatness without the drive to prove the doubters wrong. The fact that expectations were relatively low is a major reason his story is so compelling.
What lessons were learned on his uphill climb?
“It taught me to always remember where I came from but if I was to stand here and tell you that I haven’t changed, I’d be lying,” said Watt. “Because if I didn’t change, I’d be a fool. So, yes, I was a two-star recruit. I came from a very middle-class family. I wasn’t a superstar by any means. The situation that I’m in now requires me to adapt, to grow. I always remember where I came from and how I’ve gotten where I am — and I apply those values to this lifestyle that I have now. Like I said before, I’m not perfect. I’m not going to always be perfect but I’m always going to try to be the superstar that everyone wishes a superstar would be.”