J.J. Watt is delivering an MVP performance in aftermath of Hurricane Harvey

Dan Wetzel
Columnist

Bret Bielema coached J.J. Watt back in college, at the University of Wisconsin.

He knows both the character and ambition of the now star of the Houston Texans. He knows a kid who was overlooked as a high school recruit, began his college career as a tight end, and willed his way to becoming a three-time NFL Defensive Player of the Year. He knows that despite having his fame and bank account change, Watt didn’t.

He knows J.J.’s father, John, a longtime firefighter in Pewaukee, Wisconsin, as a man who provided for his family by providing for the community. He knows J.J.’s mother, Connie, who tried to keep J.J. focused on academics as a kid by giving him homework in the summer and now oversees her son’s charitable foundation.

J.J. Watt is using his star power to help storm victims in Houston. (AP)

He knows J.J.’s two younger brothers, who didn’t shy away from following their brother’s considerable footsteps and bulldozed their way into the NFL as well, Derek with the Los Angeles Chargers, T.J. in Pittsburgh.

“It doesn’t happen by chance,” Bielema, now the head coach of the Arkansas Razorbacks said. “That family is all about the bigger picture.”

So when Bielema was scrolling through Twitter the other day and saw Watt post a short video in an effort to raise money for the victims of Hurricane Harvey, only one thing surprised him. The goal was just $200,000.

“I know he has a lot of fans,” Bielema said.

The old coach was right. Watt blew through the $200,000 mark in two hours flat and then immediately rose it to $500,000. That was cleared within a day. Then it was upped to $1 million. Then $1.5 million. Then $2 million, $3 million, $5 million, $6 million and on towards $10 million.

And no one really thinks it will end there.

“Everything is bigger in Texas,” Watt said in his latest video posted on his social media accounts. “Please keep sharing. Please keep donating. Every little bit helps.”

Watt, 28, is a dominating force with the Texans but he’s proving to be far more valuable to the Houston community here in its most desperate hours.

Like on the field, he didn’t sit back and wait for direction or inspiration, he rushed this problem from the snap, going with a simple approach by setting up an account at YouCaring.com/JJWatt.

He decided he’d figure out the details later.

And the donors trusted Watt implicitly with their cash.

The money is just a part of it. Watt has found volunteers to help on the ground and truck drivers willing to donate their equipment, skills and time to ship things into Houston and the surrounding areas. He has inspired high school teams near and far to run their own goods and donation drives – his alma mater, Pewaukee High, overloaded their cafeteria. He has enlisted his teammates to help, the Texans eagerly following their leaders.

His foundation is dealing with logistics, but the best part is the speed in which he promises a donation can become a difference. This is a hand-to-hand operation, with Watt’s serious face delivering updates as often as possible to rally support and maintain transparency.

“Your money … is going directly to the people,” Watt said. “Water, generators, food, clothing, cleaning supplies. We are going to set up shop in a few locations around Houston and my teammates are going to help distribute items directly to the people.”

So, yeah, this is J.J. Watt and as Bielema notes, this is what he does. But he didn’t have to do this much. He didn’t have to become the point person for an operation this immense. He could have cut a sizeable check to any number of organizations and gone back to concentrating on football. He could have used his platform to express hope and motivation, but not gone the next step. He could have done an afternoon of handing out supplies, with the cameras running. Nothing wrong with that. Nothing at all. Every little bit matters. Every bit.

And it would have been understandable since Watt is trying to use this preseason to fully return from a back injury that derailed his 2016 season. These are important days, not just for this season or even his career, but his long-term health.

He has played about half a dozen snaps a game thus far, yet promises to be ready. Now it all seems secondary. Whether he wins another Defensive Player of the Year award remains to be seen, but he has to be a lock for the Walter Payton NFL Man of the Year Award, which honors a player’s volunteer and charity work, as well as his play.

For Watt, watching the destruction on television after the Texans fled to the Dallas area to practice this week left him feeling hopeless, yet hopeful. He knew he had incredible reach with the public. And he had no doubt that football fans would rally to give.

People line up to volunteer at NRG Center, which opened its doors to evacuees in the wake of Tropical Storm Harvey, on Wednesday in Houston. (AP)

“I know these recovery efforts are going to be massive,” he originally said, when the goal was a couple hundred grand. “I know there is going to be a whole bunch of people we need to help get back on their feet.”

As the millions rolled in, he was visibly thankful.

“The most difficult times seems to bring out the best in humanity,” Watt said in one video.

Humanity just needed a spark.

Where this goes is anyone’s guess. Watt has blown past 70,000 individual donors and exceeding the $10 million number seems like a formality. Maybe it goes to twice that. Maybe this becomes a long-term thing. It’s not like Houston’s problems are going to be solved in the next week.

Watt was already one of the biggest stars in the NFL and one of the most popular athletes in America. If anything, he received backlash from being too likeable (and being in too many commercials).

Forget that. He was always charitable. He was always giving. This is a whole other level, his full force-of-nature personality drawn out by an actual force of nature.

This is the real guy.

“Everything he does impresses people who don’t know him,” Bielema said. “But it isn’t a surprise to those who do know him … it’s not a surprise at all.”

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