A true game-wrecker
T.J. Watt is a player who can change the game at any moment with his intense play
By Teresa Varley Oct 15, 2023


It's a term that is not used loosely in the NFL, because honestly, there aren't that many players that qualify for the description.

They have to be special, unique, one-of-a-kind guys who can change the game at any moment with their intense play.

In the case of Steelers linebacker T.J. Watt, the description is spot on.

"He is a very dominant force. He is a great player," said safety Minkah Fitzpatrick. "He is a player that causes chaos in any aspect of the game.

"He is a what you would call a game-wrecker, where at any moment he can turn the tide in a game."

Watt appreciates the game-wrecker moniker. It's something he enjoys, while also understanding there is a fine line when it comes to being a game-wrecker. It's not something that is going to happen every play, and as much as Watt would like to blow up every play, he understands he can't.

"You can't try to be Superman all the time," said Watt. "You have to pick and choose your spots. That's something that I've learned over my career. There are certain moments in the game where the crowd is going nuts and it's third down and you're like, okay, this is a chance where I can really shoot my shot here and try to make a game-wrecking play. But other than that, you just have to own your role and do your job."

Watt is able to create chaos, to be a game-wrecker, thanks to a combination of natural talent and ridiculous hard work that is a year-round commitment for him.

"It takes a lot to stop a player like him," said Fitzpatrick. "He is at the line of scrimmage, so there isn't a play that he doesn't affect. If it's a run, he can disrupt the run. If it's a pass, he can disrupt the pass. When you have a guy like that, the offense has to focus a lot of attention on him. When they do that, they put two, sometimes three guys on him and he still has that high motor and energy and pairs that with great technique.

"He is always training, working on his hand placement, mobility to get around corners. He is a combination of doing everything the right way."

Fitzpatrick hit the nail right on the head.

Watt does things the right way and it's because of the work ethic his parents, John and Connie Watt, instilled in their three sons, T.J., Derek and J.J. Watt, who all used that to make their NFL dreams a reality.

It's a work ethic that doesn't have an off switch.

Think about this. A little over 12 hours after the Steelers defeated the Cleveland Browns on Monday Night Football, on a night when Watt became the Steelers all-time sack leader, he was at the UPMC Rooney Sports Complex working in the weight room. Maybe it wasn't the intense training he is accustomed to, but on an off day, he was doing anything but taking it off.

"It's partially the way I was raised," said Watt. "I think it's having the blueprint of my brothers. I think it's having a supportive wife at home who is okay with me coming to work on an off day.

"But we talk about it all the time, it's finding that extra 1% or even .1% that's going to take you from good to great, and great to elite. I need to be prepping my body even if I'm not able to lift heavy weights. I need to get moving and do as much as I possibly can so I'm prepared for the next game."

That extra 1% Watt refers to is something he is always striving for, while in the back of his mind he knows getting to 100% is never going to be a reality as in his mind, there is always room for improvement.

"He can still be better, which is crazy," said his older brother J.J. Watt in an exclusive interview. "Even just watching film. Now, we are talking about nitpicking at the highest level. These are things where it's like going from a 99 to a 100. It's one little thing. But that is the level he has put himself at where those are the types of things we are looking at on film and talk about."

Younger brother agrees. He is never satisfied. Never at the point where he is going to say he had a good game, whether he racked up three sacks, scored a defensive touchdown, or completely turned the tide.

"You come out of a game, and you might have made good plays, you might have a great day of practice, but you're always thinking about the plays you didn't make and what you can continue to improve," said Watt. "I think that's what's important to be successful, you don't want to be satisfied. I'm far from satisfied."

Watt's resume to date, which includes the Steelers all-time sack record and winning the Associated Press NFL Defensive Player of the Year in 2021, would be plenty to make a player satisfied.

But that is what makes him who he is.

"He is constantly trying to grow and improve," said J.J. Watt,, who retired at the end of the 2022 season after an amazing 12 years in the NFL. "I think he has stacked block on top of block when it comes to improving as a player, whether it's pass rush moves, the run game, or habits from nutrition, studying film and performance. He is always trying to find that edge and pushing the limits of what is possible and that is why he has so much success."

The two brothers talk frequently, breaking down film after games with J.J. sharing his take with T.J. on what he saw to help him grow, things his eyes pick up because he knows his brother's game so well, and he knows the position so well.

"He will either send me clips that he has questions on. Or as I am watching the game, and I am texting him saying, 'Hey this move was great, make sure you keep going back to that move,'" said J.J. Watt. "Then we will talk about it all through the week and discuss who they are playing in the upcoming game. Any way I can help or give him an extra set of eyes from somebody that has done it before, I am happy to do it."

One thing that older brother is always cautious of, though, is giving too much advice, not wanting to mess with his younger brother's mind, especially in season.

"It's awesome because J.J. has the time now," said Watt. "We break down the film. He's very cautious about giving me too much because he knows we think about things the same way. He knows if he says too much or critiques too much, I'm going to start to get it in my head about what he said. It's been a good partnership.

"It's more of the stuff that nobody sees. Those little football player things, pass rusher things he can pick up on and we can talk about that. I don't really have that with anybody else."

Some of the stuff that nobody sees when it comes to Watt is his dedication to the game.

He is one of the first players at the practice facility every morning, going through the same routine each day. It starts with breakfast and then a cold tub plunge to get the body going.

"I like to get in early," said Watt. "I then go up and start watching film. There are only so many hours in the day, and if I can be here as much as possible, getting that 1%, it's going to make a difference on Sundays."

It's just another example of the competitiveness that is part of his DNA. It's something he was born with and that competitive fire isn't just something on the field.

"He is such a competitor," said Fitzpatrick. "Even off the field he is a competitor. He will be competing whether it's Jenga or Scrabble, or whatever it may be. He is always competing. The switch is always on. He is always going to try and find ways to be better than everyone else. That is what makes him a great football player, he is always trying to find ways to be better than everyone else. No matter what game it is, he is trying to find ways to be better. His passion might be different on the field, but not that competitiveness."

His brothers made sure of that. Being the youngest of three, he was the one who always had to give a little more, fight a little harder, to come out on top.

"If you weren't competitive in our house, you were kicked to the curb," said J.J. Watt. "He had no choice. It was me and Derek and him, and he was the youngest, so he had to fight the hardest to stay involved. I think that is what is so cool about it. He is six years younger than me, but we wouldn't take it easy on him in anything, whether it was mini-hockey or football in the front yard, it was full go all the time. He either had to keep up or keep getting the crap kicked out of him. And he kept up, which is crazy."

The way his brothers pushed him, never let him ease up, is something he still appreciates to this day, even though there were times as a kid that might not have been the case.

"I was the youngest, but always wanted to play with them," said Watt. "Derek is two years older than me, so I was playing up (in my age) all throughout youth sports. I played on Derek's baseball team, and I was just around bigger kids my whole life. Now I can appreciate my brothers not taking it easy on me. Back then, I was probably always crying to mom complaining, but it made every point I scored in basketball, every hit I had in baseball that much more special because I was playing with bigger kids and being able to handle that adversity and get knocked down and continuing to get up. It definitely shaped who I am today."

And now Watt is turning the tables, trying to help shape other players, including rookie linebacker Nick Herbig.

The relationship between the two began when Herbig was a freshman at the University of Wisconsin. Herbig was looking for some advice and reached out to Watt on social media. Being that Watt also played at Wisconsin, he thought it might be the way to go.

He never knew it would turn into what it is today.

While Watt provided Herbig plenty of advice over the last few years, nothing compares to the lessons the rookie is receiving now.

"He helped me so much before I even walked in the building," said Herbig. "But since I have walked in here, everything has been so hands on with him. Drill work before practice, after practice, during practice. Everything is hands on. It's not like before I got here, when we were communicating with texts and messages. Everything is now hands on, one-on-one, face to face. I can soak in more. I am trying to be a sponge and take in as much as I can from him. Now that I am physically in person interaction, it elevated my game so much.

"It starts with how I approach my day. It begins with the cold plunge in the morning with T.J. We cold plunge every day. That started in camp.

"How I approach my game, every aspect of it. When I am in there, whether I make a play or don't, he is there telling me I saw this, I saw that. It's a great help."

Watt spends as much time with Herbig as he can, including before practice when he works with him one-on-one, giving tips, advice, everything he can to help elevate his game.

"That is priceless," said Herbig. "That is knowledge you are gaining from the best. He is the 'goat.' That is knowledge I am gaining from one of the greatest to ever do it. Every opportunity I get, I can't take it for granted.

"I didn't think it would be like it is. We have grown a lot closer. I look at him as a mentor, a big brother. Even though we are peers, teammates, I look at him as that big brother, someone who is mentoring me, helping to mold me. It's a lot better than what I expected him to be.

"This game isn't forever. I said it a while back, you have to give him his flowers while he is here. I am going to soak it all in while I can."

It's a relationship Watt has enjoyed as much as Herbig. He likes to share the knowledge he has, especially with someone who is so willing to learn.

"It's been awesome," said Watt. "Nick has been a guy who's asked so many questions. Always ask the right questions, and he is so eager to learn. And that goes for all the young guys this year. I've been really happy with them and it's important for us to show them the Steelers way. And you kind of take a little bit more of a liking to guys that actually want to learn and show that they care about this place."

Watt's relationship with Herbig is one of the many examples of the leader he has grown into. When he first came to the Steelers, he followed J.J.'s advice … 'shut up and be a sponge.'

"It's interesting because he has always been a little more reserved in a public setting," said J.J. Watt. "If you get him where it's just his circle of trust, true friends and family, he is very open, very relaxed, he is the life of the party. You get him outside the circle of trust, he is much more reserved, keeps to himself.

"People probably saw that for a while because he was following that advice of mine, which he should. There were so many people for him to learn from.

"As he has gone on, as he has furthered his career, you realize there are a bunch of sponges behind you, and you have to give them that information and knowledge for them to soak up. He now has that information to share and give to guys like Herbig, so he can learn so much from him. They look up to him, respect him."

Watt's impact on players like Herbig and others is something that is seen, and unseen as well. While it's grown more lately, a few years ago and until now it's something that has helped fellow outside linebacker Alex Highsmith.

"He has contagious energy. When you are around someone like him, guys see how hard he is working, that attracts a lot of guys and brings energy to the room," said Highsmith. "Having guys like him in the locker room, who bring energy and make plays, it's contagious. He is a catalyst for our defense. I love playing with him.

"He was someone I asked a lot of questions of, hung around him a lot when I first got here. I tried to be a sponge and learn everything I could from him, get as much information as I could. I still do. Our relationship has continued to grow. It's so cool to play with a guy like him. I continue to always want to learn from him.

"He is someone that never gets content or complacent. To be great, you have to have that mindset. I try to copy that mindset and never get complacent or content. That is why he is making plays, because he never gets complacent.

"He is what definitely qualifies as a leader. He isn't just a lead by example guy. He leads by voice as well. Everyone on this team respects him so they are going to listen when he speaks."

It took a while, but Watt, who is a defensive captain for the third time in his career, has truly embraced what it all means to be that leader.

"For so long I was just a quiet guy trying to gain respect," said Watt. "I might've taken it a little too far and for too many years. But it's fun to finally open up and show my personality to my teammates, the fans, the media. It's what's allowing me to play freely and have fun. And it's awesome to see guys following and respecting what I do on and off the field."

Watt admits his leadership style is more of by example than being the vocal guy, but he also realizes there has to be a balancing act, because there are times when his voice is needed.

"You have to balance it," said Watt. "It's hard. But I'm trying to be more of a holding people accountable guy. At the same time, you have to understand that people are going to hold you to a much higher standard as well. It's kind of a push and pull thing, especially in today's day and age. You have to understand that guys accept critiquing a little differently.

"As far as myself, I want the criticism. If I mess up, I want to know that I messed up. I also want you to know that I'm going to do everything in my power to fix that mistake. I will take it personally as heck that it won't happen again."

One of the reasons it won't happen again is the role discipline plays in everything Watt does.

"He is the best in the league at what he does," said Highsmith. "He works his butt off. He is the best at what he does for a reason. It's because he works so hard. It's the discipline he has. He takes the mental part of the game so big. He studies film. He studies guys he is going against. That helps him to have an advantage."

From what he eats, to his workouts, to film study, to on-field play. Every aspect of life, discipline plays a role.

"Oh, it's everything," said Watt. "I mean, if it's July and there's donuts on the table, I'm immediately thinking, if I eat this, it might affect how I play this fall. It's a sick way of thinking about things. I know it's not healthy. And I'm getting better at it. But football and performing is always on my mind and it's something I'm trying to get over, but it's kind of a sick obsession."

He laughed, and reiterated he is getting a 'little' better.

"I'm loosening up. After a game, my wife, Dani, made pizza and I ate it," laughed Watt "It was some sort of bougie, healthy pizza, but it was at least pizza. And I had Sarris chocolate covered pretzels as well."

Maybe he allowed himself those treats he normally wouldn't eat in season because he did it on the night he bypassed James Harrison to become the team's all-time sack leader with 81.5 career sacks at the time.

It was a record Harrison didn't mind seeing broken.

"It's great," said Harrison, who watched the game from Acrisure Stadium. "Records are meant to be broken and that was one I was happy to see go down. It's guys that played here wanting to see guys that are currently playing do better and greater things than what the previous group did and holding up what that Steelers' lore is."

Watt was grateful to have Harrison see him break the record and for his support.

"It really is special," said Watt. "I am so thankful that Deebo (Harrison) is so accepting and happy for me. He helped me when he was here, and he didn't have to. But he really took me under his wing and was able to help me grow and develop as a player as a rookie.

"And we've continued a relationship here over the last couple of years as well. And it's the Deebo way. I didn't even know he was there. And what's so cool about it is I'm sure he didn't care that anyone knew he was there. It was just one of those things that I appreciate about him. I really do."

He wasn't the only one watching. J.J. was watching as well, enjoying retirement and focusing even more on watching his 'baby' brother play.

"I love sitting down and watching him," said J.J. Watt, who is working as an analyst on CBS' NFL Today. "Even in Week 1, we have 10 screens in front of us with all of the games on at CBS. But at our individual station we have a television, and you get to choose what game is on it. Obviously, mine is on the Steelers and I get to just sit there and watch every single play. I can break down film afterwards. I really enjoy sitting down and watching him play. It's a lot of fun for me."

And when he sees him record a sack, well, his words say it all.

"It's the best," said J.J. Watt. "I love it. Because I know how hard he works, and I know how hard it is to be successful in this league, I think that is the biggest part of it. I know how incredibly impressive it is what he is doing. I don't know if everybody fully understands how impressive the things that he is doing are, and I do. I think that is why I get so excited every time he makes these plays. I am like, 'Are you kidding me, he just had three sacks in the first game of the season against one of the best teams in the league, two forced fumbles.' And everybody is like, yeah, that's T.J., he plays a great game.

"But I know every single workout, and every single practice and rep that went into that. I know how hard that is. I think that is why I have so much fun with it. Now it's a chance for me to live vicariously through him now that I am done."

Watt smiled when he heard that. Because he has been there.

"That's exactly how it was for me watching J.J. play for so many years. And it's kind of cool that the roles get flipped a little bit," said Watt. "I would always watch games and he would have these insane plays, sack fumbles and touchdowns. I would be excited, but I would always think this is normal. This is just what my brother does. Like, I didn't truly appreciate it until I got to the NFL.

"I think that's why it's so special between all of my brothers, is that we know, we've been in these locker rooms, we've been in the stadiums. We know how hard these plays are to make. So, when we make them, we respect the crap out of each other for it."

Watt knows his brother isn't the only watching closely. That is why when he gets on the field for every game, he flips a switch, going from the kid from Pewaukee, Wisconsin to NFL superstar because he wants to give it his all.

"He flips that switch all right," said Highsmith. "You don't want to mess with him when he is on the field, especially if you are the opposing team. I feel bad for tackles who have to block him.

"He brings energy. It's contagious. When he does the, 'Who ride, We ride,' before every game, it really pumps us up. I love that. If you are looking for some juice, he will definitely bring it."

There is as reason he does.

"I think that's the number one thing that people will say, especially lately about me," said Watt. "My dad always said you have to be able to flip a switch when you get out on the football field.

"I always try to carry myself a certain way off the football field, but on the field, I try to flip that switch and just let everything take over. I kind of black out sometimes. I don't know what I say, I don't know what I do. I try to have as much fun as possible. I know there's such a short amount of time that I get to play this game and I put so much work, effort and energy into this game.

"Come game day, there's moments where I'll think about all the fans that are here. One game I was looking in the crowd because I felt like I was kind of in a lull. I saw a little kid wearing No. 90, holding this sign that says this is my first Steelers game.

"It's moments like that where you want to give these kids everything you possibly can, because these are moments people truly live for. So many people would kill to be in my shoes, so I'm just trying to keep that perspective."

And perspective is something Watt definitely has no problem with. When he learned of the opportunity for him and J.J. to be on a Wheaties box, he knew he couldn't pass it up. It's the stuff dreams are made of.

"When that opportunity came across the desk, it was kind of like really? That's awesome. That's super cool," said Watt. "And it's just like anything. The commercials, all that stuff. It's whatever I can do with one of my brothers or both of my brothers, it makes it that much more special.

"At the end of the day, we're just little kids from Pewaukee, Wisconsin, that grew up eating Wheaties like everybody else. We were able to make it, why can't you."

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