This is first in a series of three stories on rookies and their moms.
After talking with Connie Watt for even just a few minutes, it shouldn't have come as a surprise.
But even when it comes to the most dedicated of parents who are always there for their kids, this definitely tops it all.
Connie Watt, the mom of Steelers No. 1 draft pick and starting right outside linebacker T.J. Watt, as well as Texans defensive end J.J. Watt and Chargers fullback Derek Watt, has always believed in being there for her children, when they were growing up and now.
That meant hours and hours at sports practices and games, including hockey practice, which just happened to be the Watt brothers' first love as kids. And it meant being there no matter what the circumstance, no matter when practice was.
Picture of Steelers' rookie T.J. Watt and his family throughout the years, submitted by T.J.'s mom.
"After T.J. was born, on the drive home from the hospital we headed straight to a hockey rink," said Connie. "J.J. had a practice so we went straight to the hockey rink to be there for that."
When reminded of the story, her son could do nothing but smile, knowing that is just the way his mom, and dad John, have always been.
"They were everywhere," said T.J. "I think that story sums it up."
Being the youngest of three boys, there wasn't much doubt that T.J. would play sports the minute he could. "The other two were already doing it, and he pretty much always wanted to do whatever they were doing," said Connie. "He would go to their practices and watch. My husband was a coach, so he would just always be there hanging out. He would always be wherever they were and doing whatever they were doing.
"They all started playing football when they were in fifth grade. That is when you can start in Pewaukee. That is when you could wears pads and helmets. He would be out playing in the yard long before that of course too. I tell people my kids never saw a Disney movie but they had every ball known to mankind in their hands before they were two years old."
Before football, though, came hockey. The three loved playing the sport, but it was time consuming, often times separating the family and taking away the precious time they enjoyed being a complete family unit.
"We were all over the place," said T.J. "Everyone who is affiliated with hockey growing up knows how much travel and commitment it takes. There were times we would be in different countries. My mom would be in Canada with J.J., my dad would be in New York with Derek, and I would be at home with my grandparents. It got hard for my family."
A tough choice had to be made. Yes, they loved playing hockey, but family always came first in the Watt household and there was no way something was going to get in the way of that.
"We would do everything we could to be there," said Connie. "That is why they stopped playing hockey, because we were always separated. We decided that we liked being together as a family more. So when J.J. was 13, and T.J. was eight, we stopped hockey. They loved hockey but we couldn't do it. It was too much time apart."
While the family time was the right decision, it wasn't an easy one at the time for T.J.
"I was so mad because I was finally on the select team, the travel team," he recalled. "That was the year we decided to walk away. I haven't laced them up since."
Things worked out okay, though. With hockey out of the picture, football became the focus.
"Football was their second love," said Connie. "They absolutely lived for it. People asked my husband if he played football in college like the boys and he tells them he didn't love it like the boys, you have to absolutely love it to go to all the practices, and the games and everything."
Family. When Connie says it comes first, she truly means it. Her boys mean the world to her, and she would do anything, go anywhere, and sacrifice any personal joy, for their happiness.
"My mom is literally superwoman," said T.J. "No one will ever truly understand what she has done for my two brothers and I. To raise three sons in itself is an accomplishment, but to have three NFL football players, is a whole new level. We would not be here without her love and support, and my dad too, always being there for us. We have been through our share of ups and downs, with injuries and all, they have always been there and been the backbone of this family."
Both parents worked, but there was balance. John Watt was a fire fighter, and his schedule of working 24 hour shifts allowed for days off, days where he handled the normal household tasks of grocery shopping and preparing meals. But it was always a team effort, with the boys having chores and responsibility.
"We had a good team effort trying to get things accomplished," said Connie. "The kids knew from the time they were little if we were going to be at their practices and games supporting them, which they wanted us to be, they had to all chip in and do chores.
"I just always say it takes a family. We are all making the mess, we all clean up. It was fun. We had a chore chart. They would each unload the dishwasher and each do their section. T.J. would be sitting on the countertop and J.J. would be passing things to him to put away. They each had to clean bathrooms, things like that. It was important for us to instill that the household doesn't run automatically, or that the parents should do all of the work. It didn't take that much time out of your day in order to help make a huge difference. Then we would have quality time together. We would do family game night. It was important to have that bond and family unit."
When it came to preparing meals, the herculean effort was definitely shared by both parents.
"It was not easy at all, but we loved it," said Connie. "There would be coupons for steak on sale. On my way to work I would pass two stores, because you could only use one coupon each time, and I would get as much as I could find. I would go to work, and people would give me their coupons and I would stop on the way home. I would do it all over again the next day for about a week. The butcher finally said something to me and I said it would hopefully last two months, but in reality would only last about a month.
"The kids would eat a hot breakfast in the morning. That was always important to me. I had that growing up and I couldn't imagine sending them off to school without that. I would make them peanut butter and jelly sandwiches to have as a snack at 10 a.m. By second grade they were eating double lunches at school. I called the school and said I don't know who we are feeding, but my bill is reflecting more children than I have. And they said, no your kids are eating double lunch. I was like are they actually eating it, and they told me they were.
"Then they would come home from school and have a meal and then about eight at night my husband and I would return to the kitchen and make another full meal. They weren't ever having frozen pizza or anything. It was always a big meal at four and eight at night."
The older the boys got, the more they appreciated what their parents did, what it took to put those meals on the table, and how it helped get them where they are today.
"I would go to school and ask kids what they had for breakfast and they would say cereal," said T.J. "I would say you didn't get an omelet like I did? Every day they would cook omelets, pancakes, whatever I wanted. We were fed well to make sure we grew up big and strong. We would eat breakfast, lunch, two or three dinners a night. We went through a couple of gallons of milk a week at least.
"I didn't realize how special that was until I grew up. They wanted to see us excel. They knew what it took to get us to where we wanted to be before we could even envision it. I think that is what I am so thankful for. They kept us accountable. They knew what we wanted and how to get us there."
Providing meals didn't stop when the boys headed off to college, all three of them playing football at the University of Wisconsin.
"In college we said we were the meals on wheels," said Connie. "We would go up on Saturday and have a cooler with all of the meals prepared and packaged for them. We would have fruit that they could just toss in their backpacks, and we brought the food up for the most part.
"We taught them to cook too. It's a crucial part to their success, making sure you sleep well and eat well. They really don't compromise that."
Injuries. It's a part of football, but a part nobody ever wants to think about. For fans, it makes them cringe to see their favorite player get hurt. Image what it does when it's your kids it happens to.
The Watt family has experienced injuries, more than they would like.
"People asked me years ago isn't it hard to watch your kids play football," said Connie. "I would say no, my kids train hard, they eat right, they sleep right, and they take care of themselves. I was never worried.
"And then they got hurt. Even when T.J. and Derek got hurt in college, they had surgery within a week of each other, and my husband and I moved up to Madison for a month and lived with the kids in a hotel, took them to class, cooked for them every day, and that bond grew even deeper.
"Seeing TJ get hurt earlier this year, it was hard. I know how much they work, and nobody can plan that. I am glad his injury was short."
She even admitted that when T.J. first started playing in the NFL, like any mom, she worried. That didn't last long after her 'baby boy' had two sacks in the season opener in Cleveland.
"I was thinking in the first game is he going to be okay, these guys are huge," said Connie. "Then in the first game he tears it up."
Connie has a different relationship with each of her sons, and with T.J. being the youngest, there is a bond that has grown stronger and stronger as time has passed.
"When the other two left the bond got even stronger," said Connie. "You have to balance that and don't be the overbearing mom where you are the only one home, I am going to be all about you. You have to give them their space. We tried to learn that balance of the close relationship.
"It was challenging when he was the last one home and we would be traveling to J.J.'s game. The guilt would be horrible. There were times where it tugged at the heartstrings of figuring out where you should be, letting the kids know we love them all equally, and trying to balance it."
The balance hasn't gotten any easier. With her sons all over the country, decisions have to be made, some of those altered now with J.J. on injured reserve after suffering a season-ending leg injury.
"It's challenging," she said. "We were in California one week for Derek's game, watching T.J. and J.J.'s games on a computer. Then on the way to the game we had to transfer the game to the phone and computer from a hotspot. We try to do what we can.
"It's still hard to believe all three of them are in the NFL."
The Watt's always try to be there for everyone, but it can't always happen. T.J.'s first regular season game was the same day that J.J. returned to the field after missing last season with back surgery. A decision had to be made, and they headed to Houston.
"T.J. knew we were really, really torn," said Connie. "He understood. We were at the game against the Giants, the preseason game, which was his first one. We always want to be there for all of them, but it's tough."
And always being there can be exhausting, but they never complain.
"Last year we flew to Atlanta in the morning for Derek's game at 4 p.m. and had to race out because the game was going into overtime and we had to catch a flight to go to Houston because there was a game the next day," said Connie. "That was wild. Our friends came with us. They were like you are crazy. We told everyone we were going to race out and hope to make it to the airport in time. We had rented a car and then couldn't find the car in the structure. We had to run up a couple of ramps to find the car.
"This year we were in Wisconsin on a Sunday watching the games on television, went to Denver on Monday to Derek's game, then to Pittsburgh on Wednesday, then Houston for a meeting, then back to Pittsburgh. We have gone all over. I could be one of those people when you look up an airline and see where they fly and there are lines all over the place, well that could be us in where we have gone during a football season."
The Watt's absolutely love the holidays and the tradition that comes with it, and this year that tradition is going to mean football, football and more football. Derek's Chargers play at Dallas on Thanksgiving Day, the Steelers play Sunday night at Heinz Field against the Packers, and the Texans have a Monday night game at Baltimore, a game they will only go to if J.J. travels.
When it comes to Christmas, they will at least get to spend time with T.J. and J.J., as the Steelers play in Houston on Christmas Day.
"We even debated going to New York on Christmas Eve for Derek's game, but with the winter weather and holiday travel we figured it would be too much."
When T.J. first arrived in Pittsburgh his parents came to help him find a house, get settled and just feel comfortable in his surroundings so all he had to do was focus on football.
"We did that with all of the kids," said Connie. "Our first thing is always get them settled, get them happy. All of that plays a role in how they play on the field. It's difficult to be transplanted. I have never done that. My husband and I grew up in the area where we live and raised our kids. To be completely transplanted, we wanted to make sure they are settled and happy."
Instead of purchasing a house, T.J. decided on a new build. It's been a learning process for him, one that he couldn't get through without the help of family.
"I am not doing any of this on my own," said T.J. "I ask my mom how anyone is doing this on their own, managing money, time, trying to find a house? I don't know how anybody does this on their own. To have them come out and check on the house whenever they want. They are retired so they come out whenever. It's an eight hour car ride, or a two hour flight. To have them so close is great. I can go to the house and look at it and my dad knows what is right or wrong, I don't. They don't stop and I love having them around."
T.J. calls his mom on a regular basis, rather a daily basis, to check in, share what is happening in life, and just catch up on things.
"We talk daily," said Connie. "Some people say to me, that's not normal. And that is okay. We are not normal. We are a pretty unique family and I will take that. It's very special. It can be the littlest thing. He is a goofy kid, he is a funny kid. I want to keep that going. I know it's hard to be away, hard to be away from your girlfriend and family. In the morning I will send him something, maybe a quote for the day, or smile it's a great day. We definitely talk every day. Even the same with my husband. My husband will joke I am going to stop calling you because you didn't call me back.
"My kids write me letters, send me texts. It's very special the way he treats me. He always says I love you, every phone call."
Those talks are something both treasure, and they are talks that continue to make the bond even stronger.
"I facetime my mom probably once a day. I am constantly texting her," said T.J. "She truly is one of my best friends. My mom is a special woman. We have only grown closer as I have grown older because I can understand the sacrifices she has made. She never stops. I am like mom please, sit down and relax. She will be like, this needs done, and that needs done. I will tell her let me cook you a meal.
"For her birthday I got her a spa gift certificate. I told her that was the only way I can get you to not do anything and treat yourself.
"She is an incredible woman."