Peter Holley: A lot of pro athletes have foundations, and the stereotype is that they're little more than a tax break, but it seems like you're very invested in your foundation. I'm curious where that investment comes from?
J.J. Watt: I’m very invested in it. I started it my junior year in college. I didn't have money. I was doing a lot of volunteer work in a lot of different schools and I saw that not everybody had the same opportunities that I was fortunate to have throughout my life. Every kid that we affect, it hits home to me because I know what sports can do. I know how athletics can help change a life. My mom runs it, and I'm the president, obviously, and one of my best friends is on the board. We started it in my basement, and the concept when we actually launched it—we were in a coffee shop, and it’s kind of a grassroots thing. We started from the bottom with nothing and now we’re selling out baseball stadiums for a softball game. We’re raising almost a half million dollars a year, and it’s going to keep growing. It’s crazy to think about how much has happened in such a short period of time.
It seems like the better you do on the field the more exposure you can get. Does that factor into how you approach the game?
Of course. With all the fame and all the great opportunities I get off the field with my foundation, all of that goes away if I don’t play well. So that’s why I’m so committed to my training, that’s why I’m so committed to preparing myself, preparing my body, because I know that all this can be taken away in a heartbeat if I don’t perform.
And you started this in college. Were you certain that you were going to make it to the NFL at the time?
I definitely didn’t know for sure, but I was hoping. Whether I was going to the NFL or not it was something I wanted to do, because I wanted to help change lives. I wanted kids to have that opportunity to succeed. And some of the situations that I had seen, kids were basically almost being stripped of that opportunity before they even had a chance to know what was out there for them. And that’s not fair.
I'm assuming you credit athletics for giving you a head start by comparison. Can you talk about that?
Yeah, athletics taught me things that I used beyond the field. I learned, obviously, teamwork, discipline, work ethic, time management. I learned how to structure my day, how to commit to something and really dedicate yourself to something. I learned so many different things. One thing we know about my foundation, after reading through some research, is that kids that have an after-school program—whether it be sports, music, anything—they perform better in school because they have something to look forward to at the end of the day. They have a reason to have success. And that’s what we’re trying to do. We’re not only helping them on the field. We’re also trying to make sure they have something to look forward to and they have a reason to want to have success in the classroom.
Is it a full-time gig for your mom or something she's juggling on the side?
It is about to become full-time. On July 1, she'll finally be full-time. I’m really excited about that.
Congratulations. Is she happy about that?
She's ecstatic. She’s been such an unbelievable supporter. At first she was full-time with her job and still helping with the foundation. Then I got her to go half-time at her job and half-time at my foundation. Now, finally, I’m going to be able to let her retire from her job and just work fully for the foundation.
What does she do now?
She’s the vice president of a building inspection company back home.
So this is going to be a totally engaging gig for her, I imagine.
Yeah, and she loves it. That’s why I’m so happy about it. She loves doing it because she gets to interact with our fans. She gets to see the kids, and she loves volunteering, and she loves giving back. There’s no greater moment than when you get to go deliver the sporting goods and you get to see the kids’ faces, and she loves that.
So you guys recently started doing work in Houston. Tell me about that.
We got all of our paperwork done a few months back. Our first real big event was the softball game. I believe the total amount of money raised was around $330,000 in one day, which is crazy. We’ve also started our donation process in Houston and have been giving to schools in Houston. They started with a couple of KIPP schools and donated $60,000 to them and are working on giving the rest of the money back because we're very excited about it.
So you target schools that have a need, it sounds like.
Yeah. We want to help kids who don’t have opportunities. There are a lot of schools that have something there in place already. We want to try and help those schools that have almost nothing. And we also want to make sure they have a good system in place. They need good coaches. We don’t want to just give money to a program that’s not going to teach kids the right way. We want to make sure they have people in place that are going to teach kids the right morals and values.
You seem pretty well versed on this process and you're even aware of the research about after-school programs.
I never, ever want to be that athlete where you look into his foundation and it’s being run the wrong way for the wrong reasons. I believe in my foundation. I believe in what we’re trying to do. And I believe in doing things the right way. The best part about my mom is that she’s such a stickler for the details and the accounting and the financial aspect of the foundation that if it’s not an absolute necessity we’re not spending money on it. Because we want every penny that possibly can to go back to the kids. We don’t want to be one of these foundations that gives huge, elaborate gifts to people and has crazy expenses – that’s not who we are. For the softball game, I got the gifts for my players donated and I bought a few of them personally myself because I don’t want to use foundation money for that. We only use that money for what we have to.
What is it about kids? Obviously, as a pro athlete you're always feeling the weight of scrutiny and attention, right? Are kids an outlet from all of that? Is it a way to get away from all that stuff?
I’m a big kid myself. I relate to kids. I know what it’s like to be a kid. Whatever kids are doing at the time is the most important thing in the moment, and that’s what’s cool to me. The only thing they’re worried about is having fun. In such a structured, business world, it’s fun to get away and relax. I can go out and play catch with a kid and there’s nothing else in the world going on in that kid’s day and to me that’s awesome. I love that feeling and I enjoy that feeling. Nothing like a kid’s smile, that’s for sure.
When you have to get back to the real world is it a little bit of a letdown?
Yeah, I mean obviously. I love the kids, but the real world is necessary. I wouldn’t call my life the real world. I get to play a game for a living; it’s not too bad. We do work extremely hard, and I love my job and I wouldn’t trade it for any job in the world. I get to come to work, work on my body, lift weights, I get to play football, and then I get to go out and affect lives. I get to put smiles on people’s faces just by shaking their hand, and that’s pretty neat.
Speaking of shaking hands, yesterday at the memorial service I noticed that as you were leaving you were approaching public servants and shaking their hands. You looked very serious. Was I picking up on something there?
Absolutely. I wish I could’ve shaken every man and woman’s hand in there. First of all, I have the connection that both my dad and my uncle are firefighters, so that’s a natural connection. But on top of that I’m a human being. And those men and women are true heroes. A lot of people look at us as role models and heroes sometimes, but those men and women put their lives on the line every single day and don’t get the credit they deserve. They have no fanfare, there’s no media attention and they just do it because that’s what they do. I will always show respect to those people because I have the utmost respect for them.
Was there a point in the service that really stuck out to you?
The ringing of the bells got me. But just to hear some of the family accounts. To hear the mom talk about her daughter because it got me thinking “that could be my mom.” I never actually thought about it until that funeral. It had never really registered with me that my dad and my uncle are firefighters, and there's the possibility of that being my mom or my family losing them. It felt very real.
The tragedy seemed so random for everyone involved.
It's crazy. Every day they go work and every day they come home…and that day they didn’t.
Did you feel like you were fixated on the entire service or did your attention sort of drift in and out?
No, that's one thing that was crazy to me. After the entire thing was over I looked at my watch and three hours had gone by, but I was locked in for the entire three hours. I was fully engaged. I never thought about anything else I was just so locked into the service. Out of respect for the families, but also just thinking the entire time and trying to decipher everything that was going on. It was an emotional day.
Do you feel like if you weren't playing ball you might be a firefighter?
No, that's one thing I wouldn't be (laughing).
I know yesterday you said you don't like ambulances.
I don't like ambulances and I don't like the fire trucks. I could see myself in the military, but I could not see myself as a firefighter just because—for some reason ever since I was a kid—I haven’t been a fan of the engines and the ambulances. I could definitely see myself as a marine or a soldier or something like that.
So you don't like the trucks, but I understand you've actually visited some of the local stations on holidays. Is that something you do on occasion?
I try to visit the local stations, especially around Christmas time. This Christmas I was by myself and I know those guys are by themselves at the station. I figured I might as well go stop in and say hello. Firefighters being the people they are, they fed me a great meal and it was a lot of fun.
Which station did you visit?
I stopped by a station in Bellaire. I stopped by the Bellaire police station because they’d recently lost a member of their staff. I also stopped by a station down in Pearland.
Is that something you would've done as a kid on holidays? Gone and visited your dad, I mean?
I used to always go visit him if he was working on holiday; even if it wasn’t a holiday I would always be in there. It’s one of those things where I know the camaraderie of a fire station and I know what type of guys they are and it’s fun. Firefighters are firefighters. They think it’s cool that I’m an NFL player, they like it, but at the end of the day they’re just guys. It's a chance for me to just go and hang out with the guys.
Is there any parallel to being on a football team?
I think there is. Especially for those guys who have a 24-hour shift and are together all day. We have long days so we're together all the time. I think there's the camaraderie and the friendly ribbing that happens, but you're also going through experiences that not many people in the world go through. It bonds you together.
So I'm curious about whether you have these two halves. There's you outside the football field, who visits fire station and loves kids, on the one hand. But to be successful in the NFL—I'm guessing—you have to have some part of you that is a little bit crazy.
You call it beast mode, right? When you're really pumped up and channeling that energy.
Where does it come from? Can you talk about the psychology of that place?
It's a lot of fun. A lot of people might think it’s harder than it is. For me it just comes naturally. All the way until I step on the field, I’m just a nice guy, I’m a regular guy. I love giving back and I’m very caring. But there’s two places: If I’m on the field or in the weight room, those are the two places that…you don’t want to mess with me.
What are thinking about in your mind during those times?
I want to be the best in the world. Whatever I’m doing on that field or in that weight room, I’m trying to be the absolute best football player on the planet and there’s nothing that’s going to get in my way, there’s nothing that’s going to stop me, and that’s what I’m thinking about.
Is it coming from a place of anger or hate?
That’s what’s cool about it. It’s not anger and it’s not hate. There’s none of that. It’s just, if I’m going to do something I’m going to be the best at it. There’s no point in me going to practice, going to the weight room, putting in all this work, if I just want to be average, if I just want to be pretty good. If I’m going to put in this time and I’m going to commit myself to this job, then I’m going to be the best. That’s they only way that I’ll consider this successful.
Is there something unique about your beast mode compared to other players? I've seen some YouTube videos of you pumping up your teammates and you look pretty scary.
Mine is a combination of things. I try and take the intensity, but I also try and create in the off-season and with all my training a size and skill and agility set that not many people can put together. And then also with the smarts: I try to watch as much film as I can, I study my opponents as much as I can. I try and take every facet of the game—the smarts, the strength, the speed, the agility, and then the intensity—and add it all together and, I think, that’s when you get greatness. And that’s what I try and do.
You’ve got to have some hatred for your opponent though.
Nah. I’m not angry, I don’t hate 'em...Ninety-nine percent of the time I don’t even know them. It doesn’t help me to hate the guy across from me. There’s no advantage there. I don’t know who he is. I’ll know what number he is and I’ll know how he plays, but I won’t know a thing about him as a person.
You don’t make up something in your mind?
Nah, I don’t need to. I don't need to. I’ll know his footwork. I’ll know his stance. I’ll know his tendencies, but I don’t know anything about him as a person, so I can’t hate him.
So you’re saying your motivation comes from a desire for perfection? That's interesting. Is that common, do you think?
I don’t know. I think a lot of people do, like you say, make up the hatred and things like that. All I need to do is know what he does and how he does his job. Because I’m trying to be the best I can be. I don’t need him to be bad. He can be great if he wants, but I need to be better than him.
Maybe I have an inferior approach to defeating an opponent. Do you remember the first time you felt that urge?
I’ve felt it my whole life. I mean, I played hockey since I was three years old and I started skating when I was three. And when I’d play hockey as a kid I wanted to be the best on the ice. My goal when I played hockey was to beat the other team by myself. I wanted to score more goals than the other team. Then when I was playing football I was the quarterback growing up and I wanted to win by myself. I wanted to score all the touchdowns and make the tackles on defense. My entire life, whatever it’s been, whatever sport, whatever activity, I’ve always wanted just to be the best.
But do you know why?
No [laughs]. Cause it’s fun. It’s fun to be the best, right?
Isn't there a competitive nature in that?
Of course. I’m an extremely, extremely competitive person. Like I said, I’m wasting my time if I’m not trying to be the best.
It seems like there’s got to be egotism in the desire to be better than other people.
Yeah. Of course there is. Absolutely. There’s a fine balance. You have to be very, very confident, but you also have to be somewhat self-conscious. Because you have to be extremely confident to know you that can beat anybody in the world, but you also have to be a little bit self-conscious to think that anybody in the world could potentially beat you at any time to keep you working hard.
You can't be overly confident, you're saying?
You can’t be overly confident, but you also can’t be under-confident.
Do you analyze the way people motivate themselves? Do you look at a teammate and say: "Okay, this guy motivates himself like that. I'm going to adapt or improve my form of motivation.
Yeah. Not just teammates. I look at every facet of life. I'm always studying people—whether it be movie stars, singers, businessmen, athletes, basketball players, baseball players—I love seeing how they do what they do and seeing what makes them great. I go back and look at Michael Jordan and what made him great. I look at what makes Beyoncé great. I look at Jay-Z and how he became great. Why does Donald Trump have so much money? How did these people get to where they are? Everybody has their flaws. I try and take all the good things from each person who’s had success in this world and bring as many of them together as I can.
It seems like one of the challenges in that pursuit might actually be finding ways to stay motivated once you've reached a certain level of success. Would you agree?
Not for me. I’ll always be hungry. I’ll always have a chip on my shoulder. I’ll always want to be better. I don’t want to just be the best this season. I don’t just want to be the best that day. I don’t just want to be the best of my career. The goal is always to be the best of all time, the best to have ever done it. And that’s my motivation.
That's really intense! You told me yesterday in passing that you began practicing your autograph in high school. Is that really true?
Yeah. I've been practicing my autograph since probably 8th or 9th grade. Back, I think, in 7th grade I had a MySpace page. And there was this part on the page that asked you for your name, age, favorite movie and stuff like that. There was this part that said something like "People you would like to meet?" And in 7th grade I wrote: "Roger Goodell" because, in my mind, that would mean I’m a first-round draft pick. A couple of weeks ago a friend sent me a newspaper article they found in their house and it was me when I was seven years old. The article asked who your favorite football player was. I said "Reggie White. I think they played really good on Monday." And I said, "I want to be a football player someday." This is when I was seven years old and it became reality.
Oftentimes you hear from highly successful people that they knew what they wanted to do early on. Almost like it was destiny. Is that how you feel?
Yeah, I think you have to have a plan. There are so many people along the way who told me that I couldn’t do it. I actually had people tell me my dreams weren’t realistic.
At what age?
Every age. I have people telling me now my dreams aren’t realistic when I’ve already done all these things people told me I couldn’t. Once I made up my mind that I wanted to play in the NFL, nothing else would satisfy me. Nothing else was even a possibility. People ask what would you be doing if you didn’t play football? There wasn’t another option because this was the only option. I was going to make it happen.
How old were you when you first decided that?
My sophomore year of high school was when I truly made that decision. That was when I had to choose between baseball and football. Because I was going to do one or the other. I chose football. I'd been playing my entire life, but that's when I kind of made the decision that I was going to go for the Division 1 scholarship in football and make that happen. Obviously, each goal is followed by another goal. It wasn’t the NFL at first; it was starting on varsity in high school. Then it was all-conference, then it was all-state, then it was scholarship, then it was Division 1 scholarship, then it was it Division 1 starter, then it was the NFL. Never did I just sit down and say: “Ok, I’m going to play in the NFL.” It was "I’m going to set each goal and as each goal comes set another one." Before it was defensive player of the year and now it’s MVP and Super Bowl. You just keep increasing your goals.
Was there a point, though, when you realized: "Okay, I have athletic ability that is not normal"? Sure, I can be on varsity, but I have a 40-inch vertical, etc?
(Laughs.) I think my entire life I kind of felt that way. I was good at every sport. Not that I was unbelievable at every sport. But, I mean, I was a quarterback and I was doing good. I could throw a baseball really hard and I could throw strikes and I could play hockey and a little bit of basketball. Then, when I started working out and being around other athletes, I started to realize I could have success. I wasn't always the biggest. I wasn’t always this big and I wasn't always this strong. It had to be earned. But I always realized that I had that athletic ability. I just needed to work to make it to what it is today.
But you don't necessarily know if you’re athletic enough to make you the best defensive player in the NFL.
No. You never know that. That’s all work. Nobody is born with that, nobody just has that, nobody is given that. There’s so many hours and so many workouts and so many times that nobody ever sees. It’s all born from things that nobody ever sees.
The YouTube video, the one where you're vertically jumping on top of a 55-inch box... how much of that is work ethic and how much is God-given?
I think it’s all work ethic. I’m very fortunate to have been given great talents, but there’s a lot of six-foot-six guys in the world. There’s a lot of 290-pound guys in the world. They could jump on a 55-inch box if they wanted to. I’ve been working my entire life to do that. I’ve been putting in all the hours and all the workouts. I refuse to believe that this just happened. Because I’ve been there. I’ve seen the work put in. I’ve done my due diligence. I refuse to believe that Lebron James just happened to become the best NBA player in the world because it was just meant to be. No, he works his tail off for it. I think that’s what people don’t realize, how much time and effort and energy goes into making this happen. I don’t go out and drink. I don’t go out and party. I don’t put bad stuff into my body. I take care of my body and I sacrifice a lot of social things in order to be where I am.
Which leads me to my next question. Yesterday you said that you "live like an old man." Are you really in bed by 9:30 every night?
I mean, every now and then, I’ll have my fun, but it’s very rare. They say, “life is football.” I live my life dedicated to this game. I’m not married. I don’t have kids. I want to be the best in the world at this game and so I commit myself to that and I sacrifice other things for it. I sacrifice fun, free time, but so far it has paid off.
Is it safe to say it’s not as glamorous as people imagine it to be?
I think for some it is. Some guys do go out there and they live it up and they have fun, and guys go to Vegas and they spend money, stuff like that. They buy nice cars and big houses, but mine…no. Mine is definitely not as glamorous as people think. Mine is awesome because I get to hang out with fans and put smiles on kids’ faces and do all these great things, but no, I don’t drive a Ferrari, I don’t live in a mansion. My fun is game day. I don’t need to validate my fun with a huge house.
So you don't get out to restaurants that much…do you get to experience Houston at all?
I get to experience it a little bit, but just about every time I try and do something it has to be planned. I can’t just drop in some place, it takes a long time. If I go to a restaurant I have to set it up with the manager where I sneak in through the kitchen and they have a table set up. I have somebody go do my post office runs and go shopping for me.
Is that all relatively recent?
It’s all within the last year.
Is that hard on you?
It’s fine with me because I understand it. I completely get it. I cook for myself. It’s probably healthier for me that I don’t eat out anyway. But yeah, I don’t mind it because I’m not a huge social guy anyway. I’m very outgoing and I’ll do a lot of things, but I don’t need to go to fancy restaurants, I don’t need to go to bars. That’s not who I am. I’m more of a stay-at-home, Midwestern-type kid anyway.
You do strike me as very Midwestern.
Yeah, just laid back. Family is the most important, kids. It doesn’t need to be all about me.
Can you actually meet women and date or anything like that?
No. No chance. It’s impossible.
You're going to get married at some point, I'm sure. Are you going to take a break from football?
That’s definitely the hardest part is meeting people, whether it be friends, whether it be girls, whether it be anybody, because you never know who wants what. There always seems to be something in it for them, whether it's the fame, tickets, money. I basically have to either know somebody that I already trust, or it’s somebody that I’ve already known in my life. My circle of trust is so small, but it’s so strong. The people that I am closest to and the people that I trust, they have my trust 100 percent, but that’s not that many people.
So it's one of the sacrifices of success and you're okay with that?
So is it true you eat 9,000 calories a day? Are you lugging around huge amounts of food everywhere you go? Is it in protein shakes?
It’s not protein shakes. I don’t take very many supplements. I believe in real food. It's more just eating a lot, often. It's a lot of meals throughout the day. I'll always be eating something. In the morning I'll have a breakfast and do my workout and then right after my workout I'll eat. And then before practice I'll have a quick meal. Just always throughout the day I'm eating something.
So you have to bring food with you wherever you go?
Here [at Reliant Stadium] we have a cafeteria. At my house I don't leave too often and I have my food with me.
Do you have a nutritionist?
We have a nutritionist here and I consult with her at times, but for the most part I've learned a lot on my own time and I go off what my body tells me. If I give it something and it doesn't feel good the next day I just don't bring it back into the diet.
Do you try to eat organic or anything?
I'm not really big on organic. It doesn't matter to me if I pick up organic or not organic. To be honest, I'm not even sure of the difference. I just try to eat real food.
Is there any place you like to shop in town?
H-E-B. That's where I get my shopping done.
Are you able to tell us a general area of where you live?
I think a lot of people know I live in Pearland. Unfortunately, I think too many people know. I think I'm going to have to move within the next year. I'm not a gated community guy, I'm not a gated home guy, but I think it's something that needs to be done. I mean, I've got people sitting outside my house when I get home.
Not every day, but in the last week it has happened three times. They're not harming me in any way. They just want pictures, they just want autographs.
It's kind of scary though.
It is. So I had to have cameras installed in my house. In the next year I think I'm going to have to move. I love my house and I love living like a regular person. I live in a neighborhood where my house is not expensive— it's a nice house, but it's regular. I don’t want to live in a gated community because I’m not that kind of guy.
Do you have any new stats about your body or vertical leap that you want to tell people about?
No, I don't know what my body fat is right now. That's the one thing I'm focused on right now, just lean muscle. I'm trying to have as much muscle as I can. My goal is to be 290 to 295, but as lean as I can possibly be. If I can keep my body fat under 10 [percent], that's my goal.
Has you bench press or squat increased dramatically this off-season?
You know, it hasn't. It's not anything crazy or unbelievably impressive. It's definitely going up, but right now more repetitions than max. It's not about max. There's a difference between football strength and weight room strength and I'm trying to create as much football strength as possible. More speed, explosion and things like that.
Can you still jump onto a 55-inch box?
I can. I'm gonna go back home to Wisconsin in the next couple weeks and attempt—last year I did 57—so I'm going to try 58. My ultimate goal is 60. I really want to do 60, but it just gets to the point where safety is a concern. I'm going to try 58 this year, so we'll see.
Anything new with the foundation that you want people in Houston to know about?
We’re going to be donating more money in Houston. If there are schools that need more help they can fill out a grant request form on our website: www.jjwfoundation.org. One of the things we've run into is finding schools that need the money.
It's middle schools and basically schools that need the funding that we want to help. And we're looking for schools to help.
But you had some trouble finding schools?
Yeah. It's crazy. We have all this money and we want to give it away. But we need to find people who are willing to have the coaches there and who are willing to teach the right way. We want to make sure that we give it to places that are going to have success.
JJ, thank you so much. I really appreciate your time.
No problem, man. I look forward to reading it. Great to see you.