Behind the scenes of J.J. Watt's Wisconsin homecoming

Is Watt a top-5 defensive player? (1:24)

Dan Graziano, Victor Cruz and Josh McCown discuss where J.J. Watt ranks among the NFL's defensive players. (1:24)

(Editor's note: This story was originally published on Aug. 17, 2019.)

GREEN BAY, Wis. -- It's less than two hours before the Houston Texans' preseason opener, and J.J. Watt is continuing his tradition of walking around the stadium and playing catch with kids in the stands.

But this time he's doing it at Lambeau Field with his parents, Connie and John Watt, standing on the sideline. Watt makes it more than halfway around the stadium when his dad yells: "Hey, J.J., over here." After faking a hard throw to his dad, Watt smiles and starts to play catch with him.

"We used to play catch in the backyard, pretending I was Brett Favre," J.J. said. "So to be able to play catch at Lambeau with my dad on the field, it was pretty cool."

When John thinks back to he and his three sons -- J.J., T.J. and Derek -- watching the Green Bay Packers together, he smiles. "Back then, I never thought I was going to get a chance like [this]," said John before the Texans-Packers game.

"It's surreal."

The Texans played at Lambeau Field in 2016, but three months before the game J.J. had season-ending back surgery. He said it hurt to miss that game, especially because it snowed -- exactly the scenario he had dreamt of as a kid.

J.J. made up for it this preseason by spending almost a week in Wisconsin, the place where he not only grew up, but found himself returning to at the highest and lowest points in his life. Watt called his return to Green Bay "a dream come true."

"I don't think I've fully wrapped my head around what it means and how special it really is to be playing on a practice field where guys like Brett Favre and Reggie White have played," J.J. said. "There's not going to be too many days like this in my career. I'm very thankful and grateful that I got to have it."

For J.J., coming home with the Texans, even though he did not get to play after tweaking his groin during Monday's practice, was the latest of a series of homecomings that began after he left for Central Michigan in 2007.

First return

Connie Watt remembers sending her oldest son on the ferry across Lake Michigan to start college. She didn't think he would be homesick, but when J.J. returned to Pewaukee for winter break, she could tell something was weighing on him. Several days before J.J. was supposed to go back for the spring semester, he sat down with his mother.

"He said, 'I don't want to go back,'" Connie said. "And I just said, 'I know, I don't want you to go back, either.' I didn't realize he was meaning, 'I don't want to go back and stay back.' So then I was like, 'Oh, this is a different conversation.'"

J.J. told his parents he wanted to leave Central Michigan and walk on at the University of Wisconsin.

"It was really hard for me, because I'd always told him, 'Make your decision and stay there and work hard and do the best you can there,'" John said. "But when he came to us with that proposal, you could see it in his eyes that ... his mind was made up."

J.J. had his mind set on playing for the Badgers since attending his first game at Camp Randall Stadium in 2005. When Watt gave the commencement speech this past May at the very same stadium, he recounted the game in great detail. He says he remembers everything, including when Wisconsin beat Michigan on a last-minute touchdown.

"I thought to myself, 'This is it. This is my dream,'" Watt said in his commencement speech. "'This is where I want to be. I'm a Wisconsin Badger.'

"Unfortunately the coaching staff didn't quite agree. They said I was too small to play tight end here. They didn't have a scholarship for me."

Two years later, after J.J. had signed with Central Michigan, Pewaukee High School was playing nearby Catholic Memorial in the state basketball tournament. One of Catholic Memorial's players, Patrick Butrym, had a scholarship to play on the Badgers' defensive line.

The principal of Pewaukee at the time, Marty Van Hulle, calls it one of his fondest memories of Watt because that game "exemplified kind of what was in him and what we were going to see down the road."

"The fans in the stands were chanting, 'Badger Reject' every time I went to the free throw line because I didn't have an offer, and Pat did," J.J. said. "But I ended that game with like 25 points and 17 rebounds, and we won."

J.J. enrolled at Wisconsin in 2008 with the chance to earn his scholarship. After making an agreement with his folks, he saved to buy a scooter and pay his own tuition, by delivering pizzas that spring and working maintenance at the very stadium he hoped to play in that summer.

"I was sitting there on my break," J.J. said, "and I was looking out at the empty field and I thought to myself: Imagine running out of that tunnel. Imagine being on that field wearing that uniform. That is my dream."

It didn't take J.J. long to make it happen. Charlie Partridge, then the defensive line coach for the Badgers, said J.J. was so good if it weren't for NCAA transfer rules, he'd probably have been playing right away. But it took work.

J.J. played tight end at Central Michigan, and although he played on the defensive line in high school, he credits Partridge for teaching him how to play defensive end. J.J. was on the scout team, so every night after Partridge "was done with the starters, after he was done with his coaches' meetings, long after everybody went home," the pair sat in his office to go over J.J.'s scout-team tape.

When Partridge left the Badgers' coaching staff meeting around 9:30 or 10 p.m., he'd see Watt sitting in his office. By then, Watt had already watched most of his film himself. "So then he'd watch it again with me, and we'd pause and play and pause and play and the exact details of where your hands should be," Partridge said. "There are a few people that come through your career that make you better as a coach. That's what he did."

After a fall and winter of putting the work in on the scout team and with Partridge, J.J. had reached his goal.

"He called us and said, 'Mom and Dad, guess what?'" John said. "'What did I tell you I was going to do?' And we said ... 'You must be doing good, you're going to be in the two-deep or something next year.' He said, 'No. I've already got a scholarship for next year.'

"He did everything he promised us he would do when he came back."

Second return

In the fall of 2016, J.J. returned home again, but this time it wasn't planned. After playing with a broken hand, two torn abdominal muscles, three torn adductor muscles, a staph infection and a herniated disc during the 2015 season, J.J. needed several offseason surgeries.

He made it back on the field to start the 2016 season, but played in three games before needing to have another surgery on his back. As part of his rehab, J.J. was required to walk five miles twice a day. He knew it would be difficult in Houston, so he asked the Texans if he could go back to Wisconsin to recover.

"I remember him talking to the team and me praying, just saying, 'Please let him come home,'" Connie said. "I knew that mentally it would also be good for him.

"It was just peaceful. ... People would say, 'I saw J.J. walking down this street.' And they would just honk or wave to him, but nobody bothered him. It was just a respectful thing, knowing he was doing what he had to do."

J.J. was home, but he still had to deal with missing games. That hadn't happened during the first five years of his NFL career, when he had not only played, but started, all 16 games.

"It was the first time I've known the kid that I saw a little bit of fear," longtime trainer Brad Arnett said. "A little bit of doubt. [He seemed to be thinking] 'I don't know if I can come back from this. I don't know how I'm going to come back from this.'"

J.J. and his friend Taylor Jannsen went on long walks around Oconomowoc, Waukesha and Pewaukee. Jannsen says they had "real conversations that didn't revolve around football or sports or anything like that."

"And it gave him a lot of time to reflect," Arnett said. "'Is this really what I want? Is this truly important to me?'"

J.J. later said it was during that time while he was recovering from that second back surgery that he first thought about retirement.

"Everybody had their thoughts during that time," Jannsen said. "People were saying, 'Is his career over?' And I'm sure in a lot of ways, he thought that, too. Whenever you're back home and you're with the people that you've known forever, it just helps ground you.

"It humbled him to know that his football life maybe has a shorter shelf life than what he thought and this really could end at any time. He kind of remembered what was truly important to him."

Third return

Last Monday morning, before the Texans began their first joint practice at Ray Nitschke Field, J.J. rode on a small blue bike. And although he broke the seat of the bike and had to switch to a bigger model, J.J. celebrated being able to take part in the tradition of riding a kid's bike to practice, at the site where he had visited training camp in middle school.

"[I'm] obviously very grateful for the reception and the way that they treat me here and the amount of love and support they've shown for me," J.J. said. "I stood outside of those fences and I watched practice through the fence, and I watched the bikes be ridden, and I stood over by the player's parking lot and tried to get autographs. It's a pretty special thing."

Through all the success Watt has enjoyed on and off the field since being drafted by the Texans in 2011, those around him believe he has always stayed grounded. His roots have remained strong.

"He still remembers all the people that were a part of his life when he started going through this process," Arnett said. "He's never forgotten. He's always included them and I think that's what makes him so special ... is that he never forgets things that happened in his life, and why he got where he's at and what it's done for him now."

John smiles when asked whether he thinks J.J. will live in Wisconsin again after he retires. In 2016, J.J. told The Milwaukee Journal Sentinel he envisions returning to coach high school football.

"I can't promise that's exactly what's going to happen because my career could go 100 different ways when I'm done playing," Watt said at the time. "But in my ideal world, the way I see it happening, I see myself coming back to Wisconsin and settling in there."

Connie says she hopes J.J. and his brothers will all come back to Wisconsin eventually, but points out that she doesn't know where J.J.'s life will take him now that he's getting married. Watt's fiancée, Kealia Ohai, is a forward for the NWSL's Houston Dash, and because her season overlaps with Watt's offseason, he hasn't spent as much time at his house in Oconomowoc as he had in past years.

It's clear, regardless of where he ends up, coming home to Wisconsin will always be meaningful.

"The state of Wisconsin has always supported me, even since I left," Watt said. "I always try and do my best to make everybody proud, both back here in Wisconsin and in Houston.

"Everything I've ever accomplished in my life has not been by myself. Everything I've ever accomplished has been with the help of other people, with the support of other people, with other people believing in me and propping me up.

"I'm very fortunate that I get to play this game and I get to get all these accolades and awards and do these great things, but at the end of the day, it's so many people behind the scenes that helped make it happen."