Wisconsin native JJ Watt wins Walter Payton Man of the Year

Watt raised 37 million, overcame personal hardship
Posted at 7:25 PM, Feb 03, 2018
and last updated 2018-02-04 14:11:20-05

The NFL announced that Houston Texans' defensive end J.J. Watt was named Walter Payton Man of the Year for helping raise over 37 million dollars to aide victims of Hurricane Harvey via his viral donation campaign.

Hurricane Harvey, which struck Houston on the morning of August 26th, quickly became the most deadly and costly hurricane in American history after inflicting nearly $200 billion dollars in damages and taking an estimated 88 lives. 

The Waukesha, Wisconsin native and former Wisconsin Badger's initial goal was to raise 200,000 dollars. In less than two hours, he met that goal, and every goal he set after that, $500,000, $1 million, $2 million, was met just as easily. And by September 9, Watt, with the help of Ellen DeGeneres, Jimmy Fallon, and normal, everyday Americans willing to lend a hand, had raised $30 million.

"There are not enough words to thank you all for your generosity," Watt wrote on his fundraising page. "... There are many places you could have donated your hard-earned money and I'm honored you have chosen to join this effort to support the people who were affected most by Hurricane Harvey."

Though Watt might have ended 2017 as an inspiration and model for Houston's recovery, he began 2017 on a mentally and physically challenging recovery mission of his own. 

"There was a time when I genuinely wondered, "Am I done?" Watt wrote in his Nov. 22nd, 2016 article on "I didn’t feel like myself. I had never even had one major surgery before, much less three in one year ... hat was the first time the word retirement had ever crept into my head."

It was Sep. 9, 2016 where everyone thought Watt's career and life changed forever. He had back surgery prior to the 2016 season, but following a week 3 loss to the New England Patriots, he re-aggravated the same disk in his back and was forced to his first NFL regular season game and the rest of the 2016 season. Sports Illustrated reported that the injury looked like a motorcycle accident.

But, that was only the surface and from from the beginning of the injury hardship plauging the three-time NFL defensive player of the year 

"One broken hand. One staph infection. Two torn abs. Three torn adductor muscles. One herniated disc. (Twice). That was my 2015." Watt wrote in the players tribune. Somehow, he still won his third defensive player of the year. 

The staph infection was the scariest. Watt said if team doctors hadn't recognized the problem so quickly, he could have lost his leg. He needed three hours of treatment from the strongest antibiotic IVs the hospital had to have enough energy to get out of bed. Yet, he still played that weekend, and had two tackles in a crucial road win over the Jaguars

He admitted to pushing himself too hard, both to continue playing in 2015 and his effort to get back for the Texans 2016 opener, a game many thought he would be inactive for. 

"People deal with injuries and illnesses every day," Watt wrote. "In my mind, I was just doing my job, and what anybody would do if they were in my shoes. Unfortunately, that was the start of a pretty dark year for me.'

It took a full year, a soul-searching trip back to Waukesha, and a long mental journey for Watt to start feeling like himself again. Finally, it all came full circle when he revisited Tom Brady and the Patriots 1 year and 1 day after re-injuring his back in Gillette stadium.

"I think that overall I’m really starting to feel good out there and enjoying it," Watt told ESPN's Sarah Bishop.

But his story of triumph didn't last long. Just two weeks later, Watt was back on shelf with a fractured tibial plateau. Done for the season on Oct. 10 after just five games back. He had played 80 straight games, now he's missed 24 of his last 32. 

"I can't sugarcoat it, I am devastated," Watt wrote on his Twitter. All I want to do is be out there on that field for my teammates and this city. I'm sorry."

Unable to walk, Watt found his own way to help Houston, a city that was in need of much more than a football player. He found a way to not only to inspire others, but to inspire himself.

"If there is one thing that I have taken away from these last few weeks," Watt wrote on his page. "It is the reassurance of how much good is out there in our world."

It took over two months for Watt to be able to walk again, and the first thing he did was tour the Gulf Coast and see first-hand what his campaign was able to accomplish. 

"The people and their stories were both heartbreaking and uplifting at the same time," Watt said on his Instagram. "Each of these families went through so much devastation and heartbreak, yet remain so positive and energetic, it was truly inspiring to spend time with them today."

More than rebuilding homes, Watt's donations have made an impact on the Houston Food Bank and Feeding America, who was struggling to keep up the high demand for meals. 

"(The Houston Food Bank) estimated that in the wake of Harvey, their production tripled and it currently remains at double the standard rate and will remain so well into next year," Watt wrote. "Through Feeding America, your donations have helped to provide countless meals, not only in Houston but all throughout the gulf coast and other affected areas."

With south Texas and Watt both on the mend,  all that's left is for Watt —football wise — is to get back onto the field and terrorize offenses like he used to during his three seasons as Defensive Player of the Year.