by Tania Ganguli, ESPN Staff Writer
HOUSTON — A line about a burrito.
That’s what got J.J. Watt into showbiz.
“I’ve eaten burritos bigger than you,” he told then-Ravens running back Ray Rice in a 2012 game during which he was miked up. The audio aired in a video montage during the “NFL Honors” show before that season’s Super Bowl.
Jeff and Jackie Schaffer — creators, executive producers, writers and directors of FXX’s original series “The League” — sat in the audience. They were smitten. Once they got the Houston Texans‘ defensive end on set for a 2013 episode, he confirmed their suspicions, and now the superlatives tumble from their mouths.
“He could be the next Rock if The Rock was better at football,” Jeff said, referring to former professional wrestler Dwayne Johnson.
“That guy, if he wanted to be a movie star, could overnight,” Jackie said.
“Some sort of Wisconsin version of Hercules,” Jeff said.
“Hollywood would kill for another action star like that,” Jackie said.
Defensive linemen normally don’t make cameos in TV shows. They aren’t in movies. They don’t get their own roles in commercials.
Defenders aren’t considered the top player in the NFL. That’s a quarterback thing. When was the last time you watched a football game — any football game — and didn’t see Peyton Manning featured in a commercial?
Except now, there’s Watt.
This year, he was selected as the top player in football by NFL Network’s poll of NFL players, the first time a non-quarterback was selected for that award. And Tuesday, ESPN revealed Watt was selected by a panel of 71 football reporters and analysts as the best player in the NFL, edging out Packers quarterback Aaron Rodgers.
“He’s crazy,” Jaguars center Luke Bowanko said. ” . . . He’s another creature.”
In just a few years, Watt has gone from an unnamed defensive lineman in a local television commercial shoot to a national spokesperson for Gatorade, Reebok and Papa John’s. Perhaps even bigger than all of the endorsements, he’s now football’s biggest reality TV star — the centerpiece of HBO’s “Hard Knocks,” a series that’s getting better ratings than it has in years.
“My agency . . . when I signed with them actually, they kind of were like, ‘Hey, you know, we have a marketing department, but defensive linemen don’t really do that well marketing-wise. They never really get that many commercials. You’re not going to be on TV shows and movies. So we just want you to know that from the start,’ ” Watt recalled. “It was kind of one of those situations where I was like, ‘Let’s just see what happens.’ ”
Then he became a face of the NFL. When he says he loves brunch, it makes headlines. Nearly anything he posts on Instagram goes viral. He’s by far the most mentioned defensive NFL player on radio, television, websites and in print. He makes quarterback-worthy money in off-field endorsements. The city’s newspaper, the Houston Chronicle, isn’t publishing a Texans special section. But they are publishing a J.J. Watt special section.
“I can’t say that I have seen a phenomenon like J.J. before,” Texans president Jamey Rootes said.
WATT HAS BEEN ASKED to officiate weddings, make appearances at bar mitzvahs and at graduations. High schools, colleges and nursing schools ask if he’ll be their commencement speaker. Sometimes the requests come with sizable monetary promises — even hundreds of thousands of dollars. Sources said Watt typically does not do paid appearances that aren’t obligations written into endorsement contracts.
With his agency (CAA), the Texans’ PR staff, his foundation, social media and fan feedback to the Texans’ community relations and marketing departments, Watt receives about 450 requests per week for appearances, autographs, favors, charity visits, endorsements and media requests ranging from national magazines to late-night talk shows. One woman sent in a music video she and some friends made for Watt with lyrics to the tune of the song “Cruise” by Florida Georgia Line.
Some see his charitable work and ask him to do more. He and his mother, Connie Watt, work with others in his JJ Watt Foundation to sift through those requests so he can choose a few to grant, especially during the offseason. The foundation mostly supports middle school athletics in Wisconsin and Texas. Watt had special guests at all six open Texans training camp practices this year.
The attention paid to his good deeds creates a Catch-22 for Watt. It is good for his brand, and he likes giving back, but it also elicits the cynical perception that he does it for the attention. Lately, bothered by that assumption, Watt declines nearly every request to cover his visits with fans, or acts of kindness, and sometimes asks reporters not to report such stories they’ve discovered.
He has had fans camp out on his lawn, and they swarm his car if they know he’s in a parking lot.
“You really have to try and kind of give yourself some guidelines on what you’re going to do [with fans] and what you’re not,” Watt said. “So at my house, when I’m out to meals, and when I’m at work, certain times at work, are really three times [that are off-limits]. I fully realize that some of the things I have in my life from my house to everything else, are because of the fans. They buy jerseys they buy t-shirts. If I’m on a magazine, they buy the magazine. So of course I’m going to make time for them because those people are the reason I have a job.”
He has worked to nurture that local connection.
The summer before Watt‘s rookie season, during the NFL lockout, a friend called Rootes, asking if he could send a player to visit three recently orphaned children; he apologized and said he couldn’t.
“It wasn’t an hour later I’m watching on the news that J.J. Watt, on his own, newcomer to Houston, is over there visiting with those kids,” Rootes said. “I knew then that this was a special guy.
“Certainly it starts with his athletic performance, but he has great charisma and charm. He does care deeply about people.”
Watt visits those children — Aaron, Peter and Willa Berry, whose parents were killed in a car crash — to this day.
He embraced Houston’s sports history. He befriended Craig Biggio, the Houston Astros‘ first Hall of Famer, and made his support of Biggio’s Hall of Fame campaign public and insistent. He complained about the referees during a Rockets playoff game in April, along with thousands of Houstonians. When the Astros called up star prospect Carlos Correa, baseball’s first overall pick in 2012, Watt texted to welcome him to the city.
“Like I’ve always said all along, if you want a city to support you, you better support them,” Watt said.
He wanted to win over a fan base that greeted his selection as the 11th overall pick in the 2011 draft with a collective shrug. Now, Watt’s local celebrity is so big, according to a source, that some of Watt‘s regional deals are comparable to his national deals.
IT HAS BEEN THREE YEARS since Watt “performed” in a commercial for his first personal endorsement. Fresh off his rookie season, Watt and former defensive line teammates Shaun Cody and Antonio Smith filmed a spot for Texas grocery chain H.E.B. Watt’s name was never mentioned. He had one line, innocently noting a burger is “looking 100 percent delicious.”
The three men, who among them weigh a half-ton, at first devoured the burgers they were peddling. They regretted that decision. “We probably did 40, 50 takes and it was tons of burgers,” Cody said. “Meat everywhere. … I think I was the one that was messing up the most. I was just doing ridiculous takes.”
“I haven’t thought about that commercial in a long time,” Watt said. Some six months later, he received 49 out of a possible 50 votes for the AP Defensive Player of the Year award, which he accepted during that ceremony as Jeff and Jackie Schaffer watched.
As the fan interest has grown, the power of his brand has, too.
“[There’s] only one player in the NFL who’s done more offseason deals than J.J. [this year] and that’s Odell Beckham [Jr.],” ESPN sports business reporter Darren Rovell said. “Reebok, Papa John’s, two more imminent deals coming. Watt probably has more deals than any defensive end has ever had in the history of the game.”
Gatorade was the first of his current sponsors to get on board nationally. They did a series with Watt, Blaine Gabbert and Christian Ponder, two first-round picks who are now backup quarterbacks, during the trio’s rookie year.
Watt earns about $2.5 million to $3 million a year in endorsement money, Rovell said. But Watt doesn’t sell space on his Twitter account, and can hesitate to send tweets for his sponsors. “Defensive guys are just far down on the list when they’re choosing who’s going to be their national spokesperson,” Rovell said. “J.J. has turned into almost a comic book character. Marketers, the way they talk about him as a person, it’s ridiculous.”
That defensive players, even ones with marketing footprints as large as Watt’s, don’t garner as much attention remains true.
Though Watt might be the best player in football, the game’s three biggest quarterback names dwarf him in media mentions. According to Joyce Julius and Associates, which measures and evaluates corporate sponsorships and product placements, in the past 90 days Watt was mentioned a total of 13,665 times, Tom Brady was mentioned 132,718 times, Manning 35,947 times and Rodgers 25,899 times. Brady’s numbers are inflated by coverage of the Patriots’ deflated footballs scandal, but the contrast remains stark. Between Aug. 19 and Aug. 26, Watt was mentioned 3,432 times on social media, Brady 67,227 times, Manning 10,890 times and Rodgers 9,572 times.
“Richard Sherman’s attraction was associated with the success of his team,” said Larry Chiagouris, a professor at Pace University’s Lubin School of Business in New York. “Without the success of his team you would not even be asking me a question about Richard Sherman. If his team had not won the Super Bowl, you would not even ask me a question about him. On the other hand, J.J. Watt’s team has never won the Super Bowl. J.J. Watt’s team has never even been in the Super Bowl. But we’re still talking about J.J. Watt.
“Can you imagine what will happen if his team wins?”
WHENEVER HE’S ASKED, Watt says that when it’s all over, he wants to retreat to Wisconsin, coach high school football and disappear from public life.
There is another option: the post-football movie-star career.
“He’s a massive human being that you want to look at just because of that,” said Ken Rodgers, NFL Films’ supervising producer for “Hard Knocks.” “There’s just an immediate attention-drawing factor that people like Arnold Schwarzenegger have had in the past. And then his likability to mass audiences is the second factor that makes him probably more marketable than most large aggressive football players.”
Rodgers likened Watt‘s combination of on-field excellence and off-field charisma to Hall of Fame Giants defensive end and current national talk show host Michael Strahan. The Schaffers were struck by Watt’s ease in front of the camera and with their cast during the shoot. Their show, whose final season premieres on Sept. 9 on FXX, is about a group of friends in a fantasy football league. Athlete guest stars are common, but athletes so comfortable in front of the camera are not.
“Our actors were like, ‘This isn’t fair,’ ” Jeff Schaffer said. ” ‘He can do what we do and we couldn’t last one minute on the field.’ ”
Right now, Watt isn’t willing to dedicate much time to filming anything. He shot his scenes on the Fox television show “New Girl,” his appearances on “The League” and all his commercials in just a few days. Watt shot a cameo role in an upcoming movie by Oscar-winning director Ang Lee. He plays a football player, but it’s the first role he has had where he didn’t play himself. That was filmed in one day.
He has ventured into Hollywood circles, aided by CAA, which is also one of the most powerful agencies in the entertainment sphere. It was actually through CAA that Watt wound up on Jackie Schaffer’s radar — she used to work for the agency, and during Watt’s rookie year they’d approached her about including him on “The League.” It wasn’t until the burrito bit that she was finally sold.
Most publicly, CAA’s connections led to a meeting with Schwarzenegger right about the time Schwarzenegger’s latest movie came out. Watt filmed a video of several teammates attempting Schwarzenegger impressions. Schwarzenegger tweeted about the video. They engaged in a back-and-forth dialogue, and even had dinner together, giving Watt a chance to pick Schwarzenegger’s brain about the industry he dominated.
Some athletes have done it — former NFL players like Howie Long, Jim Brown and Carl Weathers even went on to have successful acting careers. And when Watt’s interactions with celebrities are public, which many of them aren’t, they also grow his brand.
“It brings to the attention of marketing decision-makers that he is someone who could lend some value to their brand,” Chiagouris said. “Hollywood is one of those catalysts that brings people’s attention to other people.”
The pinnacle still awaits Watt, if this continues. He is only 26, closer to the start of his career than he is to the end of it. The longer he stays atop his profession, the more his brand grows.