GREEN BAY — J.J. Watt didn’t even wait until he hit the Green Bay Packers practice field before he started doing damage Monday.
The Houston Texans defensive end, who grew up in Pewaukee and watched the Packers practice in training camp as a kid, participated in a time-honored Green Bay tradition by jumping on a child’s bike for the short ride to the field when the Packers and Texans held the first of two joint practices leading up to their exhibition game Thursday night.
The only problem was, Watt broke the bike.
“The bike that I was using was not equipped for a 290-pound man and the seat broke off,” Watt said. “We have purchased a new bike for the boy. So I apologize for that.”
No apology necessary. There never is when Watt comes home to Wisconsin.
He dominated on the football field at the University of Wisconsin, was drafted in the first round by the Texans and has been an NFL superstar for nearly a decade, but Watt has never forgotten where he came from, making him one of the state’s favorite sons and greatest ambassadors. He is just as beloved in Houston, where he is a three-time NFL defensive player of the year and won the Walter Payton Man of the Year Award in 2017 after raising almost $42 million for the Hurricane Relief Fund after Houston was devastated by Hurricane Harvey.
Watt’s return to the state with the Texans for the first time in his nine seasons — he missed a 2016 regular-season game at Lambeau Field due to injury — has led to an unprecedented show of support for an opposing player. And it has been a thrill for a certain 30-year-old who once watched practice through the fence, tried to get autographs in the players’ parking lot and saw his Packers heroes riding kids’ bikes to and from practice.
“It’s one of the coolest traditions,” said Watt, who historically doesn’t play in the first exhibition game and probably won’t Thursday night. “Growing up here, I know how special it is to get to interact with a player from the Green Bay Packers. For them to have that tradition, where kids get to be up close and personal with their favorite players and they get to hold their helmet, I mean, that’s what it’s all about. Those are the memories that those kids are going to have for a lifetime. For me to be able to participate in it as a player was really cool.”
It says a lot about Watt that the 5-year-old boy kid he chose to pair up with for the bike ride was wearing an Aaron Rodgers Packers jersey. It didn’t matter to Watt, who said he chose the first kid in a long line because he wanted to be fair.
“I mean, I can’t walk past a kid,” Watt said. “That’s hard. He had a Rodgers jersey on, which is fine. I respect it. I support loyalty. The welcome and the reception I’ve gotten since I got back here and to see people wearing my jersey, it’s pretty crazy.”
Providing testimony to Watt’s popularity Monday were the hundreds of fans, mostly kids, wearing red or blue Watt jerseys. A few others wore Packers jerseys with Watt’s name across the back. Though he should be used to it by now, Watt seemed humbled by that show of support, especially since it came in the shadows of Lambeau Field.
“I went to one game here as a kid at Lambeau Field and I went to one training camp practice,” he said. “But to see people wearing my jersey outside of this stadium at this practice, even though I’ve tried to wrap my head around it, 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. It’s special. It’s really special. I would tell every kid out there to chase their dreams because when you get the chance to accomplish the dream you had as a child, it’s one of the coolest feelings in the world.”
Not even the incident with the bike could ruin Watt’s day. Nor did it ruin the boy’s day. He got to walk with Watt to the field, lugging Watt’s helmet while Watt carried his broken bike.
After the long, hot practice, Watt rode in a golf cart on the return trip to Lambeau. Along the way, the cart rolled past a large group of cheering kids, who chased it to the door of the visiting locker room. Instead of ducking into the entryway, however, Watt waited for the kids to catch up and signed autographs for them.
But that’s Watt. He doesn’t fool around when he sees people, especially kids, who need something. Remember, this is a guy who while in college started a foundation that provided facilities and opportunities for junior high school athletes. The foundation is still going strong, by the way.
One thing Watt takes very seriously is his relationship with the people of Wisconsin.
“I’m very conscious of it,” he said. “I’m very thankful to have an incredible hometown and homestate here in Wisconsin and to have a new home down in Houston and Texas. Both places treat me incredibly well. They’ve welcomed me with open arms. The state of Wisconsin has always supported me, even since I left, so I always try and do my best to make everybody proud, both here in Wisconsin and in Houston. I hope I do that. I’m so thankful for everybody for all the support they throw behind me because I know it’s rare and I’m lucky to have that relationship.”
So are we. So are we.