J.J. Watt knows how to grab the spotlight, whether ESPN realizes it or not.
January Jones may actually be really into J.J. Watt. After all, she’s a red-blooded American female. But it sure didn’t come across that way in their awkward (with a capital A) NFL Honors appearance during Super Bowl weekend. Jones found herself reduced to reassuring Watt on camera after his forced corny J.J. joke bombed. “No, you’re fine,” Jones tells Watt, all but patting him on the back and rubbing his tummy.
But what’s a little awkward moment between stars?
Watt tried to make a kidding remark about the Mad Men starlet and his shared “J.J.” initials, and it went over about as well as David Letterman’s old Oprah-Uma bit at the Oscars. “I apologize,” Watt found himself saying. “That was an awful joke.”
The apology turned out to be short-lived. When Watt returned to the stage, he was accepting his nearly unprecedented third NFL Defensive Player of the Year Award, and breathing fire. It’s largely become lost in the overwhelming Super Bowl hype machine, in Peyton Manning’s looooong farewell, in the very public and utterly predictable pathetic rebuke of Cam Newton, but Watt has clearly found his inner dragon.
Sporting a week’s worth of scruffy facial hair (he’s still flirting with that beard, too), Watt showed up in California seemingly more comfortable and at least a tad less rehearsed than he has been in past award shows. He also flashed a Michael Jordan level of vengeance that gave America a real glimpse at the fire that drives him.
“The funny thing is, I was a two-star recruit coming out of high school,” Watt barked from the glittering stage. “Now I have three Defensive Player of the Year trophies. So screw all of you guys who doubted me.”
The only thing missing was Watt calling out the doubters by name and dismissing them publicly like Michael Jordan did in his infamous and almost universally panned Basketball Hall of Fame enshrinement speech. (Yes, perhaps I’d get called out, too.) Still, Watt is letting his guard down and showing he’s not as cuddly and prepackaged as some of the grandmas who love him believe.
This represents a clear step forward. If the vocal minority of haters fueling that mini J.J. Watt Backlash outside of Houston hold one common beef, it’s the idea that Watt is somehow fake, that there’s no way he could be as nice and regular a guy as he presents himself to be.
The truth is, J.J. Watt never was that guy. He’s one of the most driven people on the planet. He holds grudges, harbors slights, invents wrongs and uses them all as fuel in much the same way Jordan did. The difference is that His Airness never shied away from letting the public see that dark energy.
You don’t join the legendary dominant and ferocious Lawrence Taylor as the only men in history with three NFL Defensive Player of the Year Awards — and win your three in a five-year span — without being a bad man who’s not above using bitterness as a fuel. This is a huge part of J.J. Watt’s advantage over the rest of the league, right along with his perfect football speed and size. He may be the most anger-driven mega athlete since Jordan.
With the NFL’s marketing machine already starting the countdown to Super Bowl LI, to be played in Houston next February, Watt would be wise to keep showing off his very real edge. Unless the Houston Texans get remarkably better remarkably fast, the Houston Super Bowl week will turn Watt into something of a stuffed-up mascot for the city, more symbol and caricature than feared force.
Unless Watt shows his snarl more often. It would probably impress January Jones more than the jokes, too.