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The incredible life of J.J. Watt: NFL's next Howie Long poised to become a Biggio & Bagwell figure in H-Town

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J.J. Watt is reaching higher, faster than anyone could have expected. Photo by © Michelle Watson/CatchLightGroup.com
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Whether it's on a horse or in a . . .  Photo by © Michelle Watson/CatchLightGroup.com
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. . . an art car with Connor Barwin, J.J. Watt has become a parade fixture in Houston. Photo by Jeremy Keas
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J.J. Watt is already a Houston folk hero. Photo by © Michelle Watson/CatchLightGroup.com
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Which is certainly better than the reception J.J. Watt received at the airport in his first visit to Houston. Photo via Bovay Engineers
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Wade Phillips has turned J.J. Watt loose. Photo by © Michelle Watson/CatchLightGroup.com
J.J. Watt hands up
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It seems like J.J. Watt appreciates his wild, unlikely journey. That self awareness is part of what makes the Houston Texans' budding defensive superstar so easy to root for in every way.

Watt's reacted to bursting onto the NFL scene like every fan would like to think they'd react to being thrust into such a situation.

He's embraced it, made the most of it, actually enjoyed it. In a sports world full of disgruntled multimillionaires, this is no small feat. It's awfully easy to get jaded before your time when everyone wants a piece of your time.

 Watt is a dominant season or two away from becoming a Jeff Bagwell or Craig Biggio-beloved figure in Houston. 

Watt's gone the other way though. He's playing grand marshal at the Rodeo Parade, then the Art Car Parade. He's throwing himself into his new city, walking around in a vintage Houston Astros shirt, watching the first game at the Houston Dynamo's new stadium in the front row. Next? Maybe J.J. Watt will help bring a space shuttle back to Houston.

"It's unbelievable how much life can change in one year," Watt says.

Little more than a year ago, Watt arrived in Houston for the first time — and got greeted by doubts before he could even step outside the terminal. "A guy in the airport saw my Texans shirt and asked me how I thought they were going to do this year," Watt says. "He said he didn't know about that big, white kid from Wisconsin they drafted. He wasn't sure it was a good move."

Airport guy had no idea he actually was talking to that "big, white kid." Watt wasn't about to identify himself either.

Instead he simply shot back, "I hope he plays good."

Watt didn't just hear doubts in baggage claim. Plenty of others wondered if the Texans did the right thing by taking the guy from Wisconsin with the 11th overall pick after a 6-10 2010 season. (At the time, I argued that it was a regrettable pick and that the Texans should have taken Auburn's Nick Fairley, a more game-changing college player, instead).

Watt, of course, played better than "good." He was a huge part of Houston's rise under Wade Phillips, the Yoga of NFL defense. He helped make the Bulls On Parade matter. By the time the playoffs rolled around, it's no stretch to argue that Watt and fellow rookie Brooks Reed were the two most disruptive defensive players in football.

Heck, Watt even stole a touchdown out of thin air against the Cincinnati Bengals.

In short, he went folk hero. If you think it's premature to call J.J. Watt one of the most popular athletes in Houston, you simply haven't been paying attention.

Icon In the Making

This is fast becoming J.J. Watt's town. As the Texans go through OTAs (the NFL's fancy name for unofficial offseason practice) in the shadow of Reliant Stadium this week, Watt stands on the brink of an opportunity few athletes ever have the chance to grab. Watt is a dominant season or two away from becoming a Jeff Bagwell or Craig Biggio-level beloved figure in Houston.

Yes, Biggio and Bagwell. Watt can be that big.

Arian Foster is the best player on the Texans, the top running back in the NFL. But his unconventional philosophy (on Twitter and otherwise) plays best to thinking fans, leaving those who take their sports too seriously (here's looking at you, fantasy football geek!) confused and dumbfounded. Andre Johnson is the closest thing the Texans have to an Hakeem Olajuwon icon, but you revere your deities as much as love them.

Brian Cushing looks great and fearsome when he's bloody and spitting out desire all over the field, but Cushing can come across as a little extreme.

 If you think it's premature to call J.J. Watt one of the most popular athletes in Houston, you simply haven't been paying attention. 

Watt is approachable. He comes across as a big lug who only really cares about football, family and having a good time (which to him, might mean eating a whole rotisserie chicken for dinner and watching other sports on TV more than any Mark Sanchez-level clubbing). 

The 6-foot-5, 288-pound defensive end with a 37-inch vertical leap isn't just sneaky about getting his hands up and into passing lanes. He's sneaky funny too.

Consider Watt's response when someone asks him (in all, seriousness) at his Art Car Parade grand marshal press conference if being the leading figure in a parade or playing in the NFL is more difficult.

"We have to learn to smile and wave for this," he says. "But running away from 300-pound men is also quite difficult as well.

"I'll say they're about even."

Watt still manages to come across as being earnest when he's deadpan too. It's a good bet that the question asker didn't even catch the joke.

Shaun Cody, Antonio Smith and Connor Barwin may be the loud ones in the Texans' Bulls On Parade defense. But the guy from Wisconsin dubbed The Milk Man by his teammates "because he always delivers! (and he's white)", according to Barwin's infamous tweet, is no pushover.

Watt can bring it — on the field and in the locker room.

On Wisconsin

No one on the planet may love Wisconsin more than Watt. He battled and battled to get a scholarship with the Badgers, going from washed-out MAC tight end turned pizza delivery boy to University of Wisconsin walk-on to team leader in a few years flat. Almost as quickly as he's put himself in position to be an NFL star.

 Few players embrace their new homes with quite the ferocity that Watt's wrapped his extended arms around Houston either. And the city's hugging him right back. 

When Phillips compares Watt to Raiders Hall of Fame defensive end Howie Long these days, he's not trying to put pressure on Watt. He's just saying what he sees, much like his dad would.

Watt credits much of his success to the pro-building program run by Wisconsin. He talks about Barry Alvarez, the program-changing coach who retired before Watt arrived in Madison, like he's a God. He loves other Big Ten players, having even taken to Texans rookie Jared Crick for Crick's Nebraska connection, even though the Huskers only spent one of the rookie's college seasons in the Big Ten.

But few players embrace their new homes with quite the ferocity that Watt's wrapped his extended arms around Houston either. And the city's hugging him right back.

"It's amazing how well people in Houston have treated me," Watt says. "Everywhere I go . . . I truly appreciate it and want to help bring them a championship back. Houston's great."

It's good to be the next Craig Biggio and Jeff Bagwell. Go ahead and call that blasphemy if you want.

But within five years, it won't even be questioned. J.J. Watt's ride is only going up — and you get the sense he'll love every day of it. 

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