CLEVELAND — Hakeem Olajuwon won two NBA titles, played 18 largely brilliant seasons in the NBA, went to three Final Fours in college and . . . still, he only got two of these national ancillary honors.
Earl Campbell produced some of the NFL's greatest highlights ever and arguably stands out as the most iconic Texas football hero of all time and he had to wait till decades after he retired to get his third.
J.J. Watt? He already has two halfway through his fourth NFL season at age 25. We're talking Sports Illustrated covers. What went unnoticed in the hoopla over Watt's latest SI cover nod this week is that he's now already tied with none other than Hakeem for the second most Sports Illustrated covers by any Houston athlete ever. Only Campbell, who landed a "Where Are They Now?" cover two summers ago to go with the two from his Oilers playing days, has more cover moments than Watt's two in Houston sports history.
Houston's been almost criminally underrepresented in SI covers. Until Justin James Watt started racking them up.
It's more dizzying company for the former pizza boy from Pewaukee. Wisc.
After J.J. Watt's rookie season, I wrote that he already stood on the brink of becoming a Craig Biggio-level beloved figure in H-Town. It turns out, I aimed too low. It's no great stretch now to argue that Watt is already the most popular Houston professional athlete ever.
He's certainly the most nationally beloved.
Even in today's fractured media world, one with more viable and worthwhile outlets than ever, there's just something about a Sports Illustrated cover that resonates. There's a tradition and history behind it that you don't often get in sports journalism in 2014. It's a little old fashioned of an honor these days, but that just makes it more cool. And Houston's been almost criminally underrepresented in SI covers.
Until Justin James Watt started racking them up.
Watt's benefited from the Houston Texans having a crack media relations staff that knows what national outlets like Sports Illustrated need and want. But there's no great story for Kevin Cooper's PR team to promote if Watt isn't doing things few defensive players in NFL history have ever done.
And it all makes for an interesting dichotomy as Watt prepares to play in snow covered Cleveland (you'd think a Midwestern city would be a better at clearing ice off sidewalks).
For even as Watt stands at the height of his national powers (he's also on the latest ESPN The Magazine cover, though sharing the nod with Dallas Cowboys running back DeMarco Murray, with Watt and Murray on different edition covers of the same issue, almost makes it a near slight), he's in danger of falling out of the real meaningful conversation.
The 4-5 Texans desperately need to beat the 6-3 Browns on Sunday to keep themselves in true playoff contention. And with offensive lifeline Arian Foster out with a groin injury, having not even made the trip for Ryan Mallett's first career NFL start, Watt likely needs to pull off at least one game-changing play for Houston to win.
Otherwise, the No. 99 for NFL MVP talk, the cover buzz and all the rest will start to fade away as Texans games quickly become playoff irrelevant. Hey, no one ever said this carrying-a-team cover star stuff is easy.
Just ask Hakeem.