Lesser-known stories of J.J. Watt's impact on Houston off the field

BySarah Barshop via ESPN logo
Wednesday, March 3, 2021

J.J. Watt had been living in Houston for less than a month when he saw a news story about the car accident that killed Joshua and Robin Berry and left two of their young children paralyzed and a third with broken bones.

The newly drafted Houston Texans'2011 first-round pick -- not allowed in the team facility because of the NFL lockout -- made arrangements to visit two of the Berry children in the hospital, first stopping at Academy to buy Texans gear to give to 9-year-old Peter and 8-year-old Aaron, who both suffered spinal cord injuries in the accident, as well as their 6-year-old sister Willa, who was not hospitalized.

During that visit, Watt put his phone number and email in Peter's iPad, telling him he could text him as much as he wanted.

"I'm bored down here. You're my first friend outside the team," Watt told Peter at the time.

That start to Watt's Texans career set the tone for the next decade spent in Houston, where he took the lead in helping in the community, finding ways to connect with fans via social media, his foundation and the Texans.

Most know about Watt raising more than $41 million to help victims of Hurricane Harvey, which hit Houston in 2017, flooding a significant part of the city and the area around it and causing millions of dollars of damage. Watt not only started the campaign to raise money -- donating the first $100,000 -- but he had a significant hand in allocating the money to nonprofits and organizations he believed would have the most impact.

Watt accomplished so much on the field -- he was the NFL Defensive Player of the Year three times -- but he did just as much off of it. In 2017, Watt was named the Walter Payton NFL Man of the Year, an award given to an NFL player who has "a significant positive impact on his community."

Simply stated, Watt did more than raise money to help the victims of Hurricane Harvey during his 10-year Texans career, often behind the scenes.

When the Texans granted Watt's request for a release in mid-February, it meant Watt, who signed a two-year deal with the Arizona Cardinals on Monday, wouldn't be able to just show up on the Berry family's doorstep anymore -- or at least not as often.

"It's a bittersweet moment," Aaron said. "It's sad to see someone so meaningful and someone so impactful leave, but I'm also very excited to see what he's going to do in the future."

"But he made it clear he's only a phone call away," Peter said.

'He wanted to be there'

Watt's relationship with Peter and Aaron quickly expanded to the whole family. He spent time with their sister Willa, Aunt Simone and Uncle Matt -- who became the legal guardians of the three siblings -- and cousins Noah and Misha.

Watt became a part of the family, invited over for dinners, Willa's soccer games, Peter and Aaron's wheelchair basketball games and Noah and Misha's tennis matches.

Watt is so accepted, Simone joked, he is the only person at which their dog Charlie doesn't bark.

Watt stopped by from time to time to hang out, gathering Noah, Peter and Aaron to talk -- and give advice -- about girls and helping Willa with her homework. Watt brought his now-wife, Kealia Ohai, to the farmer's market with Simone, Misha and Willa to learn how to make Simone's famous chicken broth. And when Aaron had to give a presentation in fifth grade about a state and ended up with Wisconsin, Watt went to his school and answered some questions about his home state.

"But it was never, ever, ever charity," Peter said. "He wanted to be there. It was genuine and he enjoyed being there. And I think that's what made it so special."

Both Peter and Aaron have played wheelchair basketball for almost 10 years, and Peter, the No. 1 wheelchair basketball recruit a year ago, is a freshman at Alabama.

"J.J. came to one of our practices and got in the chair," Peter said. "He was out in transition running scrimmages with us and it was funny to see. He's one of the strongest people I know, one of the biggest people I know, he's one of the most athletic people I know and getting in a chair, he forgot how to move.

"And when he played Noah in tennis, he just didn't have a chance. He's made an effort to kind of put himself in our shoes and so when he got in the chair, that was really cool."

Running Santa's workshop?

In the fall of 2019 while Watt was on injured reserve because of a torn pectoral muscle, he and Ohai wanted to figure out a way to make Christmas special for people who otherwise might not be able to have a big celebration.

After consulting with the Texans' community staff, Watt and Ohai found Mission of Yahweh, a shelter for women and children. They asked for holiday wish lists for those staying at the shelter.

In the weeks before Christmas, their house turned into Santa's workshop. While Watt and Ohai had help from the team with the logistics of delivering presents to more than 100 women and children, they handled pretty much everything else themselves. They were given spreadsheets to streamline the process and picked out and ordered the presents themselves.

"We wrapped them and stuffed them all ourselves, so if the wrapping is bad, that was me," Watt told the group with a laugh. "I was learning as I went. I'm not very good at wrapping big presents, so I tried."

Less than a year later, when Watt said he was releasing his first shoe designed specifically for women as part of the Reebok shoe deal he has had since 2015, he announced for every pair purchased, another pair would be donated to Mission of Yahweh.

'She was just completely happy'

Asalee Poole's 99th birthday was coming up and her son, Ed Wesley, wanted to know what present she wanted for the special day. After first telling him she didn't want anything, she came up with a new gift idea.

"I want to meet J.J. Watt," Poole said.

Meeting No. 99 seemed fitting for her 99th birthday, so her granddaughter Lee Ann Sumrall posted a video of Poole saying she wanted to meet the defensive end. Watt saw a news story about Poole and asked the Texans to invite Poole and her family to a game.

Not long after Poole turned 99, she got her wish, standing on the NRG Stadium sideline before Houston's playoff game against the Chiefs in 2016.

Watt came over to Poole after warm-ups, arms open for a hug.

"And Mom popped up out of that chair like there was a firecracker under her or something," Wesley said. "It was so funny because she just 'bam' popped out and she spread her arms out."

After signing her No. 99 jersey and a football, Watt and Poole posed for a photo.

"Pictures were being taken, and Mom just reached out with her right arm and put it under his chin and pulled his head over and gave him a peck on the cheek," said Wesley, of his mother who died in 2017. "And he just burst out laughing and it was so funny. And then he turned around and gave her a peck on the cheek. And I just remember looking at her face and the joy that she had.

"It's one of those little moments of a few seconds where you see her eyes and you see her face and just the magnitude of the moment was just so big and she just took it all in. And she was just completely happy."

'He makes me happy and strong'

Watt has hosted dozens of children through Make-A-Wish, sometimes inviting them to a game or a tour of the stadium. He's never turned down a request.

Will Martinez's wish was simple. He wanted Watt to come to his house and have dinner with his family. The day of his wish, Watt surprised Martinez, playing catch, riding a too-small tricycle around the yard and, of course, joining him and his family for a dinner of ribs, sausage and macaroni and cheese.

"I used to always watch him and I'd think, whenever I see him play and stuff, he just inspires me," Martinez said. "Whenever I have a tough moment ... whenever I watch his games and stuff, he makes me happy and strong, and that's kind of the main reason I wanted to meet him."

Watt invited Martinez to training camp the next day where he got to watch practice and break down the huddle. After practice was over, Watt gave Martinez his gloves. They already had "WILL POWER" written on them in marker.

"Now I'll have Will power on my side, you have me on your side," Watt told Martinez at training camp that day. "Nobody can stop us when we're together, right?"

'Come here, big papa'

It was July 2016, and Watt had just undergone back surgery. Training camp was underway and the defensive end wasn't back at practice, but he got permission from the team trainers to stop by afterward to see a special guest: 8-year-old Jeston Adams, who had spent the day with J.J. as his Make-A-Wish request less than two months before.

Adams was in desperate need of a heart transplant, wearing a backpack that housed a device that kept his heart pumping. As Watt spotted Adams, he started slowly jogging, opening up his arms. Adams sprinted toward Watt, yelling, "Come here, big papa!" pushing between two tackling dummies and launching himself into Watt's arms.

"I still had my device and I think he had just had back surgery," Adams, now almost 13, said. "But we were playing catch. But the thing about it was I didn't know he wasn't supposed to be playing catch."

That day, Watt posted photos of himself and Adams on Instagram, saying, "He is a truly special boy and we have developed a real friendship. Things like this go far beyond the football field. Despite everything that he's going through, he is one of the most positive and smiley people I've ever met. Very thankful that he has come into my life."

Four days after Adams' trip to training camp, Watt heard that Adams found out he was getting a heart transplant. Watt immediately sent Adams a video.

"'Lil' man, you're getting a new heart!" Watt said. "Man, I can't be happier to hear those words, man. I hope you have a great day. I hope everything goes smoothly. I just want to let you know I'm thinking about you and I want you to stay strong like you stayed strong the whole time. Keep that smile. Don't lose that precious little smile. ... I'm with you. If you need me, you let me know."

When Adams watched the video from Watt before his surgery, "He screamed and told everybody 'my brother sent me a video' and he's showing it to everyone that comes in," Adams' mom, Dani Crane, said when she got the video.

"He said tell J.J. he loves him," Adams' mom sent back in a text.

Less than three weeks later, when Adams could have visitors, Watt and Ohai visited him in the hospital, bringing him a video game for his Xbox. During Watt's visit with Adams in May, the 8-year-old was telling him he couldn't play sports because his heart wasn't strong enough, but he was really good at video games. After Watt said goodbye to Adams that day, he asked those still at the restaurant to distract Adams for a little bit so he could go to the store.

Watt returned, surprising Adams with an Xbox.

During his hospital visit, Watt spent time with Adams, playing with toys on his hospital bed and painting with a syringe.

"That was a surprise right there," Adams said. "I didn't even know he was going to come."

'He was completely in shock'

Trey Schooley was sitting at an Astros game, several innings after having the chance to throw out the first pitch and meet one of his favorite baseball players, Alex Bregman, when his dad's phone lit up. It was a video from Watt.

Trey had been diagnosed with rhabdomyosarcoma, a rare form of cancer. By September, the cancer had spread and doctors told the family his cancer was incurable.

Trey's father, Greg, sent an email to J.J.'s foundation explaining Trey's cancer diagnosis and telling him Trey was a huge fan.

"It was around the seventh inning of the game, so I just said, 'Hey, check this out," Greg said. "And I gave him my earbuds and I forwarded the video to him. And he couldn't believe it. He was completely in shock. Just elated.

"The following day I go into his room, he's on his phone. I said, 'What are you doing, man?' And he just said, I'm watching Justin James Watt. And later that afternoon, hospice came in to give him something to help relax his sleep. And he never woke up."

Trey Schooley was 23 and was a recent graduate of Texas A&M.

"He had a tumor on his spine where he couldn't walk, back in March," Greg said in a video he sent back to Watt. "He used to always say, 'I guess this is what J.J. felt like when he was coming back from his back surgery.' Or 'this is how hard J.J. had to work.' So that's what got him through going through ... his rehab. And even the last couple of days when he started losing feeling in his legs, he would bring that up. So he really admired Mr. Watt."

And that's why he reached out to Watt's foundation.

"I couldn't cure him," Greg said. "I at least wanted to have him have an experience that he would never forget. That not just anybody gets."

"Our family admired [Watt] from afar and we believed in the work that he put in and how humble he appeared. We were just hoping he was who we thought he was, and through this experience, I personally feel, my family feels, that we weren't wrong."

'Team J.J. all the way'

Watt's Texans career famously started with boos from fans in Houston when he was drafted, something he acknowledged in his video announcing his release.

But while Houston may not have been all-in on Watt right away, it didn't take long for them to embrace him, and him to embrace the city.

Now, Watt is headed to Arizona, where he will undoubtedly make an impact in the community. And though the fans in Houston will miss him, it's clear the difference he made will continue after he's gone.

"At first when they said [Watt was released], I cried," Adams said. "... I was like, man that's tough. But then I was also like, I have to keep Team J.J. all the way because that could probably lead to him going to the Super Bowl.

"As long as he's happy, I'm happy."

Related Video