(HOUSTON) — “J.J. WATT! J.J. WATT!” Fans chanted his name endlessly as the Texans star defensive lineman made his way through each fan section. He did it with a smile on his face. He did it while radiating pure joy. This is what he wanted. He knows the fans are crazy about him. He’s fine with it. In fact, he’s crazy about them, too.
“Someday it won’t be like this,” he said last October. “Someday I won’t get the same reaction that I get now. I realize how special this is, and I realize how fortunate I am.”
The guy gets it. He’s become more than the face of the franchise. He’s the face of Houston.
It goes far beyond his interception return for a touchdown in the team’s first ever playoff win against the Bengals. It goes beyond his near unanimous defensive player of the year selection in 2012. It goes beyond his consecutive first team All-Pro selections.
The highlights of his first day of training camp this week had nothing to do with what he did on the field.
First, he fulfilled the wish of a young girl named Allison by just talking to her. Allison is battling a serious illness and wanted to meet her favorite player.
“It was amazing,” she said. “He’s awesome.”
Second, he went up to a fan who made a sign asking him to take a selfie with her. He agreed, taking multiple pictures. In the middle of one, she caught him off guard with a kiss on the cheek.
“He hugged me, and I went for it,” she said. She’d been waiting to meet him since midnight.
Finally, on his way out, he was greeted by a young boy, Colt Roberts. The boy is maybe 3 or 4 years old. Watt got down on one knee, gave him a fist bump and talked with him. Colt surprised his favorite player with a hug. Watt told him he was much nicer than any of the offensive lineman he faces and asked for another. Colt obliged. His mother, Robin, was near tears as she took a photo of the two.
“J.J.’s an amazing person; an amazing player,” she said. “My son loves him. He’s so giving and he takes the time to be with his fans.”
This is how it’s done. Watt doesn’t do it for show. He embraces the spotlight. He adores his fans. It’s one thing to smile and sign autographs. It’s one thing to do charity work. It’s something else to propose to a 6-year-old girl, or to show up at the front door of a newlywed couple.
He shows up and watches high school football, admiring the purity of the sport at that level. He didn’t commit himself to the Texans, he committed himself to the city. The Texans got far more than a great player when they drafted him.
While living in San Diego, I had the pleasure of watching Junior Seau, Tony Gwynn and Ladainian Tomlinson. As beloved as those players were, I’ve never seen anything like this. This city loves J.J. Watt in a way that few athletes have ever been loved.
His secret is simple: He means it.
Follow Danny Mata on twitter: @dannymatajr