J.J Watts

‘Thankful and grateful,’ says J.J. Watt, who finished his career with two sacks in his final game.

After his postgame news conference, Arizona Cardinals defensive end J.J Watt walked out to the hallway in the underbelly of Levi’s Stadium and back to the field instead of taking the back way to the locker room to shower and get dressed before heading home to Arizona.

Watt’s wife, Kealia, and 2-month-old son, Koa, were waiting for him for one more picture in uniform, one more moment after Watt’s final game, a 38-13 loss to the San Francisco 49ers.

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Watt had just taken his final steps off an NFL field when he was substituted out with 2 minutes remaining. Watt began walking to the sideline as the 49ers offense was getting ready to start the next play. He was congratulated on the big screen at the top of the stadium, and the remaining fans gave him a standing ovation. An official stood between the center and 49ers quarterback Josh Johnson, delaying play so Watt could have his moment as he walked slowly to the sideline.

Kliff Kingsbury, the Cardinals’ coach, had witnessed similar moments in basketball but never in football.

“That was special,” he said following the defeat.

Niners coach Kyle Shanahan called the reception “awesome” and “more than deserved.”

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“He was a problem for us in both the run and pass game throughout the game. But for it to slow down at the end and for him to have his moment to walk off, I think everyone in this country admires him for what he’s done on and off the field “Shanahan explained. “He’s one of the all-time greats.”

Watt finished the game with two sacks, giving him 12.5 for the season, which ranks fifth in his career and 114.5 in his 12 seasons.

“I wish the game had gone differently in many ways, but I’m thankful and grateful, and I’ll never forget it,” Watt said.

Sunday evening marked the end of an emotional 24-hour period for the 33-year-old.

It all started Saturday night at the Cardinals’ team meeting.

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Watt had been telling his defensive line coach, Matt Burke, all week that he was trying to get emotional about retiring but couldn’t. Burke had warned the three-time Defensive Player of the Year that something big was on the way.

At the end of the meeting, defensive coordinator Vance Joseph, who presided over it, gave the floor to Burke to introduce Watt’s farewell gift: a six-minute video tribute.

Since J.J Watt announced his retirement on Dec. 27, Burke and a team from the Cardinals’ video and social media departments have been gathering videos from friends, family, and people all over the league. They were slow to arrive the first week.

“This is going to be the ultimate backfire,” Burke recalled.

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Then they began to pour in. According to Kingsbury, the biggest football names who shared their memories of Watt were Peyton Manning, Tom Brady, and Aaron Rodgers.

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T.J. Watt, Watt’s youngest brother, was the first video in the tribute. That was all it took for J.J Watt to collapse.

J.J Watts
“I wish the game gone differently in many ways, but i’m thankful and grateful and I’ll always remember it, that’s for sure,” J.J. Watt said after playing his final career game on Sunday, a 38-13 loss to the 49ers. AP Photo/Godofredo A. Vasquez

“I completely lost it,” Watt admitted. “I was sobbing like a baby and didn’t stop until late at night. Actually I mean, the highlight videos are great, and all the plays are cool, but when you hear from people who matter in your life, like my family and friends, and then you hear from people you admire, like teammates, coaches, and opponents, it hits you in a way you never expect.”

The video, which was made up of 30 minutes of raw footage that the team intends to splice together and send to Watt, was capped off by a video from Kealia.

It was one of the “greatest” gifts J.J Watt had ever received.

“You feel obligated to sort of shepherd him out the right way,” Burke explained. “And, hopefully, that will be some memories for him. Two sacks are also beneficial.”

Watt took longer than usual to fall asleep Saturday night, but when he awoke, his emotions were about to explode.

After waking up on Sunday, one of the first things he saw was a photo of his brothers, Derek and T.J., fullback and linebacker for the Pittsburgh Steelers, respectively, walking into Acrisure Stadium, each wearing one of J.J.’s Cardinals jerseys.

J.J. lost it again.

“There’s no way to describe how I feel because the love I have for them, the pride I have for them, how much fun I have watching them, and then they walk in wearing my jerseys and T.J. gets whatever he had [a half-sack], and Derek scores a touchdown. I mean, I wanted to win today, but I couldn’t have asked for a better send-off for our family “He stated.

Watt’s wife, son, and parents arrived from Phoenix on an 8:40 a.m. local time flight and drove straight to the Cardinals’ hotel. Watt was giving Koa a bottle four hours before kickoff, a first for him.

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“It was the rookie’s first time. It had been the first time, “Watt stated. “That was fantastic. It was finally time to eat. So he doesn’t care that I have a game to play. He’s starving.”

J.J Watt then went on to play 83.6% of the Cardinals’ defensive snaps. And finishing with two sacks, five tackles (three for a loss), and a pass deflected.

He joked that he should’ve had his son at all of his games because of how well he performs when Koa is present.

Watt, on the other hand, performed admirably in his final game.

“I said I wanted to go out and play good ball, and I’m doing that,” he said. “I know I can still do it; I’m just choosing not to.”

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The plan was for Watt to “go until the wheels fell off,” according to Kingsbury.

“You don’t want to leave the game. But they have backups, and you don’t want anything bad to happen. But, I mean, what was I saving it for?” Watt exclaimed, laughing. “It doesn’t matter because I’m going to have an s—-load of drinks tonight. It’s over, like, whatever.”

Watt and his mother, Connie, were reminded of his goodbye at Wisconsin. Where he left after his junior season. He could have returned and continued to play at a high level, but he knew it was time to go.

He’s going to try to celebrate a little bit this week, maybe play nine holes of golf in the middle of the week. And then he, Kealia, and Koa are going to fly back to Wisconsin to celebrate his career some more.

“I’m not sure what it looks like beyond that,” he admitted. “It’s quite strange. It’s quite strange.”


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