Five years into his career, Pittsburgh Steelers outside linebacker T.J. Watt has already left his mark on NFL history. He is a four-time Pro Bowler, a three-time All-Pro, and now, a Defensive Player of the Year Award recipient. He also holds the NFL’s all-time single-season sack record, shared with Michael Strahan. And he’s just 27 years old, in the prime of his career.
Already the highest-paid defensive player in NFL history, Watt proved in 2021 that money was not his motivating factor. You don’t set records right after you get three years guaranteed in salary if that’s what you were after. He took his game to another level, instead.
Also driving him, since he was a teenager, is the specter of his older brother, J.J. Watt, who won his first of three Defensive Player of the Year Awards back in 2012. Because he grew up watching J.J. win that award, three times in his first five seasons. And he wanted that. Because his brother had it.
“I grew up coming to this award show. I think I’ve been here five or six times—never came home with hardware, but every time I left more motivated than the time I got here”, T.J. said during his acceptance speech. “And I promise, this only motivates me more”.
“I promise this only motivates me more.”
Congratulations to the AP Defensive Player of the Year, @_TJWatt!
📺: #NFLHonors on ABC & NFL Network pic.twitter.com/en4dtetNKH
— Pittsburgh Steelers (@steelers) February 11, 2022
You see, Defensive Player of the Year Awards are like Pringles. Once you pop, you can’t stop. After getting so close two years in a row, he now has one. But don’t think for a second that J.J. quickly reminded him he’s still two behind.
“I’m not huge on individual goals, but it’s tough for me not to want that when I saw my brother at the height of his career win the award three times, and I always just thought to myself, why can’t I do that?”, he told reporters when he answered the local media’s questions afterward. (Not the interview with Missi Matthews that is on the team’s website)
Well, if he found himself doubting in 2020 whether or not he could, he proved it this year. Not only did he win the award, he was the strong consensus vote, as he took home 42 of the 50 votes cast, with the rest split between Aaron Ronald and Micah Parsons, the latter of whom was the unanimous Defensive Rookie of the Year.
So, money wasn’t the motivator. Individual accolades weren’t the motivator, either. I don’t even think a Super Bowl is Watt’s primary motivation. I think he just truly wants to make every play on every down, and all of the awards and the championships would just flow naturally from that.
And I think that’s how you truly be great, in striving to make as much of an impact as you possibly can, shooting beyond reasonable means and seeing how close you can get. Watt’s shifted long ago from talking about specific goals and instead focused on his desire to be a “game-wrecker”, as he’s taken to calling it.
With 72 sacks, 22 forced fumbles, four interceptions, 32 passes defensed, 80 tackles for loss, and 150 quarterback hits, I think it’s safe to say that he has earned that distinction. And he wants to keep earning it year after year.