Hello and welcome back to Connor’s Corner, a column where I discuss a standout performance in professional sports and that player’s journey from high school to the professional level. It’s finally that time of year again. It may be hard to believe, but two weeks of the NFL season have come and gone, and with it, much drama. Currently, three of the four teams in the NFC East are undefeated, with no end in sight. Despite the loss of Cooper Kupp, unsung heroes such as Kyren Williams and Puka Nacua have kept the LA Rams aloft. Despite the offensive explosions around the league, the defensive performance of Steelers linebacker T.J. Watt stood above all; due to Watt’s unrelenting presence in the backfield, Pittsburgh secured their first win of the young season.
It was all smiles at Acrisure Stadium Monday night as the underdog Steelers sent shockwaves throughout the Steel City with a massive win over the Cleveland Browns, setting them nicely in second place in the AFC North. Undoubtedly, Kenny Pickett has yet to thrive out of the gate, as his 15-30 passing for 222 yards won’t break any NFL records. As for his only drive that found the back of the endzone, George Pickens deserves most of the credit, as he had over 50 yards after catch. Despite the offensive woes, the Steeler defense kept them in the game, as Watt had a night to remember. He had two tackles for loss, each of them setting up a third down, a sack, four hits on the quarterback and the game-winning scoop and score. Watt’s performance was all the more special, as his sack in the second quarter made him the franchise’s all-time leader, passing James Harrison. In the NFL, it’s easy to glaze over the impact that defensive players have on an outcome, but make no mistake — defense wins championships.
Before the fame and fortune, Watt attended Pewaukee High School in Wisconsin, and to put into context how long removed Watt is from high school, his older brother J.J. made his rookie debut when T.J. was a junior. T.J. excelled at all sports he played, including football, and a large part of his identity was foraging his only legacy. The Watt siblings are competitive in everything they do, and one instance of this is when T.J. broke Pewaukee’s shot put record, previously held by his older brother. Interestingly enough, their father was the previous holder until J.J. came along. In high school, T.J. played tight end and defensive end. Due to his athleticism and skill on the gridiron, he not only was a three-star recruit but was also a first-team all-conference linebacker, and found success as a tight end with 27 catches for 505 yards and three touchdowns his junior year. Due to his talent on the gridiron, Watt was touted as a desirable prospect, subsequently garnering the attention of Wisconsin.
The Wisconsin native’s collegiate career can be described as a roller coaster ride. Watt joined the University of Wisconsin-Madison in 2013, where he redshirted his “freshman” season. If you are unfamiliar with the term “redshirting,” this is essentially when a player sits out a season and does not play any games but still practices with the team. The reason for a player to sit out is to maintain their four years of eligibility and improve their skills so they can be acclimated to the level they are needed at for their academic sophomore (or redshirt freshman) season. The Badgers’ expectations for Watt were through the roof, and the reason Watt was redshirted was because the Badgers felt in order to maximize his potential, he needed to add muscle mass, whether he played tight end or defensive end. Unfortunately, Watt missed his entire 2014 campaign due to faulty ligaments near his kneecap and because of that, he made the decision to make the move to defensive end, where he immediately dominated. In his one season as a full-time defender, the Badger was excellent, racking up 11.5 sacks and 15.5 TFL, which immediately shot him into contention as a top prospect. The Steelers drafted him 30th overall in the 2017 NFL Draft.
When healthy, the 28-year-old plays at a Hall of Fame level. Despite the Steelers not meeting their sky-high expectations during Watt’s tenure, it is not because of him. Watt’s rookie year was one that didn’t see the high level of success we are accustomed to, as it was more of an adjustment period. Watt saw no sophomore slump as he had 13 sacks and 12 TFL, above average for his position, though he was just getting started. Every season, he kept improving until his efforts were magnified in 2020 when he led the league in sacks and TFL. In 2021, he accomplished the same feat, with one key difference. Watt arguably had the best defensive season ever, as he not only led the league in both of these statistics but he tied Michael Strachan’s single-season record of 22.5 sacks. One could argue that had Watt not missed his Weeks 3 and 10 matchups with minor injuries, he could have surpassed the Giant legend’s incredible feat. Watt only played 10 weeks last season; injuries set him back yet again. His 2023 campaign is off to a good start, though, as his heroics in Week 2 signify that he is back and ready to pounce on offenses.