HOUSTON -- When I first arrived at Carroll Academy on Sunday, I stood with a group of people, some of whom were seeking help and some of whom were volunteering in the aftermath of Hurricane Harvey. As it turned out, none of them spoke English -- but as the 6-foot-5, 295-pound behemoth stepped off the bus in front of them, they all began to shout his name.
I spent that day watching Watt's vision come to fruition firsthand, as he filled semi-trucks full of supplies and personally handed them out directly to the people of Houston most affected by Harvey as part of a relief effort he'd organized.
After the work at Carroll Academy was done, we all piled into a bus waiting outside the school. Watt was one of the last people to get on. Dripping with sweat, Watt collapsed into his seat next to his girlfriend, then simply said with a smile, "We did it, guys."
But don't think for a second Watt was anywhere near finished, not in the long term and certainly not for the day. One last request had to be filled before the bus pulled away. The principal of the school, whose house was flooded during the storm, was escorted on to briefly meet Watt and snap a picture.
Earlier that afternoon, Texans players, trainers, equipment staff, front-office personnel and other members of the organization, along with their families, lent a hand to help Watt help others. A warehouse's worth of supplies was loaded onto 10 semi-trucks and distributed to four locations to help countless people. At Carroll, which was Watt's location, the line of cars waiting to receive a box filled with cleaning supplies, nonperishable foods, pet supplies, clothes and blankets stretched for miles. Not a mile -- miles.
I watched as Watt, alongside his Texans teammates, loaded the boxes personally. The players at the four locations across Houston didn't just show up to shake some hands, kiss a few babies and lift the spirits of these people with a selfie or two. They were the ones loading each and every car, comprising an assembly line of professional athletes standing side by side with high school football players from the area, filling each passing vehicle with supplies and water.
Watt told me he wanted to post a video to his social media accounts -- he's been posting updates since he began a fundraising effort to help victims of Harvey -- to show that the wheels are now in motion toward helping the city get back on its feet. But he wasn't able to. Open a car door, load a box, pose for a selfie, turn around and sign an autograph for a volunteer, grab another box, repeat. He did this for hours. The four-time All-Pro was so engulfed with what transpired Sunday that there simply wasn't a single, free second. It's perhaps the only time since Harvey hit Houston that Watt failed to follow through.
I asked Watt how many hours he's spent on his fundraiser and planning this event since he arrived in Houston with the rest of his teammates on Wednesday. "All of them," he said, smiling. Outside of a two to three hour workout each day, Watt has spent every second working with either Houston mayor Sylvester Turner, people from the Justin J. Watt Foundation, or volunteers to make this massive project a success in just a few short days. There is no question there were also a few prayers Saturday night that things would go off without a hitch.
Many professionals -- let alone professional football players -- struggle to lead groups during a time of crisis. Watt has done it brilliantly. I asked someone close to Watt, who has been with him during every step of the planning and preparation, how much of this he's actually been hands-on for. She responded, "All of it."
It was fitting that, after all the hard work that afternoon, while on the bus back to NRG Stadium, Watt was told his fundraising drive had eclipsed the $18 million mark. And what might be even more amazing than a fundraiser with a goal of $200,000 started via social media growing that large is that he still hasn't had to use a dollar of it, not even to facilitate Sunday's massive aid effort.
The warehouse where everything was sorted and reloaded onto the trucks late into Saturday night? The space was donated. The trucks themselves? Donated. The drivers' time? Donated. All the supplies and water? Donated, with most of it coming from Wisconsin, where Watt is from and where his mother set up drives. Immeasurable aid in one day, and he still hasn't spent a dime.
The three-time Defensive Player of the Year, who made his name rushing quarterbacks, told me he doesn't want to rush into Phase 2 of his plans. Watt said he wants to be patient with the money he has yet to spend, not just start throwing it at anyone during these initial weeks after the storm. New Orleans Saints quarterback Drew Brees, who had past experience dealing with Hurricane Katrina, explained to him that the recovery of the city will take time.
This week, I've spent time with both Arian Foster and Andre Johnson, probably the two greatest former Texans in franchise history. Both call Houston home, and both have been doing their part to give back to Houston. Foster, whose own house filled with waist-deep water during the storm, held a drive for food, water and clothing. Johnson fed the first responders and police officers, and he plans to pay for school supplies for displaced children. Everyone is doing what they can. But as Foster put it, Watt is on another level.
"He's a rock star in the NFL," Foster told me, next to a mountain of donations he had collected. "You got like four or five of those in the NFL, and he's using his platform for a great cause. Everybody out here is just trying to do their part. His part is a little bigger than everybody else's, and we're all banding together as residents of this community, so it's just a beautiful thing."
From where the bus dropped us off at NRG Stadium, I had to walk through a parking lot, over a bridge and across another parking lot to my rental car. But by the time I get to the lot where my car was located, Watt was already there, shaking hands and thanking a truck driver who had personally driven donations down from Wisconsin, leading me to the following conclusion: There are two J.J. Watts walking around Houston. That's the only feasible explanation for how all of this was getting done.
Click here to donate to Watt's flood relief fund, and here to donate to the Red Cross to help those affected by Hurricane Harvey.