O brother, where art thou? In NFL with J.J., Derek Watt hopes

By Erin Barney

WAUKESHA, Wis. — NX Level gym is one of the few places Derek Watt finds separation from big brother J.J. Watt.

In a town tucked 20 miles west of Milwaukee, away from analysts and coaches comparing him to the NFL’s three-time Defensive Player of the Year, Derek usually can focus on himself and his training. But between workout sets less than a week before the NFL Draft, when asked what motivates him — what makes Derek Watt a competitor — he drew the comparison to J.J. himself.

It’s just reflexive at this point.

“I’m just trying to push and strive to be where (J.J.) is at,” Watt said. “He’s obviously doing pretty well, so I’m just trying to push myself every day to be at that level.”

J.J. Watt, older brother of Derek, has terrorized NFL offenses for five seasons as a defensive end for the Houston Texans
J.J. Watt, older brother of Derek, has terrorized NFL offenses for five seasons as a defensive end for the Houston Texans

They share a surname and college, but there is no confusing the two University of Wisconsin products. Derek looks imposing at 6 feet 2 and 236 pounds, but not relative to the 6-5, 289-pound J.J. They normally play fullback and defensive end, respectively, but comparisons are inevitable.

“I get it all the time,” Derek said. “Playing in games, I’m known as his brother. I don’t have a first name usually.”

He hopes to hear his entire name before the NFL Draft ends Saturday in Chicago.

Experts have him as a potential third-day selection, partly because of his position.

Fullbacks don’t fit into every offense, so Watt has been working with his trainer, Brad Arnett, on everything from speed to long snapping to better attract an NFL team.

“He works hard, he enjoys the process, he respects the process, and he’s a student of the game,” Arnett said. “I don’t have any doubt that he’s going to do great.”

J.J. already is. In five seasons with the Houston Texans, he holds franchise records in career sacks (74.5) and forced fumbles (15). Wisconsin doesn’t build its offense around a fullback, so Derek ran just nine times for 45 yards last season, but he did
catch 15 passes for 139 yards.

He certainly stands out at home. His mother, Connie, said Derek is the comedian of the family. Despite how competitive as he is on the field, Connie appreciates the way he makes time to greet kids on the sidelines.

Derek originally committed to Northwestern University, but decided in the end on Wisconsin. Now Derek is hoping to join his older brother in their chosen profession.

Connie has treated the process like any other life decision. College graduates look for jobs.

“It’s always a different feeling when you have no idea where you’re going to be or what you’re going to,” Connie said. “But he’s still prepared for that. He’s been preparing his whole life to be on his own and be his own person.”

He is not the only fullback in that situation in this draft. Glenn Gronkowski of Kansas State is “Little Gronk,” the younger brother of star New England tight end Rob.

Actually, Glenn would be the fourth Gronkowski brother to make the NFL.

Derek would be just the second Watt brother in the NFL. There already have been three playing in Madison; their younger sibling, T.J., is a Badgers tight end.

Last year, J.J. told the New York Times how proud he was of Derek and T.J.

“People were trying to say how they get recognition through their name, to see how they handle it,” he said. “It would be very easy for them to be upset at those people. They don’t let it bother them.”

For Derek Watt, now all he can do is wait for his name — just his name — to be called by the NFL.

“I’ve dreamt of this my whole life,” he said, “and it’s finally time to take that next step.”

Photo at top: Derek Watt preps for a training session at NX Level gym in Waukesha, Wis. He hopes to hear his name called before the NFL Draft ends Saturday afternoon. (Erin Barney/Medill)