Young Josh wasn’t alone. There was Danielle Kitchen, a Cowboys fan who came to Richmond to root for Watt. And Allison Barbour, raised by a Miami fan, who converted to the Texans after watching Watt terrorize the Dolphins. And Mindi Maphis, who said “I love the Redskins, but I came here to see J.J. Watt.”
“Me too!” two nearby women called out, simultaneously.
Few NFL players can relate to that level of celebrity and adoration. One of them was the man trying to throw passes over Watt’s fire hydrant-sized arms on Thursday.
Remember all the Cowboys fans who admitted how much they liked Griffin in 2012, the “RGIII” chants in visiting venues, the shrieks every time he appeared in public? Griffin set an NFL record in jersey sales that year; Watt currently boasts the best-selling jersey for any defensive player. And when Watt closed Thursday’s practice by catching one-handed bullets from a JUGS machine — with both his right and left hand — fans ringing the practice field unleashed a torrent of “J.J.” cheers.
This is all normal stuff for Watt, who posed for an ESPN the Magazine cover shot with Katy Perry, recently met his celebrity crush Jennifer Aniston, stars in a Reebok commercial with Ronda Rousey and lives a life several VIP levels above that of a typical defensive grunt.
“He’s everywhere,” said Jared Crick, Hosuton’s other starting defensive end. “He’s all over commercials; he’s all over billboards. I mean, everywhere you look, there’s something J.J.”
“I don’t think he can go anywhere in Houston at all,” rookie linebacker Lynden Trail said. “It’s crazy, but it’s a beautiful thing.”
“He’s not just a big deal in [Houston], but in the world,” receiver DeAndre Hopkins added.
“He’s the best player in the league,” Houston owner Bob McNair said, “and people recognize that.”
Indeed, Watt’s name was unavoidable here. One Redskins fan heckled a Texans reserve by comparing him to the Houston star: “You’re on J.J. Watt’s team!” J’quan Clay screamed. “You play for the Houston J.J.’s!” The viewing area was speckled with Watt t-shirts, which were also on sale in the Redskins team store.
“It seems like everyone has J.J. Watt on,” said Mary Baker, who, like her daughter, was clad in 99.
Vicki Richards (a Redskins fan) brought an “I’m a Cougar, So Watt?” sign; “right now in the NFL, J.J. Watt is the man,” she said. Amanda Conley (a Redskins fan) brought a “Turn Down For Watt” sign; “I live and die for the Redskins, and I live and die for J.J. Watt,” she said. Griffin answered two questions about Watt during his post-practice news conference, joking that “I don’t want to see J.J., [and] I hope I don’t see J.J.”
And one person after another talked approvingly about Watt’s off-field persona: his work for charity, his Facebook posts, his interactions with fans, his love for the game. He was, they said, “an amazing athlete,” “all about the fans,” “just a great guy,” “really down to earth,” “a great role model for kids,” “a beast” and “the perfect football player.”
Which made it impossible not to think about 2012, when fans used almost the exact same words to describe Griffin. Then he got hurt, and hurt again, and the Redskins slipped back into the NFL’s primordial goo, and suddenly people weren’t making quite as many Griffin signs or buying quite as many Griffin jerseys.
“When you’re not winning, it’s easy for people to switch and change,” said a sympathetic Clinton Portis, who went through a similar transformation as his on-field play declined. “You go from being the savior to becoming a problem.”
When you’re winning, you earn approving headlines for doing the Nae Nae with elementary school kids, as Watt did late last month. When you’re not, you’re best served with a low profile, as Griffin seems to have realized in recent months. Neither of his training camp news conferences has offered even the slightest provocation, and he has been silent on social media since camp began.
“I mean, I’m focused on football — you want me to post pictures of watching tape?” he said, sending a shiver of joy through sports-radio callers everywhere. “It’s not a planned thing; I just haven’t had time. I’m just focused on getting better every day playing football.”
Portis suggested that Griffin’s transformation from a beloved celebrity like Watt to his current status was partly due to the Washington market, a tougher environment than would be found in Houston.
“It’s a two-year run in D.C.,” he said. “The Houston media don’t tear down J.J. Watt. They know they don’t want J.J. Watt to leave; they know what J.J. Watt is capable of doing. Whereas in D.C., they really don’t give a damn if RGIII leaves or not. Instead of praising him and pumping him up, it’s like, ‘Let’s tear him down; let’s get him out of here. We want change.'”
And while there might be something to that, the biggest factor is likely a bit simpler. The hellacious Watt led the Texans to a 9-7 mark last season and was named the league’s defensive player of the year, despite having a first-year coach. Griffin, meantime, was injured and later benched by his own first-year coach; the Redskins won four games.
NFL infatuation, in other words, can slip through your fingers once the touchdowns turn into interceptions. Will those Texans fans still be bragging about Watt’s charitable deeds and place in the community if he isn’t racking up sacks and batting down passes? (He swatted one of Griffin’s attempts in 11-on-11 drills Tuesday, drawing oohs from the crowd.)
Washington’s quarterback once visited the pinnacle of NFL veneration, a place Watt now calls home. As Griffin can attest, such residency lasts only as long as performance pays the rent.