On the field Houston Texans defensive end J.J. Watt is a force to be reckoned with. And that doesn’t change when he steps off the field. While the 2011 first-round pick out of the University of Wisconsin has a litany of commendations and awards for the havoc he wreaks on behalf of his football team, there is other work just as close to his heart and no less important – the Justin J. Watt Foundation.
The foundation’s stated mission is to “provide after-school opportunities for children in the community to become involved in athletics, so that they may learn the basic character traits of accountability, teamwork, leadership, work ethic and perseverance while in a safe and supervised environment with their peers.”
Specifically, the foundation targets middle schools and programs for middle school students that are in need of money to support after school and extra-curricular sports activities. Not only are the middle school years critical because of how impressionable children are at that age, but Watt also cites statistics that show children who have something to look forward to after school are more successful in their school work. Sports in particular, although not exclusively, teaches teamwork and work ethic.
“I’ve seen it do so many things for me and for others,” Watt said of his years playing team sports. “I know what being part of a team can do for a kid and his morale,” Watt said. “You can become a better person and better in the business world.”
The foundation has thus far provided everything from equipment to uniforms to dozens of schools and after-school programs targeting a variety of different sports.
Sports started young for Watt. The eldest of Connie and John Watt’s three sons who were raised in Pewaukee, Wisconsin, Watt played just about everything and excelled at most – especially hockey. In fact, for a while everyone thought Watt would end up in the NHL.
However, as they always do, things change and when it became clear that the NFL was his future, Watt immediately started to focus on how he would use that platform to enact change.
Connie, a business executive and John, a firefighter, had always emphasized giving back and that lesson was embedded in their son. “I realized I would have an opportunity to use my success and my fame as a football player for good,” Watt said. “I’ve seen [sports] do so many things for me and for others and if [children don’t get involved] they’re missing out on success in the future.”
When it came time to set the wheels in motion for this endeavor, Watt knew there was just one person he wanted with him at the controls, his mother, who had been the vice president of a building inspection company. So, she retired from her position there to take on her fulltime role with the foundation. She oversees all the logistics from reviewing the requests that come in to spearheading the fundraising events.
Technically, Watt is the foundation’s president with Connie serving as its vice president. Although in practice, things don’t always work along those lines.
“Trust me, I’m the president in title only,” Watt said laughing. “She’s the big dog. The workload she handles is amazing.”
Although Watt is now far from his native Wisconsin, he has not left it behind. The foundation focuses on schools in need in Wisconsin and they are now branching out to include those in the Houston area.
The success of the foundation thus far has surprised even Watt. “This thing has been growing at such a rapid pace we don’t really know where it’s going to go. To say it’s blown our expectations out of the water is an understatement.”
In fact, in just four years, the foundation has already raised close to one million dollars.
However, they are careful not to take on more than they can handle and risk an implosion. To that end, not only is every request for assistance reviewed carefully, but so is every request and suggestion by potential sponsors who may want to grow the foundation’s various fundraising events more quickly than the foundation itself is ready for and they make it clear that things will be done their way.
“We try to keep a rein on everything,” Connie said. I don’t want to risk doing something poorly. It’s all about our kids and our ultimate goal of helping kids.”
The added bonus of the foundation has been the way in which it has given the Watt family, which has always enjoyed nothing more than spending time together, a way to be a united front for an important cause, as well as a way for them to spend even more time together. Connie is grateful that her new career is built around the two things she values most: her family and helping others.
“It’s great to wake up every day and know what you’re doing has a great purpose and it allows you the time to be with your family,” she said.
And with the foundation, Watt has ensured that, while he has a bright NFL future, he has also set in motion something that will far outlive his football career and be able to impact children’s lives for many years to come.
For more information about the Justin J. Watt Foundation, visit www.jjwfoundation.org