On the wall that stretches from the first to second floors of the Wisconsin home he shared with his mother, Chris Walczak hangs photos of each person from his entire family and their significant others.
Some recognizable faces are included in the photo collage: J.J. and Kealia Watt, Derek and Gabriella Watt and T.J. Watt and girlfriend Dani Rhodes.
Amidst all the framed family members is a single piece of paper pinned to the wall, and on it, a point of pride for Walczak and his ultra-competitive nephews: the winner of the most recently played rummy game at the table of his kitchen. A few meters away in a dresser are a stack of fresh notebooks and pens along with a stash of scorecards from decades of competition on the kitchen tables.
Long before the Watt brothers – J.J., 31 years old; Derek, 27 years old; and TJ, 25 – ready to compete on the same field when the Houston Texans visit the Pittsburgh Steelers on Sunday (1 pm ET, CBS) – only the second set of three brothers since 1927 to play in the same NFL game – gathered around the Walczak’s table with grandmother and great grandmother Sophie Musial. Walczak mixed their specialty drinks – Cranberry Juice and Sprite – and poured them into a set of specialty drip cups with swirly lids and straws that they still use today.
“She’s extremely competitive and until she turned 101, she wouldn’t let anyone try to win,” said Connie Watt, the matriarch of the Watt family, of Musial. “She was trying to be that competitive. So it was always a lot of fun and now it’s here.”
If John and Connie Watt have ever wondered where their three children got their competitive natures from, they don’t have to look much further than their grandmother’s kitchen table.
“Sometimes you never finish a game,” said J.J., the defensive star of the Texans. “Sometimes you go longer, but it’s just about sitting around the table talking, spending time with family and being extremely competitive. Great-grandmother, even when she was 100, takes no prisoners. When that’s the attitude of your 100-, 101-year-old grandmother, spreads throughout the family. “
The basement arena
The basement walls of the Watt family home during the brothers’ childhood were always dotted with marks and dings, tangible reminders of glittering hockey games, indoor mini-baseball and wrestling matches.
Growing up, the brothers transformed their basement into an all-sports arena with wrestling mats and a full hockey net. When they weren’t playing with the neighborhood kids outside through the three adjoining lot courtyards in the dead end, they were in the basement, skidding between lamps, televisions, and often each other.
“Specifically,” said Derek, a Steelers full-back, “I don’t necessarily know about anything we broke.”
T.J. jumped in: “I broke your face once.”
That was life in the Watt house with three boys separated for almost six years. There were always games, and inevitably they were taken a little too far.
Connie has always scheduled convenient snack breaks to reduce the scale of a competition.
“We had to step in a couple of times when they were younger, like I said, down in the basement, at shinny hockey games, or in the garden, whatever they were doing, just to let things cool down for maybe 30 seconds or so. from there, “said John. “But then they would be right back again after that. So usually, when things got too bad, it was up to Connie to say, ‘OK, I have a snack or I have some kind of food waiting for you guys. Here. Let’s take a break. And that would surely lift them up and separate them for a while. “
Though he’s warmed up at the time, T.J., the youngest, is ready to credit those backyard and basement games for helping him transform into an elite athlete and competitor.
“It was very important to my growth, playing with J.J. and Derek to get beat up a lot when I was younger,” said T.J., Steelers outside linebacker. “But [also], to be resilient and continue to grow and learn from my experiences playing with those guys. “
And as adults, Watts haven’t lost their super competitive streak to each other. Instead of shinny hockey, they turn other things into competitions: who can jump farther, eat more food, or finish a bowl of their least favorite vegetable.
Gabriella, Derek’s wife, remembers watching her current husband throw down a whole bowl of chopped peppers – one of her dislikes at the time – because J.J. challenged him.
“He wasn’t like him at all, but he didn’t want to turn down competition from his brother, so he went ahead and did it,” Gabriella said.
“J.J. didn’t think Derek would do this because he knows how picky he is, but then he sees, ‘Oh my God, the bowl is slowly having fewer and fewer peppers.’ He’s trying to get inside his head, “Oh, that’s not disgusting, isn’t it disgusting? It’ll hurt your stomach. “”
Obviously Derek finished the whole bowl.
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The trio also transforms board games and card games, such as rummy, into high-risk affairs, with each other and with their significant others. Even their wives and girlfriend don’t back down from a challenge. Kealia and Rhodes are professional footballers, both play for the Chicago Red Stars, and Gabriella played sports before pursuing a career as a journalist on the sidelines.
“They should be a fun way to end an evening and some relaxation, and I think especially in quarantine, sometimes he’s got the best of us when we’re like, ‘OK, we’re not playing cards or a board game tonight. “Rhodes said. “It’s not a funny thing anymore.”
It’s not just that the brothers want to win, it’s that they don’t want to finish last.
And every time one of them does, there is always a reason.
“We have organized golf matches in our apartment,” Rhodes said. “If he loses, it’s because he’s playing lefty and was using my right clubs or something. There is always competition and there are always excuses for whoever is losing.”
Since Derek and Gabriella had their first child, Logan, a year and a half ago, the siblings have gotten even closer.
“And even more competitive,” Connie said with a laugh.
Let the Watts turn being an uncle into a competition.
When Logan was born and Derek was still playing for the Chargers, T.J. sent him a shirt no. 90 Watt Steelers.
“J.J. found out and said, ‘OK, I just ordered one today, it’s in the mail,'” Gabriella said. “They don’t want to find out that Logan is getting more gifts or just spending more time with their other uncle.”
Ever since Derek signed with the Steelers in free will, T.J. has the advantage of spending time with Logan. It’s not uncommon for him to pop into Derek’s home, just steps away from his in Pittsburgh, to see Logan before bed. It’s an opportunity for him to bond with his grandson and get a head start in the competition to see who can make Logan laugh the most.
With Derek and T.J. playing for the same team, Logan is inundated with Steelers gear, but J.J. still tries to influence Logan with some Texan toys.
“Always wear Steelers clothes”, J.J. She said. “He lives four houses away from TJ. This whole thing is set to fail me in terms of my great-uncle. I can send him all the Texan stuff I want but it ends up in the dog’s chew toy basket.”
T.J. he may have the edge in his uncle’s run, but he still has work to do to be Watt’s # 1 babysitter. So far, he’s looked at Logan once, and Logan has been taking a nap most of the time. T.J. brought him a rock – “love rocks” – and Logan didn’t cry when T.J. picked it up from the cradle.
Of course, T.J. he wants to be the best at everything, but there is an obstacle that prevents him from completely excelling in babysitting duties.
“I don’t know what better job I could have done”, T.J. She said. “I’m not changing diapers, though. That’s where I draw the line.”
Derek shook his head.
“This is a crucial part of being a babysitter,” Derek said. “We’ll see, maybe J.J. will change a diaper across the board, and make things change in the opposite direction.”
For years, whenever J.J., Derek and T.J. worked together with NX Level in Waukesha, Wisconsin, owner Brad Arnett knew he needed to change the program. The three brothers turned everything into a competition, whether it was sprint training, plyometrics or netball throws.
“Someone might win, but the other two will find fault with what he did wrong that allowed him to win,” Arnett said. “So you have to do it again. And you have to do it again. And you have to do it again. So I always have to add more time to workouts when I’m here, because at some point there will be some kind of competition. It never ends, but this one. it’s what makes them what they are. “
With J.J. in his 10th NFL season, he had to be smarter about how he trains. While Derek and T.J. I am able to go back and forth the way J.J. has been able to do this in the past, J.J’s wife Kealia said she had to change.
“[All three] it would go until they were completely exhausted and did it right, and I think as JJ got older, he realized that’s not the smartest thing to do, ”Kealia said.
Why J.J. is in Houston and cannot compete in person with T.J. and Derek right now, the back and forth continues in group chats. Recently, the three brothers and a few other high school friends were arguing which Pewaukee High football team from the past would win if they took their senior team’s players and put them on the pitch right now.
“I’ll give you an idea of how stupid our group chat is,” J.J. he began, before admitting that Derek’s team came out on top because he and T.J. they were both on that team.
Group chat is especially busy on Sundays. In the middle of the 2018 season, when J.J. and T.J. they went back and forth in the ranking of the bags, the texts were more competitive than usual.
Every week, J.J. and T.J. they kept track of each other’s stats, either by checking the scores of the boxes after their games or, if they were lucky, by watching each other’s game. Or in some cases, by musician Kendrick Lamar.
Although competitive among the brothers, J.J. he says they are also “each other’s biggest fans”.
“Each of us is cheering for each other as much as possible, whenever possible,” J.J. he said in 2018. “I want to see him get as many bags as he can, just like he wants to see me. We compete and there is definitely some background competition there, but at the end of the day, if he gets 500 bags, I’d be happy as the hell. “
A special Sunday
That brotherly camaraderie is on hiatus this week as the two younger Watts prepare to take on J.J.
Not only has it never happened to the Watt brothers, who are nearly six years old between J.J. and T.J., but it’s very rare in an NFL game. Last season, the Edmunds brothers (Terrell and Trey for the Steelers and Tremaine for the Bills) faced off. According to research by ESPN Stats & Information, that was the first known instance of three brothers who appeared in the same NFL game since 1927, when Joe, Cobb and Bill Rooney did it for the Duluth Eskimos.
J.J. and Derek got to play on the same pitch in 2019 when the Texans played against Derek’s Chargers, and J.J. and T.J. were lined up for a 2017 Christmas Eve match in Houston before J.J. broke his leg earlier in the year. Derek and T.J. they have played against each other for the past two seasons when they played the Chargers and the Steelers, facing each other by virtue of different sides of the ball.
This is what makes Sunday special.
“It’s unbelievable,” J.J. She said. “It’s really incredible. Just having all of us playing in Wisconsin was really great. Just having all of us who played in the NFL was really great. Playing against another brother was great. Now, having all of us on the field at the same time in the same match, it really doesn’t get any better than that. “
Under normal circumstances, John and Connie would have been at Heinz Field on Sunday afternoon in their half Steelers, half Texan shirts. They’d be sitting with Gabriella and Logan, and maybe Kealia and Rhodes if Chicago Red Stars teammates could get to Pittsburgh for the game. But due to the ongoing pandemic, the proud parents intend to look on the living room sofa in their home in Pewaukee.
“It’s going to be a special day no matter what happens,” John said. “Like Connie said, you hate to see that one has to lose, but hopefully they all have a good game and come out without injuries and it’s something we can treasure for the rest of our lives. And they too.”
Rhodes said even before Derek signed with the Steelers, he, J.J. and T.J. “I was always talking about it in some kind of hypothesis and a dream, and how nice it would be to be all on the same pitch.”
“They never really had this opportunity, so now, last year when it came out on the upcoming fall program, I think they were so excited to finally make it a reality and have been looking forward to it ever since,” Rhodes said.
With two Sunday bags, J.J. he would become only the fourth player to register 100 bags in his first 115 games. But of course, T.J. and Derek doesn’t want to see him reach that milestone at Heinz Field.
“I think J.J. has enough hardware, Defensive Player of the Years – he’s not too shy about telling people he has those awards, especially me,” T.J. She said. “I think he doesn’t need this.”