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49ers quarterback Jimmy Garoppolo unfazed by criticism after Super Bowl

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SANTA CLARA, Calif. — San Francisco 49ers quarterback Jimmy Garoppolo broke his offseason silence Tuesday and said that he was unfazed by criticism he received after Super Bowl LIV.

After the Niners’ fourth-quarter implosion against the Kansas City Chiefs in the Super Bowl, Garoppolo became a target based on his struggles down the stretch as San Francisco coughed up a 10-point lead in the final 10 minutes. That spurred speculation that the 49ers might be interested in Tom Brady, the six-time Super Bowl champion quarterback who happens to be from nearby San Mateo.

While the Niners never pursued Brady, they did have brief internal conversations about making that move, something general manager John Lynch has previously acknowledged.

Garoppolo said Tuesday that he was unfazed by the rumor mill.

“When all that was going on, you hear about it and things like that,” Garoppolo said. “But I really wasn’t too worried. I’m always confident in my play. I know what I put out there (last) season and everything like that. It’s all about being confident. It’s just part of the business. I’ve seen both sides of it so I’ve been there.”

Instead of worrying about being replaced, Garoppolo said he spent the most unique of offseasons evaluating his own play from last season and embracing the opportunity to go through an offseason with two healthy knees rather than rehabilitating.

Garoppolo installed a home gym, where he was able to continue working out, and entered this year’s training camp feeling much healthier than he did a year ago.

“It’s definitely night and day compared to where it was last year at this time,” Garoppolo said. “This time last year it was more so getting back into being in a live pocket, having live bullets flying around me and getting used to that, so we’re past that. I haven’t really thought about it in a long time… I think my knee is able to do whatever it needs to do at this point.”

Coming off that knee injury, Garoppolo was able to start all 16 games for the first time in his career in 2019. He threw for 3,978 yards, fourth most in Niners history, and completed 69.1% of his passes, which ranked fifth in the NFL. His 102.0 passer rating ranked eighth. He was also the only quarterback in the league to finish in the top five of the league in completion percentage, yards per attempt and passing touchdowns.

But Garoppolo also struggled with turnovers, throwing 13 interceptions in the regular season and three more in as many postseason games. In the fourth quarter of the Super Bowl, Garoppolo went 3-of-11 for 36 yards with an interception and overthrew receiver Emmanuel Sanders for a potential game-winning touchdown in the closing moments.

All of that has made Garoppolo somewhat polarizing in the eyes of league observers. But Garoppolo, who turns 29 in October, believes as coach Kyle Shanahan does that he had a productive 2019 season and that his best football is still in front of him.

“I think having my first full season under my belt, coming off the ACL and everything like that, everything that went into that season, it’ll only help me going forward,” Garoppolo said. “So, I think in terms of being a quarterback, I still have a long way to go. I’m still relatively young for a quarterback in terms of playing time. I think as a quarterback, you got to get out there, play, get live action like that. I think having a full season under my belt will help me going forward.”

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Jon Gruden, Raiders return to scene of tuck rule crime – Las Vegas Raiders Blog

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“The Tuck Game was the undoing of a lot of things.” Al Davis, at the 2009 NFL owners meetings in Dana Point, California.

HENDERSON, Nev. — Mention the events of Jan. 19, 2002, to the most ardent citizen of Raider Nation and you might have to knuckle up.

Ask Jon Gruden about the tuck rule and you’ll be on the receiving end of that infamous Chucky snarl and, well, a backhanded show of gratitude.

“Yeah, thanks for bringing that up,” Gruden said this week, sarcasm dripping from his chin.

“He did fumble that damn ball.”

With Gruden — in his third year since returning to coach the now-Las Vegas Raiders — heading back to the virtual scene of a nearly 19-year-old crime, a walk down memory lane is inevitable. Even if it’s not in the same stadium (the Tuck Rule game was the final game played in Foxboro Stadium) and quarterback Tom Brady is no longer with the New England Patriots (he took his act to, of all places, the franchise with which Gruden won a Super Bowl, Tampa Bay). Cam Newton is now the guy in New England.

A quick history lesson for the uninitiated: In a New England snowstorm and with the Raiders clinging to a 13-10 lead with 1:50 to play in an AFC divisional playoff game, the Patriots were on the Raiders’ 42-yard line with a first-and-10 when Brady dropped back to pass. Coming on a corner blitz from Brady’s right, Charles Woodson clobbered Brady, the ball popped out and Raiders linebacker Greg Biekert jumped on it.

Ballgame. Brady trudged off the field and the Raiders would play in the AFC title game the following week, either at home against the Baltimore Ravens or at the Pittsburgh Steelers (the AFC North rivals would play the following afternoon, with the Steelers winning).

“Or so we thought,” Woodson would say years later.

Enter Rule 3, Section 22, Article 2, Note 2 from the NFL rulebook: “It is a forward pass if: When a Team A player is holding the ball to pass it forward, any intentional forward movement of his hand starts a forward pass, even if the player loses possession of the ball as he is attempting to tuck it back toward his body.”

“I used to pride myself on knowing all the rules of the game, but what the f— is the tuck rule?” said Lincoln Kennedy, then the Raiders’ right tackle, now a member of the team’s radio broadcast team. “What? He wasn’t throwing the ball. And C-Wood’s going, ‘He wasn’t throwing the ball. He had both hands on it.'”

After a lengthy review made possible by the play occurring in the final two minutes, and despite no clear evidence to overturn the original ruling of a fumble, referee Walt Coleman summoned the tuck rule, which deemed it an incomplete pass and allowed the Patriots to maintain possession.

“After the ruling, it just took all of the air out of us,” Kennedy said. “We were just shells. Deflated.”

Conversely, the revitalized Patriots drove through the snow into field goal range, setting up Adam Vinatieri’s game-tying 45-yarder with 27 seconds remaining.

The Raiders got the ball back at their 35-yard line with 22 seconds to go, and despite having two timeouts, Gruden chose to have quarterback Rich Gannon kneel to end regulation and play for overtime. But the Patriots won the coin toss, drove down the field and Vinatieri’s chip-shot 23-yarder ended it in what was then sudden death.

“Jon came in the locker room after the game and said, ‘They’re never going to let the Raiders win,'” Kennedy recalled.

Oh, and that earlier quote from the late Al Davis?

That was Gruden’s final game as Raiders coach until he returned to the franchise in 2018. Gruden was traded to the Buccaneers on Feb. 18, 2002, for a king’s ransom — two first-round picks, two second-round picks and $8 million. Less than a year later, Gruden’s new team thrashed his old one 48-21 in Super Bowl XXXVII.

The Raiders have had only one winning season and one playoff appearance since, in 2016.

While current Raiders quarterback Derek Carr was all of 10 years old at the time of the Tuck Rule game, he has thoughts on the play as a member of a family full of longtime Raiders fans.

“C-Wood definitely stripped him, that’s for sure,” Carr said Wednesday.

“That’s a big moment in football history, let alone Raider history. And Patriot history. … As a Raider fan, of course it’s a fumble. You go to New England, of course it wasn’t a fumble. It would be nice to hear what Tom has to say about it sometime, that’s for sure.”

“You’re never going to get the answer out of me you want,” Brady joked on a conference call with Raiders beat reporters in 2011, two years before the tuck rule was abolished by NFL owners.

And Carr has his own New England horror story, so to speak.

In Week 3 of his rookie season in 2014, Carr led the Raiders on a late drive to the Patriots’ 6-yard line, where Darren McFadden burst through for a TD that, with the PAT, would have tied the score at 16-16 with 59 seconds to play. But left guard Gabe Jackson, who sprung McFadden, was called for holding at the 2, and the Raiders were pushed back 10 yards.

One play later, Carr fired a short pass across the middle to Denarius Moore, who was camped at the 8-yard line. The ball popped off Moore’s chest into the air and was tipped by Patriots cornerback Logan Ryan into the waiting arms of nose tackle Vince Wilfork.

Ballgame. For real.

“So I don’t have good memories there either,” Carr said. “I’ve got a lot of making up to do, but I’m excited for the opportunity.”

A week later, the Raiders were thumped by the Miami Dolphins in London and Dennis Allen was fired, which set into motion a series of events that saw Tony Sparano and Jack Del Rio become Raiders coaches until Gruden decided that nine years in ESPN’s Monday Night Football booth was enough.

Gruden, who returned to the Raiders on a 10-year contract in January 2018, has coached in New England once since that fateful snowy night. His Buccaneers were shut out 28-0 on Dec. 17, 2005, and he is 0-2 in his career against Patriots coach Bill Belichick.

Plus, the Raiders have lost five straight to the Patriots, last beating them on Nov. 17, 2002, in Oakland.

“Anytime you step in a [city] like that, it does bring back memories,” Gruden allowed. “Some of the memories aren’t great, but we’re excited to play. We’re excited to play the Patriots and see what we can get done in a short week. They’re a heck of a team.”

Even if, as noted earlier, they’re a different team.

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What Saints’ Malcolm Jenkins had to overcome to build social activist legacy

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METAIRIE, La. — Malcolm Jenkins was driven to make an impact in the community at a young age.

He had just finished his first NFL season with the New Orleans Saints in 2010 when he and his mother, Gwendolyn, started a charitable foundation focused on youth in underserved communities. That same year, Malcolm, who was 22, became involved in tackling the issue of gun violence in New Orleans.

Jenkins never set out to become one of the sports world’s most visible social activists. But his outlook changed in 2016, when Alton Sterling and Philando Castile were shot and killed by police officers and Colin Kaepernick first sat, then kneeled, during the national anthem.

“All of a sudden, I found myself in a place where I was prepared to step up. I was just like, ‘OK, enough is enough.’ Like, ‘I don’t want to just tweet. I don’t want to wear a T-shirt,'” said Jenkins, who was with the Philadelphia Eagles at the time. “And that was a lifetime of, you know, people planting seeds and people pruning me.

“And then I found myself ready to be a leader, not only on the field, not only for myself, but for the community. And I credit that to everybody who has been a part of my upbringing.”

Jenkins and his efforts have never been more in the spotlight than today, when the Black Lives Matter movement has taken center stage in the national dialogue after the deaths of George Floyd, Ahmaud Arbery and Breonna Taylor, among others, and the ensuing protests across the country.

The 32-year-old recently became a political analyst for CNN. And his production company Listen Up Media just released the documentary “Black Boys” — his first as an executive producer.

He has continued his work as co-founder of the Players Coalition, a group of NFL player activists that has now expanded to other sports. He was in the spotlight this summer when he shared an emotional video directing criticism toward teammate Drew Brees after Brees’ comments about protesting during the national anthem. And Jenkins is the only Saints player who has elected not to stand with the team on the sideline during the anthem through the first two games of this season.

But whether you’re inspired or infuriated by Jenkins, the most surprising thing about him is that he says it doesn’t come naturally to him to be in this spotlight.

Jenkins describes himself as an introvert and readily admits that everything he has tackled on and off the field can be “quite frankly draining.” And he began seeing a therapist on a weekly basis in 2016 when he became a leading voice in the campaign toward racial equality and social justice because he was putting a lot of pressure on himself to be “Superman in all these different places” — on the field, at his businesses, at home and in the community.

“It’s a lot easier for me to be a leader and vocal on the field. That’s where a lot of my personality comes out, and I’ve been a captain on every team that I’ve been on since I’ve started this game. But stepping out more into the public eye and being kind of a voice in that regard definitely took a lot of preparation — and really, I think, courage,” the three-time Pro Bowler said.

“Just to fight my own battles, to unlock or free my own mind, to detach myself from the criticisms that we’re ‘just athletes’ and don’t have anything to contribute to the conversation or that we’re not the experts, we don’t know enough. It took me a minute to break out of that.”

Benjamin Watson — a teammate of Jenkins’ for one year in New Orleans and a member of the Players Coalition who has also become a leading voice on social issues — can sympathize.

“Well, as a fellow introvert, I understand 100% what he’s saying. It drains you to talk in public. But sometimes you have something to say that’s important. … And so you are compelled to lead in a certain way, whether you feel like it or not.”

Jenkins’ mother, who serves as president and CEO of the charitable foundation they started together in 2010, said she sees “aspects” of her son being an introvert.

“But isn’t there a term for someone — is it ‘omnivert’? Someone who can be both, depending on the circumstances,” said Gwendolyn, who said she would describe herself, Malcolm’s father, Lee, and Malcolm’s brothers in a similar way. “But I think he recognizes the power of his voice, and he has an opportunity to make such an impact and difference in the lives of others. And if the cost is just being uncomfortable, outside of your comfort zone, then that’s one he’s willing to pay.”

The cost of leadership

Jenkins has drawn considerable backlash on both sides of the movement — from those who simply disagree with his causes to those who accused him of being a “sellout” for agreeing to work with the NFL.

Jenkins was at the heart of a public splinter in the Players Coalition in 2017, when Kaepernick’s friend, Eric Reid, and others disagreed with the way Jenkins was leading a movement they felt Kaepernick had started. Reid criticized Jenkins for accepting an $89 million pledge from the NFL toward social causes, believing more should have been demanded as the league was trying to put an end to anthem demonstrations.

Jenkins credits an invaluable support system with helping him to manage the stresses of his high-profile role. And, as detailed in a recent SC Featured profile with ESPN analyst Ryan Clark, Jenkins has been heavily influenced by the strong women in his life.

That support system also includes his weekly therapy sessions. Jenkins told ESPN Eagles reporter Tim McManus he began seeing a therapist because he felt as if he was battling anxiety and depression, especially when the controversy started over the anthem protests.

“For me to be worth anything to anybody else to lead, I’ve recognized that I’ve had to take care of myself as well and really prioritize my own health and mental well-being,” Jenkins explained. “And so part of that is talking to a therapist every week because it’s not only the pressure of what’s going on in society or leading these different things, but just our job as athletes being in the public light, being in a performance-based business where your performance is your livelihood.

“A lot of that causes pressure, and these are the things that we usually don’t talk about as men, as Black men, as football players. But it’s necessary because a lot of us deal with anxiety, a lot of us deal with depression. And I’m no exception to that.”

Watson recognizes the cost of stepping into the spotlight on social justice issues.

“It takes a lot of time, it takes money, there’s a lot of sacrifice there with putting yourself out there and talking about these issues, being the face of it, going and meeting with people,” Watson said. “It’s a commitment.”

‘Prepared to step up’

Once Jenkins became involved in the fight for social justice, he was all-in.

He joined former NFL receiver Anquan Boldin in creating the Players Coalition. He began meeting with local politicians and grassroots organizations, participated in police ride-alongs and attended bail hearings. He helped organize a “Listen and Learn” tour with NFL commissioner Roger Goodell, Eagles owner Jeffrey Lurie and some of his teammates to share what he had learned.

He began raising his fist during the anthem in 2016 (but only after seeking the blessing of an Air Force sergeant he had befriended in New Orleans).

And in one of his most memorable and powerful acts in 2018, Jenkins silently addressed a group of reporters in Philadelphia by holding up a series of signs that read, “You aren’t listening” and detailed facts about the criminal justice system, police-involved shootings and the efforts being made by fellow players in the community.

Watson, who was part of those early text threads and phone calls with Jenkins and Boldin and other players who wanted to find a way to make a difference, said what he appreciates most about the way they’ve led the Players Coalition is that they have demonstrated tangible ways everyone can get involved in their communities.

“You listen to them talk, they always say, ‘We’re not the experts. Here are the experts. I’m gonna learn from them,'” Watson said. “You know, players take a beating sometimes for speaking out on certain issues that may not be popular with fans or certain demographics, whatever it is. But no one can say, ‘OK, you guys talk about it, but you don’t do anything.’ Even though you have a right to simply talk — everybody has a right to simply talk.

“But for some reason it’s always, ‘Well, what are you all doing?’ ‘Well, this is what we’re doing. We had a meeting with this person, we brought the commissioner here, we brought [team owners] here, we wrote this op-ed, we learned about this, we held this town hall meeting.’ And so, he’s allowed other people to build that. … I’m really proud of what they’ve put together and proud to be a part of it myself.”

Jenkins won the NFL Players Association’s Byron “Whizzer” White Award for his community efforts in 2017. He was the Eagles’ Walter Payton Man of the Year nominee in 2019.

“I’m definitely proud of kind of being a part of that initial groundwork. But I’m also energized, because of how many other people have obviously joined this movement and fight for social justice and demanding that things change significantly and rapidly,” Jenkins said. “Myself and a lot of other people sacrificed a lot to kind of lay that groundwork, and really stood on the shoulders that came before us. And I think we’re at a moment right now where we can significantly push that agenda forward.”

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Saints safety Malcolm Jenkins details the difficulties in being a leader while also dealing with anxiety and depression, and says how important it is to talk about mental health.

Building a legacy

Jenkins, who recently accepted a Harvard fellowship to study the history and causes of the wealth gap between Blacks and whites in America, said he has always been compelled by a burning desire to know why.

“Once you know better, you do better,” Jenkins said.

It’s the same quality that made him a team captain as a young nickelback during his first stint with the Saints from 2009 to 2013. Coaches such as Sean Payton and Gregg Williams always described him as the one who was relentlessly studying film when the hallways were dark and they were packing up for the night.

And it’s the same quality that turned him from a three-star recruit to a star at Ohio State, a first-round draft choice, a Super Bowl champion for the Saints and the Eagles and the one player Payton always regretted letting out of the building as a free agent.

“He’s very professional. I’ll call him, like, a suit-and-tie guy,” said Saints receiver Michael Thomas, who organized several players around the league to send a powerful video message about the need for social change this summer. “He takes care of his business. You can see it when he walks in the building, and then just how he’s able to play the game at a high level and still bring change to the world that’s needed. His voice is real powerful.”

Jenkins’ work is far from over. It will last long after he is done playing. But he said he has been encouraged by the momentum the cause has gained this year.

“If people know me more for what I do off the field than on the field, I think that’s a win for my life,” Jenkins said, though he was quick to point out that he takes pride in being “a damn good football player.”

“So that lets me know at least I’m heading in the right direction,” Jenkins said in the SC Featured profile. “While the impact on the field I have is very important to me and it’s what I love to do — I love this game and love playing it — I’m actually very OK with me being known more for my contributions to society and to the game.”

Jenkins’ parents agreed, saying that of course they’re proud of his accomplishments as a football player but that the impact he can have off the field can “make a difference for generations to come.”

“His activism will stand the test of time,” Lee said. “It will be part of his legacy.”

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From rummy to eating to being the best uncle, Watt brothers always competing

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On the wall that extends from the first floor to the second in the Wisconsin home she shared with her mother, Chris Walczak hangs pictures of every person in her entire family and their significant others.

Included in the photo collage are a few recognizable faces: J.J. and Kealia Watt, Derek and Gabriella Watt, and T.J. Watt and girlfriend Dani Rhodes.

Amid all the framed family members is a single piece of paper tacked to the wall, and on it, a point of pride to Walczak and her ultra-competitive grandsons: the winner of the rummy game most recently played at her kitchen table. Just a few feet away in a chest drawer are a stack of fresh notepads and pens along with a stash of scorecards from the decades of kitchen-table competitions.

Long before the Watt brothers — J.J., 31; Derek, 27; and T.J., 25 — prepared to compete on the same field when the Houston Texans visit the Pittsburgh Steelers on Sunday (1 p.m. ET, CBS) — just the second set of three brothers since 1927 to play in the same NFL game — they gathered around Walczak’s table with their grandmother and great-grandmother Sophie Musial. Walczak would mix up their special drinks — cranberry juice and Sprite — and pour it into a set of special sippy cups with lids and swirly straws they still use today.

“She is extremely competitive, and up until she passed at 101, she was not going to let anybody try to win,” said Connie Watt, the matriarch of the Watt family, of Musial. “She was going to try to be the competitive one. So that was always a lot of fun and that trickled down now.”

If John and Connie Watt ever wondered where their three sons got their competitive nature, they don’t have to look much further than their grandmother’s kitchen table.

“Sometimes you never finish a game,” said J.J., the Texans’ star defensive end. “Sometimes you go longer but it’s all about just sitting around the table talking, spending time with family and being extremely competitive. Great-grandma, even when she was 100 years old, takes no prisoners. When that’s the attitude of your 100-, 101-year-old grandma, it kind of trickles down throughout the whole family.”

The basement arena

The basement walls of the Watt family home during the brothers’ childhood were always dotted with scuff marks and dings, tangible memories of shinny hockey games, indoor mini-baseball and wrestling matches.

Growing up, the brothers transformed their basement into an all-sport arena with wrestling mats and a full hockey net. When they weren’t playing with neighborhood kids outside across the three backyards of adjoining lots in the cul-de-sac, they were in the basement, careening into lamps, TVs and often each other.

“Specifically,” said Derek, a fullback for the Steelers, “I don’t necessarily know of something that we broke.”

T.J. jumped in: “I broke your face one time.”

That was life in the Watt household with three boys separated by nearly six years. There were always games, and inevitably they would get taken a little too far.

Connie always timed snack breaks conveniently to deescalate a competition.

“We had to step in a few times when they were younger, like I say, down in the basement, shinny hockey games, or out in the backyard, whatever they were doing, just to let things cool down for maybe 30 seconds or so,” John said. “But then they would be right back out again after that. So usually, when things got too bad, it would just be up to Connie to say, ‘OK, I got a snack or have some kind of food waiting for you guys up here. Let’s take a break.’ And that would definitely get them up and get them apart for a while.”

Even if he got heated back then, T.J., the youngest, is quick to credit those backyard and basement games for helping him turn into an elite athlete and competitor.

“It was super important in my development, to play with J.J. and Derek to get beat up a lot when I was younger,” said T.J., a Steelers outside linebacker. “But [also], to be resilient and continue to grow and learn from my experiences playing with those guys.”

And as adults, the Watts haven’t lost their uber-competitive streak with each other. Instead of shinny hockey, they turn other things into competitions: who can jump the farthest, eat the most food or finish a bowl of their least-favorite vegetable.

Gabriella, Derek’s wife, remembers watching her now-husband down an entire bowl of chopped bell peppers — one of his aversions at the time — because J.J. dared him.

“It was not like him at all, but he didn’t want to turn down his brother’s competition, so he went ahead and did it,” Gabriella said.

“J.J. did not think that Derek was actually going to do it because he knows what a picky eater he is, but then he sees, ‘Oh my gosh, the bowl is slowly having less and less peppers.’ He’s trying to get in his head, ‘Oh, isn’t that gross, isn’t that gross? It’s going to hurt your stomach.'”

Of course, Derek finished the entire bowl.

The trio also turns board games and card games, like rummy, into high-stakes affairs — with each other and with their significant others. Their wives and girlfriend don’t back down from a challenge, either. Kealia and Rhodes are professional soccer players, both playing for the Chicago Red Stars, and Gabriella played sports before pursuing a career as a sideline reporter.

“They’re supposed to be a fun way to end a night and kind of relax, and I think especially in quarantine, it’s sometimes gotten the best of us where we’re like, ‘OK, we’re not playing cards or a board game tonight,'” Rhodes said. “That’s not a fun thing anymore.”

It’s not just that the brothers want to win, it’s that they don’t want to finish last.

And whenever one of them does, there’s always a reason.

“We set up golf games in our apartment,” Rhodes said. “If he loses, it’s because he golfs lefty and he was using my righty clubs or something like that. There’s always competition and there’s always excuses on whoever’s end is losing.”

Say uncle

Since Derek and Gabriella had their first son, Logan, a year and a half ago, the brothers have become even closer.

“And even more competitive,” Connie said with a laugh.

Leave it to the Watts to turn being an uncle into a competition.

When Logan was first born and Derek was still playing for the Chargers, T.J. sent him a No. 90 Watt Steelers jersey.

“J.J. found out about that and he’s like, ‘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 the other uncle.”

Since Derek signed with the Steelers in free agency, T.J. has the edge in spending time with Logan. It’s not uncommon for him to pop over to Derek’s house, walking distance from his own in Pittsburgh, to see Logan before he goes to bed. It’s a chance for him to bond with his nephew — and get an edge 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 sway Logan with some Texans toys.

“He’s wearing Steelers stuff all the time,” J.J. said. “He lives like four houses away from T.J. The whole thing is just set up for me to fail in terms of being a great uncle. I can send him all the Texans stuff I want but it ends up in the dog’s chew-toy bin.”

T.J. might have the edge in the uncle race, but he still has some work to do to be the No. 1 Watt babysitter. So far, he’s watched Logan one time, and Logan napped for most of it. T.J. brought him a rock — “he loves rocks” — and Logan didn’t cry when T.J. picked him up from the crib.

Naturally, T.J. wants to be the best at everything, but there’s one hurdle keeping him from fully excelling at babysitting duties.

“I don’t know what better job I could’ve done,” T.J. said. “I’m not changing diapers, though. That’s where I draw the line.”

Derek shook his head.

“That’s a crucial part of being a babysitter,” Derek said. “We’ll see, maybe J.J. will change a diaper down the line, and it’ll make things shift in the other direction.”

Legendary workouts

For years, whenever J.J., Derek and T.J. worked out together at NX Level in Waukesha, Wisconsin, owner Brad Arnett knew he had to adjust the schedule. The three brothers turned everything into a competition, whether it was a sprint workout, plyometrics or netball throws.

“Someone may win, but the other two are going to find fault as to what he did wrong that let him win,” Arnett said. “So you’ve got to do it again. And you’ve got to do it again. And you’ve got to do it again. So I just always have to add additional time to the workouts when they’re here, because at some point there’s going to be some type of competition. It’s never-ending, but that’s what makes them who they are.”

With J.J. in his 10th NFL season, he’s had to be smarter about the way he trains. While Derek and T.J. are able to go back and forth the way J.J. was able to in the past, J.J’s wife, Kealia, said that has had to change.

“[All three] would go until they were completely exhausted and get it right, and I think as J.J.’s gotten older, he’s realized that’s not the smartest thing to do,” Kealia said.

Because J.J. is in Houston and can’t 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 friends from high school were arguing about which Pewaukee High football team of the past would win if they took the players from their senior-year teams and put them on a field right now.

“I’ll give you insight on how stupid our group chat is,” J.J. began, before admitting that Derek’s team came out on top because he and T.J. were both on that squad.

The group chat is particularly busy on Sundays. Midway through the 2018 season, when J.J. and T.J. were going back and forth up the sacks leaderboard, the texts were more competitive than usual.

Every week, J.J. and T.J. kept tabs on each others’ stats, either by checking box scores after their own games or, if they were lucky, by watching the other’s game. Or in some instances, from musician Kendrick Lamar.

While it’s competitive between the brothers, J.J. says they’re also “each other’s biggest fans.”

“We each root for each other as much as we can, whenever we can,” J.J. said in 2018. “I want to see him get as many sacks as he can possibly get, just the same way he wants to see me. We compete, and there’s definitely a little bit of underlying competition there, but at the end of the day, if he gets 500 sacks, I’d be happy as hell.”

A special Sunday

That brotherly camaraderie is on pause this week as the two youngest Watts get ready to take on J.J.

Not only has it never happened for the Watt brothers, who have nearly six years 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 each other. According to research by ESPN Stats & Information, that was the first known instance of three brothers appearing 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 field in 2019 when the Texans played against Derek’s Chargers, and J.J. and T.J. were lined up for a Christmas Eve matchup in 2017 in Houston before J.J. broke his leg earlier in the year. Derek and T.J. played against each other the past two seasons when the Chargers and Steelers played, getting to face off by virtue of playing different sides of the ball.

That’s what makes Sunday special.

“It’s unbelievable,” J.J. said. “It truly is incredible. Just to have all of us playing at Wisconsin was really cool. Just to have all of us playing in the NFL was really cool. To play against another brother was cool. Now, to have all of us on the field at the same time in the same game, it really doesn’t get any better than that.”

Under normal circumstances, John and Connie would be at Heinz Field on Sunday afternoon in their half-Steelers, half-Texans jerseys. They would be sitting with Gabriella and Logan, and maybe Kealia and Rhodes if the Chicago Red Stars teammates could get to Pittsburgh for the game. But because of the ongoing pandemic, the proud parents plan to watch on the living room sofa at 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 one have to lose, but hopefully they all have a good game and come out of it injury-free and it’s something we can treasure for the rest of our lives. And them, too.”

Rhodes said even before Derek signed with the Steelers, he, J.J. and T.J. “always talked about it in kind of what-ifs and a dream, and how cool it would be to all be on the same field.”

“They’ve never really had that opportunity, so now, this past year when it came out on the upcoming fall schedule, I think they were just so excited to finally have it be reality and ever since have been looking forward to it,” Rhodes said.

With two sacks Sunday, J.J. would become just the fourth player to record 100 sacks in his first 115 games. But naturally, T.J. and Derek don’t want to see him hit that milestone at Heinz Field.

“I think J.J.’s got enough hardware, Defensive Player of the Years — he’s not very shy of telling people he has those awards, especially me,” T.J. said. “I think he doesn’t need this one.”



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