Pewaukee, Wisconsin, is about 1,200 miles from Houston, Texas, at the crow flies. But the difference is light years in every other way.
Pewaukee is a town of about 14,000 people in the Lake Country area of Wisconsin. Its main business is making sailboats and yacht gear — the world headquarters of Harkin, Inc.
Houston is the fourth largest city in America — 2.3 million people — and, as everyone knows, Houston’s main business is oil.
The two communities, though, are connected now by Pewaukee’s favorite son and Houston’s favorite football player — J.J. Watt, the four-time Pro Bowl and three-time NFL Defensive Player of the Year who has led the charge for help for the flood-ravaged Texas city in All-Pro fashion.
Heeding the call for assistance to the city facing catastrophe from Hurricane Harvey — the city where Watt has become one of the NFL’s biggest stars — the Houston Texans defensive lineman posted a video online looking to raise $200,000 to help his community.
Like Watt rushing the quarterback, his fans demolished that number. Watt went online again with another video and asked for $500,000. Another sack. Then $1 million, and up and up, with one video raising the stakes after another, until, at last count, Watt had raised the bar to $10 million.
It was like the late Jerry Lewis going to the tote board at his annual Muscular Dystrophy Labor Day telethon.
“It’s unbelievable,” Watt said on Good Morning America. “The biggest part of it all is being able to see the power of what can happen when people come together.”
It took 24.5 trillion gallons of water falling from the sky and one 6-foot-5, 295-pound football player born and raised in Pewaukee to bring people together when they’ve seemingly never been farther apart.
There have been many who have risen to the challenge of helping Hurricane Harvey victims, high-profile and average Joes. Here in Washington, Redskins quarterback Colt McCoy has donated his boat and supplies to help. “Texas and Texans in general are some of the most giving, open-arms people I know,” McCoy, a lifelong Texan who has a home in Austin, told espn.com. “It’s part of why I love being a Texan. I had a ton of friends and family members who had to be evacuated; some went to Austin. I don’t know if their houses were flooded or not but they had to evacuate. … everyone knows someone from Houston.”
Nationals Anthony Rendon and Matt Albers set up a charity page to raise money for the Houston Food Bank, and Washington Wizards players John Wall and Bradley Beal started a group text with teammates and wound up raising more than $250,00 to help flood victims.
But J.J. Watt has become the face of the athletic community recognizing the power and influence of their place in society, and using that place to help others. They do it every day, in all kinds of ways. But Watt’s fund raising effort has struck a particular chord.
“It’s incredible,” Watt said in a video posted Wednesday morning on Twitter. “The most difficult times seem to bring out the best in humanity, and that’s showing through now so much.”
What is showing through, though, is the small town life Watt grew up with in Pewaukee, and the family there that planted the beliefs that have brought out the best in Watt — and in turn, humanity.
The heart and commitment that moves Watt began with his grandfather, according to a 2016 story on the website heavy.com.
“For all of Watt’s high school games, his grandfather stood on the top row of the bleachers. He sat right in front of the press box so J.J. could easily find him, and was often the loudest voice in the stands. James Watt wore “Pirates” on one suspender and “Badgers” on the other, to honor the teams of Pewaukee and UW where his son and grandsons play football.
Watt cited his grandfather as the greatest inspiration for his work. Watt said his grandfather’s dad was an alcoholic, and that he wasn’t proud of the family name. His grandfather worked his entire life to change the reputation of the family name, something Watt seriously takes to heart. He’s even said that he doesn’t like the nickname “J.J. Swatt” because it distorts his family’s name.
“Watt’s grandfather passed away in February 2014 after losing a battle to diabetes and prostate cancer. On his final day, only J.J. was at the assisted living center where James passed away.
Watt’s grandfather passed on that work ethic to his son — Watt’s father John, was a Pewaukee firefighter for 28 years.
“John would work consecutive 24-hour shifts, then have extended time off to spend time with his family. John was his son’s football coach, from fifth grade all the way up until high school.
“With all three sons, John has been firm in his teachings. He always wanted his boys to try their best, whether it be sports or academics. ‘My saying has always been, ‘I don’t expect you to be perfect, but I always expect you to try to be perfect,’ he said.
“J.J. has recognized his dad’s sacrifices in the past, not just as a parent, but in his profession.
“‘As a young kid, I didn’t really fully understand the danger he put himself in … as I got older, finally understanding that he’s basically putting his life on the line every day to help save other people, that really impacted me a lot.'”
The Watt family is committed to that way of life — helping others, through the Justin (J.J’s first name) Watt Foundation, with Connie, Watt, his mother, running the nonprofit organization, which has donated nearly $4 million in money to schools all around the country for youth sports programs.
J.J. Watt has taken a massive step forward in the charity hall of fame, though, with his public fund-raising for Houston flood victims. The next time anyone tells you athletes are not role models, tell them about J.J. Watt, and the choice to accept that role.
• Thom Loverro hosts his weekly podcast “Cigars & Curveballs” Wednesdays available on iTunes, Google Play and the reVolver podcast network.
© Copyright (c) 2017 News World Communications, Inc.
This content is published through a licensing agreement with Acquire Media using its NewsEdge technology.