Apparently the favorite quote section of a high school yearbook has some significance after all.
For junior defensive end J.J. Watt, the quote he submitted as an 18-year-old has stuck with him through his years as a collegiate athlete.
The words are simple and to the point – dream big, work hard.
“Our high school yearbook asked for a quote, and I was looking at a bunch of the Vince Lombardi quotes and nothing really fit exactly what I wanted to say. I ended up thinking to myself ‘dream big, work hard’ because no matter where you come from if you dream big enough you can do anything,” Watt said. “But the second part is the most important, because if you don’t work hard nothing is going to happen.”
Working hard has never been an issue for Watt who has undertaken a long, arduous journey to reach Wisconsin and start at defensive end for the No. 11 Badgers.
The mantra dream big, work hard appears at the end of Watt’s tweets and a plan is in place to create bracelets displaying the slogan.
But those four words, D.B.W.H for short, are more than just a quote – they’re words Watt lives by.
Holding onto the dream
Watt fondly remembers his high school football days.
He loved the game and dreamed of playing as long as he possibly could.
“Coming out of high school your goal is always to be the best player you can be, but I’m not going to lie, when I graduated I just wanted to play football,” Watt said. “It could have been Whitewater, Oshkosh anywhere.”
At Pewaukee High School, Watt starred on both ends of the ball and he gave himself a chance to play at the next level.
He was recognized as a first-team, all-state performer at both tight end and defensive end and was named team MVP his senior year. In the process, he caught the eyes of college coaches around the Midwest, including UW head coach Bret Bielema.
Big kid, big decision
Like almost every Big Ten prospect, Watt’s high school statistics were very impressive. But to play in a major conference, size plays a crucial role and often times measureables can be the deciding factor in a scholarship offer.
Lucky for Watt, a senior year growth spurt helped his cause, but an offer never came from the hometown Badgers.
“We were evaluating him quite a bit. If I remember right, we didn’t have him in summer camp and we didn’t make a scholarship offer at that point and we went with the guys that we wound up offering,” Bielema said in a 2008 interview with reporters. “He was in that loop, he was a guy that we were well aware of and he really had a huge growth spurt.”
Watt ended up committing to Central Michigan in Mt. Pleasant, Mich., but his collegiate future was far from settled.
“It was crazy for me. I committed to central Michigan and the coach left, so I committed to Minnesota and then the coach got fired, so I ended up committing back to Central Michigan,” Watt said.
The 6-foot-6 Chippewa freshman found a role at tight end where he played in all 14 games, but Watt wasn’t satisfied. The offense didn’t fit his style and the early playing time wasn’t enough to keep him at Central Michigan.
Watt wanted to take a shot at something more – he wanted to be Badger. With no guarantees from Bielema and only a walk-on spot available, Watt filled out the transfer forms and packed his bags for Madison where he would be moved to the defensive line, but the decision to leave CMU wasn’t easy.
“It was one of the biggest decisions of my life. To tell my parents they are going to have to pay 18,000 dollars for me to come to Madison was tough when I previously had a scholarship and a starting position at a division one school,” Watt said. “Most kids would die for that situation.”
Putting the work in
Life wasn’t glamorous at first for the Central Michigan transfer as he prepared for life as a defensive linemen at UW.
“I spent six months working at Pizza Hut and working out at the local gym just getting bigger faster and stronger,” Watt said.
Watt arrived on campus with plenty of drive and motivation, but he needed to add bulk and refine his technique to see playing time on the Wisconsin D-line.
Lining up across guys like Gabe Carimi and John Moffitt everyday in practice certainly helped.
“Going against Gabe Carimi and John Moffitt made me such a better player and I wouldn’t change that for the world,” Watt said. “That year made me grow so much as a football player and a person.
For safety Jay Valai, Watt’s physical growth was pretty noticeable.
“J.J. is a worker,” Valai said. “When he got here he was 230 (pounds) or whatever and now he’s like 290.”
Despite the added muscle and invaluable experience against the UW O-line, Watt had to sit out due to transfer rules. He spent a year on the scout team and was ineligible to play in any games.
For the first time in his career, Watt was forced to sit and watch. So he took out his frustration in practice.
“It was extremely tough at first because I was used to playing every Saturday but it was a great experience for me because I was practicing against the Wisconsin O-line everyday,” said Watt, the eventual scout team MVP. “Practice became my Super Bowl because I had no game day.”
Long, hard hours paying off
The game days finally came for Watt, and he’s been wreaking havoc as a scholarship defensive end ever since.
After impressing coaches and teammates on the scout team, Watt took to the field in 2009 as a starter opposite O’Brien Schofield and helped lead a defense that was the top Big Ten unit against the run. He compiled 15.5 tackles for loss and 4.5 sacks and entered the 2010 season as the bona fide leader of the UW D-line.
Through two games, Watt leads the team in tackles for loss and pass breakups. He was named game MVP for his effort against San Jose State and he’s been a leader for UW on and off the field.
“J.J. is just a big, strong, athletic dude. He’s got such a great motor, and everybody thought things would change with [O'Brien Schofield] gone, but J.J. has stepped up in that role,” Valai said.
Defensive line coach Charlie Partridge has relied on Watt just like the young UW linemen have.
“We don’t have any seniors in the room so I really lean on the juniors like J.J,” Partridge said. “He has really embraced that leadership role for us.”
The decision to take a leap of faith and walk-on at Wisconsin was motivated by a dream and came to fruition through a relentless drive to get better. It appears the high school senior knew what he was talking about when he submitted that quote years ago.
“I had plenty of confidence in myself and I knew that my attitude and work ethic would pay off,” Watt said. “It’s paid off 100 times over.”