TEMPE, Ariz. (AP) — J.J. Watt has always had a love for the common man, even though he looks more like Superman.
So it’s fitting that the funniest anecdote from the retirement news conference of one of the best defensive players in NFL history featured a little-known Arizona Cardinals teammate, rookie linebacker Jesse Luketa.
“This is, by far, the best story,” Watt said Wednesday.
The three-time AP Defensive Player of the Year posted on social media Tuesday that he intends to retire at the end of this season, which Watt knew would result in a torrent of well-wishes and messages from friends and teammates. So he put his phone down, took his newborn son to the pediatrician for a regular appointment, and returned to check his messages a few hours later.
That’s about the time he got a strange video message from a number he didn’t recognize. Then he got a voice memo from the same number, with a person slurring his speech and saying things Watt couldn’t understand.
“What the hell is this?” Watt thought.
Then a picture popped up. It was Luketa. He had cotton balls stuffed in his mouth and was loopy on anesthesia. Turns out the rookie had gotten his wisdom teeth removed that morning. He got the news that Watt was retiring right after he woke up and wanted to know if the future Hall of Famer would give him a jersey.
“I’m dying laughing,” Watt said.
Watt said Luketa later apologized for the message. The five-time All-Pro said no apologies were needed.
“He’s getting the jersey,” Watt said. “I told him he made my day.”
The story was a window into what made the 33-year-old Watt a beloved player and teammate during a decade with the Houston Texans and two more with the Cardinals. Yes, his 111 1/2 career sacks are impressive. So are his 193 tackles for loss. But he’ll be remembered just as much for his personality, love for the game and love for people.
Before every home game this season, Watt could be seen playing catch on the sidelines with kids in the stands, looking like he was having as much fun as anyone in the stadium. He was one of Houston’s most beloved athletes during his 10 years in Texas and raised more than $40 million for Hurricane Harvey relief, which earned him the 2017 Walter Payton NFL Man of the Year Award.
Watt said he’s tried to never lose sight of the fact that he plays a game and that a huge support staff makes that happen.
“It’s truly the best job in the world,” Watt said. “I chase around a little ball, I get to tackle people. It’s incredible. People do my laundry, people set up the drills, people take down the drills, people set up the weights for me to lift, people make the food, people clean up the food.
“What more could you want? On top of it, I get paid to do it.”
Watt has two games left. Both are on the road, at Atlanta and San Francisco. The 6-foot-5, 288-pounder is still playing great football: He had three sacks against Denver on Dec. 18 and two tackles for a loss against Tampa Bay on Christmas Day. His 9 1/2 sacks this season are his most since 2018.
After the game on Christmas, Watt posed for pictures on the field with his family, including his parents, his wife, Kealia, and their newborn son, Koa. Watt said he had been planning on retiring for months, and seeing those pictures cemented his decision.
A health scare earlier this season — he had to have his heart shocked into rhythm after going into atrial fibrillation — also played a role.
“It’s the right time,” Watt said. “I put so much into the game. The wins, the losses, the mental stress and passion that comes with it. It just weighs on you. It’s heavy, it’s really heavy. Losses are tough to take. You live with the highs and lows.”
As for leaving when he’s still playing well? Watt said that’s just another blessing.
“I’d much rather go out playing good football, knowing that I could still play,” Watt said.
One of the few blemishes on Watt’s resume is that he never won a championship. He played in nine playoff games over his 12 seasons and his teams won three of them. This year’s Cardinals are 4-11 and have been eliminated from the postseason.
Watt admitted that will always sting a little, but it’s more than outweighed by gratitude.
“I’ve been playing this game since I was 10 years old,” Watt said. “It’s been an unbelievable ride. If you told me back then that I’d play 12 years in the National Football League, meet the people I’ve met and accomplish the things I’ve accomplished, live the life I’ve lived, I would have been extremely thankful.”
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