T.J. Watt, one of the best linebackers in the game today, is using Six Star to prepare for the upcoming 2021 football season. Watt, who also used Six Star in preparation for last season, went on to win the AFC Defensive Player of the Year Award in 2020, leading the league with 15 sacks and 23 tackles for a loss. Watt’s older brother J.J., a defensive end now playing for Arizona, won this prestigious award four times himself, making them the only siblings to win AFC Player of the Year honors in the 51-year history of the awards. T.J. Watt also finished second last season to Aaron Donald in the AP NFL Defensive Player of the Year Award voting.
Last year, Pittsburgh began the season by winning a franchise-best 11 games in a row. However, Watt and his Pittsburgh teammates ultimately fell short of winning it all in 2020. This off-season, Watt has only one goal in mind – winning it all, and he’s training accordingly. In addition to being an extremely talented player on the field, Watt is also an outstanding community leader and citizen off the field, who loves to give back to his community.
Watt took time out of his busy schedule to chat with Six Star about the 2020 season, his personal and team goals for 2021, and where he’s at with his off-season training program right now.
Q: T.J., let’s start with your season last year. You and your teammates got off to a great start right out of the gate. Then some things kind of happened toward the end, both with the season itself and COVID confusion that the club was subjected to, as well as injuries that piled up. But on an individual level, you had a great season in your own right.
Now that you’ve had some time to reflect, what are your takeaways from the 2020 season?
A: “I think the 2020 NFL season was a very challenging one from the start just because it was brand new. No one has really played a season through a pandemic before. So, just trying to get adjusted to getting a nasal swab every single day – I think I ended up, by the time the season was over, getting one 180 to 200 days in a row. Both getting your nose swabbed and social distancing at the facility, and trying to figure out how to do video for team meetings and not in person, there were just a lot of obstacles.
But we started the season fairly hot, and we felt really good about where we were going into the final stretch of the year. Then we just weren’t able to execute. We had some injuries, but there’s no excuses – a lot of teams had the same issues. But there are a lot of good things that we can take away from last season. And like I say to everybody, it doesn’t matter about the individual season that I had because we didn’t make a push into the playoffs and we weren’t playing for the big one in February. So, there’s a lot to learn from and I’m more hungry to put together a better season myself, and collectively as a team, in 2021.”
Q: T.J., you mentioned the nasal swabs, but you also didn’t have that many fans in the stands. You didn’t have that level of intimacy that you have with the city of Pittsburgh and the team. So, even when things were going well, how was it as an athlete to adjust to all the circumstances that were going on around you?
A: “Yeah, it was tough. Being a defensive player, I need the fan base behind me, especially at home games. We pride ourselves on performing for the fans. We understand that this is a game that we love to do, and it’s a football game. But at the end of the day, it’s also entertainment for our fans and the people watching at home. To not have them in the stadium with us was quite a challenge.
For me, I use crowd noise to be able to get off the ball a lot faster and get after the quarterback. And to not have that on my side this season was tough, but it also made me have to rise to the challenge. I’d listen to TV copies and dive into the game a lot further so I could find a different way to gain an edge.”
Q: On the day-to-day basis of playing the game, and doing your normal routine, what was it like to be isolated to that extent from the rest of society just so you could play an entire season?
A: “There was definitely a lot of sacrifice. I was basically just living with my girlfriend and we weren’t able to go out to restaurants, to go out shopping, or do anything just like a lot of people weren’t able to do either. But knowing that we were playing for something greater than just ourselves – that one person could really affect a whole team and affect the whole season if they came down with Covid and then spread it throughout the facility – we had to be smart and understand that it’s not just about ourselves, we’re playing for the guys in the locker room, for the league, and I was all for it. I’m not much into going out and partying anyway. So, it was pretty much as is for me anyway.”
Q: Looking ahead toward next season, what’s on your list of things to improve upon?
A: “A lot. I’m always trying to get bigger, faster, stronger. I think that ties in with our partnership. I’ve been back here in Wisconsin training with both of my brothers. I’ve been able to gain a couple of pounds this off-season. I think that’s important for me, too.
The past few seasons I’ve lost weight as the season went on. So, that’s a big thing for me. I need to keep taking my supplements throughout the season. That’s something that’s always tougher as the season goes on. You don’t want to work out as much because you’re much, much more sore. You just want to stay healthy. You don’t want to risk any injuries, but at the same time, I want to continue to grow as the season goes on and continue to get stronger as other guys start to deplete. Simple things like that. And just trying to find ways to not slow down. Like I said, we started hot last year. We can’t be predictable – that’s myself, and that’s us as a team.”
Q: As you gain experience in the league each year, are you learning new things about how to prepare your body for a 16-game season? And knowing that there’s an extra game next year, how do you approach that challenge of needing to keep your body prepared for 17, and hopefully 18, 19, 20, 21 games?
A: “I’ve only been able to play 17 games twice in my career so far. Sadly, it has never gone past that. Luckily, I’ve been pretty healthy my whole career, and that’s just kind of finding out what’s best for me. You hear from a lot of guys coming up through the league what’s best for them. Certain guys like to have massages. Certain guys don’t. Certain guys go sit in the float tanks and take certain supplements.
For me, I’m a big massage guy twice-a-week. I get a lot of sleep. I’m big on getting nine to ten hours of sleep, especially during the season. It’s the best way you can possibly recover. Staying hydrated as best as I possibly can, as well. Those things have really paid off for me. And trying to just study as much film as I possibly can.
17 games are a heck of a lot of games and hopefully, it can stretch into 20, 21. But I don’t know if anyone can truly go into a season fully prepared for that. I think it’s all about adapting and trying to be the best you can each and every week mentally and physically.”
Q: You were a finalist for the Defensive Player of the Year Award. We know you had a great post with the Michael Jordan meme after not receiving that award. So, how is that motivating you heading into the off-season?
A: “Are you assuming there’s a correlation between that tweet and that award? (Laughing) I’m just kidding.”
Q: We loved it. We thought it was fantastic. And we know you’re not about personal accolades, but how are you using that aspect of it? Maybe trying to build your own resume here – like leading the league in sacks – even if you don’t win the awards? How does that motivate you to get better year after year, knowing you’re already in a position where you’re pretty darn good in the first place?
A: “It comes from growing up with an older brother who is a three-time Defensive Player of the Year. I think that definitely helps my mindset. And it’s not a matter of winning or losing awards, it’s a matter of putting in the work and just knowing that I put everything that I possibly could out there, and it still wasn’t enough. I have to understand there’s still a lot of room for me to grow on and off the field.
And specifically on the field, I just need to be a better player throughout the whole stretch of the season. That’s kind of what I alluded to earlier. Starting fast and finishing stronger is the big thing for me. And I have nothing against Aaron Donald. He’s a hell of a player and he had a more than deserving season for Defensive Player of the Year. It was more towards the writers as to what more can I do? And I kind of have to ask myself that. Not for the awards, but for my team. What more can I do for my team to help us win ball games?”
Q: How do you approach going into the last year of your contract? Being a pro football player, it’s so unique compared to other sports because there are no guarantees in there for what may come next.
A: “Yeah, like you said, you never know in pro football. This is a business where anything can happen on any given down, any play, any day. I had a teammate, Ryan Shazier, who thankfully has recovered from his injury quite well given the circumstances. And I’ve seen firsthand how quickly the game can be taken away from you.
So, I’m taking it one day at a time. Right now, I’m playing in Pittsburgh and absolutely love it. I love the city. I love playing for the fans.. I love Coach Tomlin and the whole team down there. I just love what I do for a living. I have those pinch-myself moments all the time. I get to go work out with my two older brothers and come home and relax for the rest of the day and watch film. So, I am living the absolute dream and I don’t take it for granted. All that other stuff, that’s all for agents and them to decide. I’m just here to play football.”
Q: It seems like you had a little fun with your brother’s free agency and him ending up in Arizona. Was there a recruiting process? Were you just having fun watching the Internet explode with every tweet or post? What was that like with him being a free agent?
A: (Laughing) “Yeah, it was interesting to be on the inside because obviously I knew who J.J. was talking to as far as teams and stuff. Then you see all the reporters and analysts and ‘specialists’ who know everything saying he’s going to be going to this team and this team. And I’m like, ‘I don’t think he has even talked to that team.’
So, it was interesting to kind of have some fun banter back and forth with J.J. and Derek. And just having fun with the media acting like they knew everything. I’m very happy that J.J. ended up in Arizona just because that’s what he felt was best for him, and his wife, and his family. I’m super excited for him to continue his career down there. I think that he has a lot left in the tank.
Q: With the draft coming up, there has been a lot of buzz and media attention from sports writers and reporters. Do you pay attention to that at all? Do you have a wish list or desire for your team? Like, our team would love X position? Or do you let it play out and then be excited for the new crop of rookies who will show up in a couple of weeks?
A: “No. I don’t make any of those decisions. I think one of the biggest things Coach Tomlin has said to me is, ‘The best thing that you can do for this team is be the best that you can possibly be.’ And that’s making plays and being the person that I am on the football field.
If I’m not making plays and everything, then we have a problem. So, I’m just going to worry about myself and let the people that are up in the offices, the GM, the owner, and head coach, make the executive decisions as to who’s playing alongside me. On the football field, I have to make sure that I’m producing before I start looking around at other people.”
Q: What do you remember about your own draft day experience?
A: “Well, for me, I wasn’t at the draft. I was at my parents’ house in their basement. They have a nice little basement. And I had just my closest buddies, probably about five or six buddies, my girlfriend, and I think one or two of my high school coaches, and my strength coach. I wanted to keep it pretty intimate. I had the people who were with me from the start and who meant the most to me. I wanted them there. I didn’t want cameras. I didn’t have any cameras, or TV crews there of any sort.
It was a very special moment. It’s a night I’ll never forget. ‘412’ came up on my phone and I was more excited than ever to get to Pittsburgh.”
Q: In terms of your off-season training, when did you start to appreciate and integrate supplements into your training program? And how has your training program changed this year as your career continues to evolve?
A: “I wasn’t on supplements a lot in college and when I first got to the league. But the biggest goal for me this whole off-season is being more consistent with my whey protein. I think a lot of people can get into a whole bunch of different supplements and what works for them, but the Clean Protein Shakes that Six Star has in the little cartons are phenomenal. I really like those ones to go.
Other than that, I take whey protein consistently after my workouts just to be able to continue to pack on muscle mass. For me, I feel like I’m OK with how fast I am, how quick I am off the football, but I want to continue to get stronger. The only way to do that is to continue to add muscle and that starts with whey protein.”
Q: What’s your day-to-day been like now over the last couple of weeks, especially as you have an eye on maybe some normalcy in terms of when training camp starts this year, and maybe some more predictability with the schedule knowing that you had the 2020 season happen?
A: “Right now, I’m just still training at the facility that you saw last summer in Waukesha, Wisconsin. Four days a week I get a massage. Wednesday is my off day. I’m training with my two older brothers so there’s a lot of competition and trying to outdo each other in every single workout that we do.
Then after workouts, it’s either just kind of coming home and laying low and seeing family and friends socially distanced with masks on still, obviously. But when we’re not doing that, I’m trying to go golfing, but it’s 35 degrees here right now. We actually went out yesterday with my brothers and we were golfing with winter hats on. I don’t know if it was quite worth it. We didn’t put up good scores, but it was still fun.”
Q: You mentioned wanting to get stronger. Are there any specific exercises that you’re doing at the gym to accomplish that? And are there any PRs or personal bests that you’re going for this year that maybe at this time last year you weren’t quite there yet?
A: “For me, it has been getting in the squat rack early. The past couple of years I haven’t been able to squat for a full off-season just because I usually have some sort of knee tightness, or something in my knee isn’t feeling right early in the off-season just from the ground and pound of the whole season before.
But I’ve been able to be in the squat rack this whole off-season. We’re doing different types of squats, whether it’s zombie squats, or now we’re doing cambered bar squats. Then all the plyometric jump series and stuff just to try to get the explosion back. And I feel like I’m 100 percent right now. I’m feeling better than I did last year at this time, and that’s always a great indicator of where I can be as the off-season progresses here into training camp.”
Q: Weight training versus agility training. Where do you stand on that, especially since a lot of what you do is so technical? So, how does agility training play into things for you?
A: “We don’t start agility training until late-March, early-April here. So, we actually just got into starting agility more in-depth in the past couple of weeks because the season is so grueling on the lower-body and the joints – I’m running, and jumping, and cutting all season long. So, it doesn’t make much sense to get right back into it in January when you don’t play again until the fall.
So, we just started getting back into and putting the cleats on. We’re starting the agility drills and I feel good, but there’s a lot to improve on. But that’s OK to knock the rust off this time of year. So, I just want to try and get better each and every week.”
Q: What about flexibility and pliability?
A: “Flexibility is huge. That’s the biggest part of our warm-up, especially early in the off-season. It’s getting the flexibility back, and making sure that everything is inline. I think that’s the biggest thing. Before you start training you have to make sure that everything is symmetrical on both sides as far as how your shoulders feel, how your knees, ankles, and hips feel.
For me as a pass-rusher, it’s all knees, ankles, and hips to be able to bend the corners. That’s something that we work on every single day. And then even when you get massages and stuff like that, you have to make sure to get the right points in the ankle and in the knees to allow you to bend those corners.”
Q: Your girlfriend Dani is a professional athlete, as well. How do the two of you motivate each other? And how great is it to have that kind of companion in addition to your brothers, especially last season in-season?
A: “Yeah, it’s unbelievable. She has been able to train with me on and off whenever she’s in town here in Wisconsin, and she’s not trying to make a soccer team. Just to be able to have somebody that I love to push me each and every day, and she understands the type of commitment that comes with being a professional athlete. It’s very hard to understand for somebody that is not in the profession. She understands the sacrifice that comes with it, and I do the same for her.
So, just to know how much it means to me and how much it means to her to put everything that we possibly can, and sacrifice as much as we do, to be the best that we can possibly be at our sport is something that I’m very fortunate to share with her.”
Q: Last summer, you mentioned wanting to coach high school football. Is that still the case and have you done anything to go down that path?
A: “Yeah, I mean that is something that I would love to do when my playing career is over. Right now, I think I’m just so invested in trying to be the best player that I can possibly be right now. But when the time is done and I hang up the cleats, hopefully quite some time from now, I would love to coach high school football.
I don’t know if I could be a head coach just because I don’t know if I’m all for the fundraising and getting yelled at by parents and everything, but I could be the defensive coordinator or the offensive coordinator, or something fun like that.”
Q: Your parents were also in all the commercials last summer. So, we’re curious to hear how they took to being mini-celebrities now.
A: “You can’t tell them anything. They go to the grocery store and they get recognized. They’re signing autographs. They’re a bigger deal than I am around these parts.” (Laughing)
Q: Your family has been huge in terms of giving back to the community. We’ve got a Six Star campaign going on with Feeding America at Walmart. Feeding America was also the charity that J.J. used after Hurricane Harvey. So, where did that initiative of giving back come from? And how have you been able to feed off of that with what you’re able to do in Pittsburgh, through Six Star, and just other charitable ventures as a family?
A: “I think it has been instilled in us through our family. My mom and my dad always said it takes a village to raise a child and I think that’s so true. It’s not just one family that’s raising a kid, it’s the whole community coming together to do something that’s bigger than just themselves. And it’s so important to understand that we get to do what we love for a living, and we get to be paid handsomely for it. So, we have to give back and show people that we care about not just ourselves and the people who are paid the same as we are.
So, J.J. has done a phenomenal job of paving the way as to how to give back. And he did a lot with the hurricane, like you said. He does so much through his foundation and it has made me want to do more in Pittsburgh. Getting out in the community, and getting into Children’s Hospital, and doing meal delivery services in Pittsburgh, as well.
And to do Feeding America with Six Star. I think partnerships like that are so easy to commit to because you’re helping so many people with just a platform. And then you get all the people behind us, as well, through the partnerships that we have. It’s really a no-brainer decision and I think it’s so great that we’re able to do it.”
Q: Playing with Derek this past season, what was it like to play with your brother on the same team? What was that experience like?
A: “It was awesome. I think even starting in training camp, it was a little weird to get used to seeing him every single day. But it was nice to share breakfast with him throughout the whole season, and just to be able to catch up with what’s going on and stay in tune with him. He actually was living right down the road from me in Pittsburgh. So, I’m able to pop over and see my two nephews, and see his wife, and his puppy. It’s been a phenomenal experience. And to be able to be surrounded by my family more and more is so important to me. And to see him have some success on the field, as well, has been awesome to see. So, I’m really looking forward to this season to get to do it again.”
Q: What is it like to sack a quarterback? What is that adrenaline rush like? And who is your favorite quarterback that you’ve been able to sack?
A: “It’s a lot of emotion overtaking your body when you get a sack. I think they have that NFL Films, the one where I’m sacking Deshaun Watson and just screaming. That’s kind of the beauty of not having fans. That’s the one upside. You can hear everything on TV. So, you can hear all the emotions and all the checks that you normally don’t get to hear on a normal Sunday.
When you sack a quarterback, it just takes so much hard work, and energy, and effort, and a little bit of luck and skill obviously goes into it. But to take a quarterback down while he still has the ball in his hands is a feeling that I don’t get any other time in my life, and you just kind of go crazy. I kick my leg up in the air and have a whole lot of fun doing it.
As far as the best quarterback, or my favorite quarterback to sack, I guess I’d have to go with Tom Brady just because I’ve only done it once and he’s considered The G.O.A.T. (greatest of all time). So, I’m pretty happy about that one.”
Q: You’re fairly undersized for being a linebacker. So, what has it been like to use that to motivate you? Like, the analysts saying, ‘This guy isn’t big enough. This guy isn’t fast enough. This guy isn’t strong enough.’ And you’ve pretty much been able to use your technical skills to prove everyone wrong. But what has it been like for you to take that assessment and overcome those challenges, especially with a lot of draftees coming up who may find themselves in the same boat?
A: “I’ve pretty much known in the later portion of my life that I’m not going to be as big as J.J. is. That’s just because he’s an anomaly. I mean, he’s a big dude. I just understand that there’s going to be different ways that I have to get to the quarterback. But at the same time, my job is to get to the quarterback so I just have to get creative and find different ways that I can do it. I’m not always going to be able to bull rush guys around that are 330-pounds like he can. But I can run around them quicker than he can, and certain things that work to my advantage.
So, just finding what works best for me, kind of just like the training program that we talked about and the recovery program. It’s just finding an individualized program of what’s best for the individual person. I think I’ve found that for myself.”
Q: What’s something that you’ve learned from Coach Tomlin that you’ve been able to use either on the field or off the field?
A: “I think it’s transparency. Tell people how you feel. Don’t hide your feelings and get upset when they don’t make adjustments. That’s the biggest thing that I can take away from him. If I’m not doing something to his standard, he’s going to tell me. He’s not going to play games and bench me, or do certain things to make me figure out what he wants. He’s going to straight up tell me, even if it’s something that I don’t want to hear. But that’s the only way that I know what he wants me to do. That’s his message. It’s to make sure that everybody understands what the sole objective is and mission is.
So, that’s something that I try to take to my normal life, whether it’s in my relationship with my girlfriend or if it’s in any professional relationship. Just be very transparent with people because you get a lot further that way.”