As a 50-year old die-hard sports fan, I have spent much of the past five decades following the Houston football scene. I have cheered through many "thrills of victory" and suffered more than my fair share of "agonies of defeat." I lived through the "Luv Ya Blue" era when Bum and Earl couldn't quite "kick the son-of-a-bitch" in. (Ask Coach Wade Phillips for a history lesson.) I assumed things could not get worse after watching the Oilers blow a seemingly insurmountable lead against Buffalo in the 1993 playoffs, but a few years later Bud Adams topped that misery by moving our (I guess it was really "his") team to Tennessee. I welcomed the Houston Texans with open arms, overlooked the play on the field in those early days, celebrated the initial entry into the playoffs, and grew frustrated when the past season came to an end after offering so much early promise.
Though I may bleed "Deep Steel Blue," "Battle Red" and "Liberty White," I have never put athletes on pedestals or engaged in hero worship once the games ended. I have read too many headlines about players spitting on fans; choking coaches; getting arrested for drugs, DUIs, and domestic disturbances; engaging in dog-fighting rings; accidentally shooting themselves in the leg with an illegally possessed concealed handgun, etc. The steroid era tainted performances in all sports and an all-too-common sense of entitlement often makes certain players too hard to root for. I recognize that athletes have tremendous abilities to perform and are truly entertainers, but never believed that they should be considered our role models. Until now...
I must admit, when the Texans drafted yet another defensive lineman in the first round of the 2011 draft, I was underwhelmed. Sadly, many of our other "can't miss" defensive line prospects never quite panned out the way management had hoped. And yet, from day one, you have lived up to your motto "Dream Big Work Hard" and have become one of the best defensive players in the league in just your second season. Congrats on your well-deserved Defensive Player of the Year award. (What was Ashley Fox thinking?) Your work ethic has translated into numerous personal and team successes that have highly experienced coaches already talking Canton. You clearly have become a fan favorite and we all look forward to watching you lead the team to bigger and better things in the years that follow.
And yet, your play on the field has absolutely nothing to do with my newfound hero worship. Even before you had taken one snap at Reliant Stadium, you had already earned the heart and admiration of many in the community by befriending three Houston children who were severely injured in a tragic car accident that took their parents' lives. I heard that a local sports reporter took you to the hospital for a short visit, thinking you could bring a smile to their faces, if only for a minute, as they dealt with their harsh losses and faced grueling rehabilitations. In reality, you have done so much more.
As I'm sure you have heard, the kids' parents were beloved members of their community. Their mom was a central figure at their school and an exceptional bridal consultant (she served in that role for my wedding). Their dad was a successful businessman who loved to engage in "friendly" debates about politics, especially with those who may share different views (present company included). My wife and I were fortunate to call them personal friends. In the aftermath of the tragedy, family members, friends, and even strangers stepped up to help support these kids. Certainly no one could ever replace their parents, but their very strong support system brought them hope and promise for the future. And then, one day a 6' 5", 295 pound giant of a man walked into their hospital room and entered their lives forever.
You visited them early and often, traded cell phone numbers so you could exchange texts, and considered them among your very first friends in the city. You inspired them, encouraged them, but mainly just hung out with them as they made progress in attacking their hardships. You followed the kids from the hospital to the rehab center to their home as they reentered school and began lives with a new, yet different sense of normalcy. You tossed the football with them, shot baskets with them, played videogames with them. You developed a "wheelchair sack dance" in their honor and performed it in a crucial celebratory moment during a Texans game when you knew they would be watching.
I once asked one of their relatives if you were indeed "the real deal." Being a skeptic by nature, I wondered if you simply had a great publicist who played up this story to the media, eager to get some good press for the rising local sports star. I asked if you shared the same relationship when the cameras were turned off and the press was no longer watching. He laughed and said that you were even better than advertised and had become more than just an occasional friend, but a true member of their family. You join them for dinners (and have a hearty appetite), celebrate holidays together, even cheer for them at their ballgames.
After a tough loss in the playoffs, many fans expected the Texans players to go into hibernation for a few days. And yet, upon your return to Houston, you chose to stop by a school for a surprise visit and were greeted by the teachers, staff, and other students as the true hero that you are. My six-year old daughter could not wait to tell me about your visit and now has a reason to watch the games with me (if only for a few minutes). Likewise, my (non-sports enthusiast) wife has become a true fan of yours and will ask "How's JJ playing?" throughout the games. You proved that "Dream Big Work Hard" is not merely a motto for the athletic field, but also a way that everyone should live their lives as they strive for success and/or to overcome obstacles that may seem totally insurmountable.
Sadly, tomorrow's headlines will include stories about athletes getting into trouble or putting their teams in compromising positions because of their "unsportsmanlike conduct" off of the field. I will remember that sports are a form of entertainment and these individuals are not role models or worthy of hero worship... except for the Houston Texans' star defensive lineman, 2012 NFL Defensive Player of the Year, future Hall of Famer, and all around great guy named JJ Watt.
Best of luck to you in all of your endeavors on and off of the field.
Dream Big Work Hard.