J.J. Watt Announces Retirement

By Terrance Turner

Dec. 27, 2022

INGLEWOOD, CALIFORNIA – JANUARY 17: J.J. Watt #99 of the Arizona Cardinals looks on prior to the NFC Wild Card against the Los Angeles Rams at SoFi Stadium on January 17, 2022 in Inglewood, California. The Rams won 34-11. (Photo by Michael Owens/Getty Images)

Defensive end J.J. Watt is retiring.

The Arizona Cardinals DE announced this morning that he will retire after the NFL season. He’ll end his legendary career that cemented him as one of the league’s best defensive players.

On Sunday night, the Cardinals lost in overtime to the Tampa Bay Buccaneers. Watt noted that the Christmas night contest was his infant son’s first NFL game. And it’s Watt’s last home game.

“Koa’s first ever NFL game. My last ever NFL home game. My heart is filled with nothing but love and gratitude. It’s been an absolute honor and a pleasure,” he tweeted along with a picture of him holding son Koa and standing next to wife Kealia at Sunday night’s game.

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Medical Challenges

The news comes just three months after Watt disclosed a troubling medical issue. On Oct. 2, just before the Cardinals played the Carolina Panthers, Watt tweeted that he’d been diagnosed with atrial fibrillation, (known as aFib) — an irregular heartbeat. Watt said he’d had his heart “shocked back into rhythm” the next day.

Atrial Fibrillation

Atrial fibrillation is the most common type of heart arrhythmia, according to the CDC. In aFib, the normal beating in the atria (the upper chambers of the heart) is irregular. Thus, blood doesn’t flow as well to the ventricles (the lower chambers of the heart).

From the CDC.
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This is a serious condition that requires treatment to prevent a stroke. But Watt played in the Cards-Panthers game anyway. After the game, Watt met with reporters to explain his decision.

“I talked to cardiologists and electrophysiologists from all over the country,” Watt said. “I was assured multiple times from multiple people that there was nothing else you could do [to improve the condition]…I could play like normal and something could happen the next day, or never again in 20 years. So I was assured and I went back to practice on Friday and here we are.”

Emotional Week

“Obviously, it’s been a very emotional week for my family, for my wife, for myself,” said Watt. “So, I’m very happy to get a win today. Obviously, I’ve had a lot of emotions. But I’ve learned to appreciate the little things even more, and so it’s nice to have a win today.”

Watt learned about his heart condition just as he and his wife Kealia were preparing for the birth of their first child. That made the health crisis even more emotional for him. “We’ve been — for months we’ve been looking at ultrasounds of our baby boy,” Watt said. “And they’re all extremely happy. And then Thursday, we were looking at ultrasounds of my heart. It was…it’s been very tough.”

“It’s been a week,” he added. But, happy to be here. Happy to…” Watt’s voice trailed off as he fought back tears.

Photo from the New York Post.
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Thankfully, Watt was well enough to play after the diagnosis. (The Cardinals defeated the Panthers, 26-16. Watt amassed three tackles and two deflected passes, per ESPN.) And three weeks later, he and Kealia Watt welcomed their son.

Koa James Watt was born on Oct. 23. Watt opened up about fatherhood during the third episode of the HBO series Hard Knocks, which follows the Cardinals. “Any parent who’s ever told you how amazing it is, how awesome it is, how special it is — it is all of that, and a hundred times more.”

Hanging Up The Cleats

Now, Watt is walking away as one of the most dominant defenders of his era (and a likely first-ballot Hall of Famer). Since being drafted in 2011, he’s racked up 111.5 sacks. Since 2011, only three other players — Von MillerCameron Jordan and Chandler Jones — have more sacks than him. He is first in batted passes, second in fumble recoveries and tied for third in forced fumbles during that time.

Watt also has 28 games with at least two sacks, five more than anyone else since 2011, according to ESPN Stats & Information research. He’s also one of only three players to be named Defensive Player of the Year three times.

Career

The Houston Texans selected Watt in the 2011 NFL Draft. He became the first defensive end chosen in the first round. (A defensive end moves to the backfield to tackle a quarterback or ball carrier. On running plays, DEs force ball carriers either out of bounds or into defensive pursuit.) Drafted out of Wisconsin, Watt quickly became one of the NFL’s most-feared defenders.

2011

Watt started in all 16 games during the 2011 season. In the Texans” season opener on Sept. 11, 2011, he debuted with five tackles and a fumble recovery. He finished the season with 48 solo tackles, eight assisted tackles and 5.5 sacks. The Texans made the playoffs for the first time in franchise history.

The Texans beat the Cincinnati Bengals in a Wild Card playoff game on Jan. 7, 2012. Watt had two tackles and a sack in the game. And he returned an interception 29 yards for a pick-six.

Football: AFC Playoffs: Houston Texans J.J. Watt (99) victorious during 2nd quarter celebration with team after returning interception for touchdown vs Cincinnati Bengals at Reliant Stadium. Houston, TX 1/7/2012 CREDIT: Greg Nelson (Photo by Greg Nelson /Sports Illustrated via Getty Images) (Set Number: X86720 TK1 R6 F76 )
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2012-2015

According to Yahoo! Sports, “From 2012 through 2015, Watt put up a flawless four-year stretch. He registered 119 tackles for loss, 190 quarterback hits, 15 forced fumbles, 10 fumble recoveries, one interception, two defensive touchdowns and 69 sacks. He earned first-team All-Pro honors every single year and won three Defensive Player of the Year awards.”

2012

In 2012, Watt had one of his best seasons. He was named AFC Defensive Player of the Month in both September and December. In the Texans’ Week 5 game against the New York Jets, Watt broke up three different passes. The game was broadcast as Monday Night Football; co-host Jon Gruden noticed Watt’s deflections and dubbed him “J.J. Swatt”. The name stuck.

EAST RUTHERFORD, NJ – OCTOBER 08: Quarterback Mark Sanchez #6 of the New York Jets has a ball deflected by Defensive End J.J. Watt #99 of the Houston Texans as the Jets host the Texans on Monday Night Football at MetLife Stadium on October 8, 2012 in East Rutherford, New Jersey. (Photo by Al Pereira/New York Jets/Getty Images)
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According to the Lubbock Avalanche-Journal, “Watt’s penchant for batting down balls is helped by being 6-foot-5 with a 37-inch vertical jump, mitt-sized hands that measure more than 11 inches from thumb to pinkie, and wingspan of almost 83 inches.”

Watt ended the season with 16 blocked passes. He also finished with 81 total tackles (including 12 assisted) and four forced fumbles, per NFL.com. He also had 20.5 sacks, leading the league. Watt was named to his first Pro Bowl. And he earned 49 out of 50 votes from the Associated Press to become AP’s Defensive Player of the Year. He’s the first Texans player ever to receive that honor, according to the Huffington Post.

2013

The Texans struggled in 2013. They ended the season just 2-14. But Watt shined. He had 65 solo tackles, 15 assisted tackles, four forced fumbles and two fumble recoveries. He also racked up 10.5 sacks. (Watt had at least one sack in every game from weeks 7-12, per ProFootballReference.com.) He earned another Pro Bowl selection.

2014

Watt had a career year in 2014. He nearly doubled his 2013 sack total and racked up 78 tackles. And in September 2014, he did something no Texan had done before. Lining up as a tight end, Watt caught a one-yard touchdown pass on Houston’s opening drive.

CLEVELAND, OH – NOVEMBER 16: J.J. Watt makes a touchdown catch in front of Chris Kirksey #58 of the Cleveland Browns during the first quarter at FirstEnergy Stadium on November 16, 2014 in Cleveland, Ohio. (Photo by Jason Miller/Getty Images)

It’s the first time in franchise history that a defensive player scored a TD from scrimmage, per the Texans’ website.

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He scored again two weeks later, against the Buffalo Bills. Watt picked off a pass by EJ Manuel and returned it 80 yards for a touchdown. Against the Indianapolis Colts, Watt sacked QB Andrew Luck and forced a fumble. He recovered the fumble and returned it 55 yards for a touchdown. It was his third TD of the year, per Sporting News.

He scored his fourth TD by catching a pass from QB Ryan Mallett in a game versus the Cleveland Browns. Watt also made four solo tackles, a forced fumble and a fumble recovery. He caught a fifth touchdown from Ryan Fitzpatrick against the Tennessee Titans on Nov. 30. That made him the first defensive lineman since 1944 to have at least five touchdowns in a season. 

Watt is the first player with three offensive touchdowns and two defensive scores in a single season — regardless of position — since 1948, ESPN says. Watt finished with five total touchdowns, a career-high five fumble recoveries and 20.5 sacks. He won a unanimous vote to become 2014 Defensive Player of the Year.

PHOENIX, AZ – JANUARY 31: J.J. Watt is named Defensive Player of the Year at the 2015 NFL Honors at Phoenix Convention Center on January 31, 2015 in Phoenix, Arizona. (Photo by Taylor Hill/Getty Images)
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2015

Despite a groin injury and injured left hand, Watt started all 16 games in 2015. In the season finale against the Jacksonville Jaguars, he had a season-high three sacks along with eight total tackles. He finished the season leading the league with 17.5 sacks, plus three forced fumbles and a fumble recovery. He won his second straight DPOY, garnering his third Defensive Player of the Year award.

SAN FRANCISCO, CA – FEBRUARY 06: NFL player J. J. Watt accepts the AP Defensive Player of the Year award onstage during the 5th Annual NFL Honors at Bill Graham Civic Auditorium on February 6, 2016 in San Francisco, California. (Photo by Tim Mosenfelder/Getty Images)
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2016-2018

Injuries struck in 2016. Watt was limited to three games due to a back injury. He played in just five games in 2017 after fracturing his leg. But in 2017, Watt made arguably his biggest impact off the field.

2017

In 2017, Hurricane Harvey devastated the city of Houston. The Category 4 storm first made landfall in Texas, dropping as much as 60 inches of rain in parts of the greater Houston area. Harvey caused widespread flooding and $198 billion in damage.The Texas Department of Public Safety said later that more than 185,000 homes were damaged and 9,000 destroyed.

Watt decided to help out. He signed up for an account on the fund-raising site ​YouCaring.com, wrote up a short description of a relief fund and sent the link over to Amy Palcic, the Texans’ head of media relations. The text thread that kicked it all off: “I think I’ll just start this campaign and then others hopefully join in on it. This is going to be the page.”

According to Sports Illustrated, Watt posted the link to donate on his social media. Watt began a fundraising campaign with the initial goal of raising $200,000—starting with $100,000 from himself—to help with relief efforts.

Other athletes and celebrities spread the word. The effort went viral. And more than $37 million in donations poured in during the first 19 days alone.

For his efforts, Watt won the Walter Payton Man of the Year award.

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2018

Watt returned healthy in 2018 and proved he still had a lot in the tank. He played in all 16 games that season, picking up 16 sacks and leading the NFL with seven forced fumbles. After two years away, Watt again made the All-Pro team.

Final Years in Houston

Watt continued to play at a high level throughout the 2019 and 2020 seasons. But the last years in Houston were increasingly frustrating. After trading away its best receiver (DeAndre Hopkins), in 2020 the Texans franchise came under fire by pundits and fans. Then, after firing head coach Bill O’Brien (after a disastrous 1-4 start), the Texans lost. And lost. And lost some more.

The Texans lost in a blowout: 36-7, to the Chicago Bears. That loss officially eliminated them from playoff contention. The week before, the Texans lost to the Indianapolis Colts. And they lost their last game of the season, to the Tennessee Titans. They went 4-11 for the season. Watt was visibly frustrated and let off some steam in a memorable rant.

In March 2021, Watt signed a two-year, $31 million contract with the Arizona Cardinals. This move reunited him with former teammate DeAndre Hopkins, who was a wide receiver for the Texans before a controversial trade.

This story will be updated.

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