Giant Work Of Heart

-Zac Ellis

A PHOTOGRAPH OF A PURDUE QUARTERBACK LAY IN THE WASTEBASKET OF THE BOY’S hospital room. Wisconsin defensive end J.J. Watt listened as six-year-old cancer patient Jaxson Hinkens, a devoted UW fan who had been diagnosed with stage 4 neuroblastoma, explained why he’d tossed the picture away. The Badgers were playing the Boilermakers that weekend, and Jaxson wanted nothing to do with Purdue. “This kid threw a Big Ten quarterback’s picture away, and he wants me to go get a sack for him,” Watt recalls of the visit to American Family Children’s Hospital in Madison last October. “That was real big-time for me.”

He made the visit with Badgers quarterback Scott Tolzien, who had befriended Jaxson. Watt has always had a tendency toward giving back and was so moved that he spent the last year developing his own charity, the Justin J. Watt Foundation. His plan is to create after-school sports programs for Madison-area elementary and middle schools lacking athletic funding, while also keeping his hand in children’s hospitals by busing inpatient kids to see their favorite Wisconsin teams. “The things I learned in sports have carried me past my life on the football field,” Watt says. “If we can get that instilled in kids at a young age, we’ll have a much greater community as a whole.”

In August, with the help of the UW Law and Entrepreneurship Clinic, which provides legal services for students jump-starting their own business enterprises, Watt took the important first step of filing the paperwork to establish the foundation. “There was some extraordinary enthusiasm,” says Eric Englund, director of the clinic. “There was certainly a cachet because of who [Watt] is and the underlying concept.”

Watt’s giving nature appears to contrast with his menacing persona. “When he walks in the door, you’ll see,” Wisconsin coach Bret Bielema says of the 6′ 6″, 285-pound redshirt junior. “He’s a giant.” So is his game. Watt started 13 games last season, had 4½ sacks with 15½ tackles for loss and was a preseason All-Big Ten selection in 2010. A kinesiology major, he was also named an Academic All-Big Ten in ’09. “Some guys would be able to give us great things on the field but not in the classroom, or vice versa,” says Bielema. “J.J.’s the complete package.”

After his freshman year at Central Michigan in 2007, Watt transferred to Wisconsin as a walk-on. He was the scout team’s defensive player of the year in ’08 and earned a scholarship the following spring. Throughout his college career Watt has been visiting children’s hospitals and speaking to classes and youth football teams about values. “As soon as I got to the college level, I was excited to be able to use that celebrity status and do things with it,” he says.

The advice Watt extends often echoes the quote you’ll see under his picture in the ’07 Pewaukee (Wis.) High yearbook: “Dream Big, Work Hard.” He is currently producing wristbands featuring the slogan and his number (99) that he will distribute when he visits kids like Jaxson, who has been showing signs of improvement over the last year. And Watt is not afraid to dream big with his foundation, which should be approved as a federally recognized nonprofit organization within the year. “I’d [like to] expand it and make it grow throughout the country,” he says. “Hopefully, if I make the NFL, I can make it really big.”

Read the article on Sports Illustrated’s website

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