Even having suffered a broken leg and a losing season, 2017 might have been J.J. Watt's finest hour.
The Houston Texans star defensive end previously had been praised for his tremendous football skills and playfully mocked for his blue-collar shtick, but that all changed last August. Watt stepped up to the plate to start relief fund for Hurricane Harvey in his new hometown.
The original goal Watt set was for $200,000. He ended up raising more than $37 million.
That's why Watt was named the Walter Payton Man of the Year — honoring players' charity work, plus excellence on the field — on Saturday night at the 7th Annual NFL Honors.
"It's an incredible honor," Watt said during his acceptance speech. "To be mentioned ... even in the same breath as Walter Payton and everything he meant to pro football on the field, and more importantly off the field, I'm incredibly humbled and honored."
Watt suffered a broken leg in Houston, and the Texans went south in what would be a 4-12 season. But his work in not only raising the collosal sum of money but also helping revitalize a city that suffered 82 casualties and $125 billion in damages pretty much wrapped up this award before last season even started.
“This award is called the Man of the Year award, but I promise you it is so much bigger than just one man,” Watt said. “This award is about the inherent good that lies within humanity. It’s about the city of Houston and its ability to overcome adversity at a time when it all seemed lost.
"It’s about the hundreds of thousands of people from all over the country, all over the world, who donated to a city they may never have been to ... to people they may never meet. But they donated simply because they saw their fellow human going through a difficult time, and they wanted to help out.”
The other finalists for the award, given out annually since 1970 (and renamed for the late Payton in 1999), were Carolina Panthers tight end Greg Olsen and Baltimore Ravens tight end Ben Watson. Both were deserving, and in any other year they could have been considered favorites.
Olsen’s work with the HEARTest Yard Fund, supporting families of children with congenital heart disease, is noble. Watson’s charity and civic work has been well-documented, and his One More Foundation was founded "to carry the hope and love of Christ to those in our community who need it most." It has both assisted existing charities and started new programs, last year aiding the fight against sex trafficking in the Dominican Republic.
But Watt took home the award for his almost spur-of-the-moment relief after Harvey touched shore off the coast of Texas last Aug. 17. The damage to the Gulf Coast region was incredible, and the Texans' Week 4 preseason game against the Cowboys was cancelled in the aftermath.
The Texans couldn't ride the wave of support and translate it to a successful season — baseball's Houston Astros picked up the slack there. But Watt's efforts were the kind of thing any Texans fan, and really any American, could feel immensely proud of. Especially in a season in the NFL when negativity seemed to be at an all-time high, Watt's work and his words of support were badly needed.
“Whether we realize it or not, we’re affecting everyone around us with our every move,” Watt said in his acceptance speech. “The more we can shine a light on the positivity and the good in this world, the better off we are going to be. We all have to go through this crazy journey together, so why not help each other out and make it as great of a journey as possible?”