First stop for those fans on the Wisconsin Alumni Association tour: tailgating with Badger legend and Houston Texans superstar JJ Watt at a pre-game that’s more than just a party. That’s because proceeds will benefit the Justin J. Watt Foundation, which to date has donated more than $600,000 to after-school athletic programs for children without such opportunities.
Then, when Wisconsin takes the field, two more Watts will be on the roster – junior fullback Derek Watt x’16 and freshman tight end TJ Watt x’18.
WAA caught up with Connie before kickoff to talk about UW-Madison’s worldwide alumni family, game-day traditions and following your dreams.
What’s it like to be not only a Badger parent — but the parent of three Wisconsin football players?
You get to know the staff and so many of the parents who are there year after year. It feels just like a family. It’s awesome to be part of such a great organization. Before JJ was drafted, we were with him at the combines in Arizona and looking for a place to watch the Wisconsin basketball team. He found a restaurant with a Badger flag out front, so we went in and came upon a big alumni group there. It’s really cool to know that anywhere we go, we can look up the local alumni. I was surprised how many chapters, and how many alumni there are around the world.
It’s fun because you don’t know these people from Adam, but because you’re all from Wisconsin, it’s like a big family reunion.
When did JJ start playing football?
He was always playing sports. John [Watt, JJ’s father] being a firefighter, he’d work 24 hours on, 11 days a month, so all the days he was home, they’d be outside playing catch, throwing the football, pitching a baseball. JJ played hockey from the time was four until age 13. And he loved football, of course. When he started in fifth grade here in Pewaukee, he found he had a passion for it. He would often go directly from football to hockey, or vice versa.
Did he always want to be a Badger?
Always. We have pictures of him as a toddler in Badger gear. When he decided to transfer to UW-Madison [Watt was recruited by Central Michigan as a tight end], we were 100 percent supportive. It was a big relief when he was, of course. It was wonderful to have him only 50 minutes from home, but also because his passion and his dream finally came true.
How did it feel the first time you saw JJ play at Camp Randall?
The tears were flowing (laughs). I know how hard he worked for it, and how hard he trained for it. People doubted him and said transferring was not a good idea; that he was not good enough. So after everything he put into it —blood, sweat and tears — it was very surreal to see him run out of that tunnel in uniform.
We don’t take this opportunity for granted, and all three of our boys feel the same way. We know there’s a lot of other talented kids out there, and it’s an honor to be able to run onto that field.
Now both of your younger sons, Derek and TJ, are playing for Wisconsin.
As a mom, it’s crazy sometimes to look down and see two Watts on the field at the same time. And it’s been different. Derek had to prove he’s not just there because of the name on his jersey. He works just as hard — harder at times — because he needs to prove he’s capable, that he can make it happen. And then to have TJ earn his spot as well; that was really incredible.
[When the boys played] in high school it was awesome to see TJ and Derek on the same team, sometimes on the field at the same time. That’s one thing JJ never had, the chance to play on the same time and the same field with his brothers — but it hasn’t had an effect on the bond among all three. They talk often, and support each other, and have a connection most brothers can’t imagine. It’s truly a gift.
In addition, we’re incredibly blessed they’re going to receive an amazing education at Wisconsin, and all three get to be part of that alumni family. It’s like winning the lottery three times.
What’s your favorite Badger game day tradition?
Seeing them run out of the tunnel and hearing “On, Wisconsin.” And every play they make you’re proud of them, no matter what they’re doing. The whole experience, and then going out with them to talk about the game over dinner.
JJ is very involved in philanthropy through his foundation. It must make you proud as a parent to see your children giving back to the community.
I’m always impressed by how JJ handles himself and how he speaks, whether to kids or business leaders. He’s an amazing motivational speaker. I always say, for how wonderful they are on the field, they’re even better off the field. All three of my boys are very giving. But I always tell them, as much as you might follow in the footsteps of our family in some ways, you’re writing your own books, creating your own legacy. TJ and Derek take time to visit the hospitals and schools in Madison. I was really impressed when Derek was able to read to the kids in Spanish!
Why are you proud to be a Badger?
I’m proud of what each of my boys has accomplished in football, as well as in academics. They’re going to leave the UW with an amazing education. Being able to say we’re Badgers has a pride all of its own. It’s so much bigger than just the three Watts; it’s a legacy we’re so honored to be part of.
—Edited by Wendy Krause Hathaway ‘04