On the wall that extends from the first floor to the second in the Wisconsin home she shared with her mother, Chris Walczak hangs pictures of every person in her entire family and their significant others.
Amid all the framed family members is a single piece of paper tacked to the wall, and on it, a point of pride to Walczak and her ultra-competitive grandsons: the winner of the rummy game most recently played at her kitchen table. Just a few feet away in a chest drawer are a stack of fresh notepads and pens along with a stash of scorecards from the decades of kitchen-table competitions.
Long before the Watt brothers — J.J., 31; Derek, 27; and T.J., 25 — prepared to compete on the same field when the Houston Texans visit the Pittsburgh Steelers on Sunday (1 p.m. ET, CBS) — just the second set of three brothers since 1927 to play in the same NFL game — they gathered around Walczak’s table with their grandmother and great-grandmother Sophie Musial. Walczak would mix up their special drinks — cranberry juice and Sprite — and pour it into a set of special sippy cups with lids and swirly straws they still use today.
“She is extremely competitive, and up until she passed at 101, she was not going to let anybody try to win,” said Connie Watt, the matriarch of the Watt family, of Musial. “She was going to try to be the competitive one. So that was always a lot of fun and that trickled down now.”
If John and Connie Watt ever wondered where their three sons got their competitive nature, they don’t have to look much further than their grandmother’s kitchen table.
“Sometimes you never finish a game,” said J.J., the Texans’ star defensive end. “Sometimes you go longer but it’s all about just sitting around the table talking, spending time with family and being extremely competitive. Great-grandma, even when she was 100 years old, takes no prisoners. When that’s the attitude of your 100-, 101-year-old grandma, it kind of trickles down throughout the whole family.”
The basement arena
The basement walls of the Watt family home during the brothers’ childhood were always dotted with scuff marks and dings, tangible memories of shinny hockey games, indoor mini-baseball and wrestling matches.
Growing up, the brothers transformed their basement into an all-sport arena with wrestling mats and a full hockey net. When they weren’t playing with neighborhood kids outside across the three backyards of adjoining lots in the cul-de-sac, they were in the basement, careening into lamps, TVs and often each other.
“Specifically,” said Derek, a fullback for the Steelers, “I don’t necessarily know of something that we broke.”
T.J. jumped in: “I broke your face one time.”
That was life in the Watt household with three boys separated by nearly six years. There were always games, and inevitably they would get taken a little too far.
Connie always timed snack breaks conveniently to deescalate a competition.
“We had to step in a few times when they were younger, like I say, down in the basement, shinny hockey games, or out in the backyard, whatever they were doing, just to let things cool down for maybe 30 seconds or so,” John said. “But then they would be right back out again after that. So usually, when things got too bad, it would just be up to Connie to say, ‘OK, I got a snack or have some kind of food waiting for you guys up here. Let’s take a break.’ And that would definitely get them up and get them apart for a while.”
Even if he got heated back then, T.J., the youngest, is quick to credit those backyard and basement games for helping him turn into an elite athlete and competitor.
“It was super important in my development, to play with J.J. and Derek to get beat up a lot when I was younger,” said T.J., a Steelers outside linebacker. “But [also], to be resilient and continue to grow and learn from my experiences playing with those guys.”
And as adults, the Watts haven’t lost their uber-competitive streak with each other. Instead of shinny hockey, they turn other things into competitions: who can jump the farthest, eat the most food or finish a bowl of their least-favorite vegetable.
Gabriella, Derek’s wife, remembers watching her now-husband down an entire bowl of chopped bell peppers — one of his aversions at the time — because J.J. dared him.
“It was not like him at all, but he didn’t want to turn down his brother’s competition, so he went ahead and did it,” Gabriella said.
“J.J. did not think that Derek was actually going to do it because he knows what a picky eater he is, but then he sees, ‘Oh my gosh, the bowl is slowly having less and less peppers.’ He’s trying to get in his head, ‘Oh, isn’t that gross, isn’t that gross? It’s going to hurt your stomach.'”
Of course, Derek finished the entire bowl.
The trio also turns board games and card games, like rummy, into high-stakes affairs — with each other and with their significant others. Their wives and girlfriend don’t back down from a challenge, either. Kealia and Rhodes are professional soccer players, both playing for the Chicago Red Stars, and Gabriella played sports before pursuing a career as a sideline reporter.
“They’re supposed to be a fun way to end a night and kind of relax, and I think especially in quarantine, it’s sometimes gotten the best of us where we’re like, ‘OK, we’re not playing cards or a board game tonight,'” Rhodes said. “That’s not a fun thing anymore.”
It’s not just that the brothers want to win, it’s that they don’t want to finish last.
And whenever one of them does, there’s always a reason.
“We set up golf games in our apartment,” Rhodes said. “If he loses, it’s because he golfs lefty and he was using my righty clubs or something like that. There’s always competition and there’s always excuses on whoever’s end is losing.”
Since Derek and Gabriella had their first son, Logan, a year and a half ago, the brothers have become even closer.
“And even more competitive,” Connie said with a laugh.
Leave it to the Watts to turn being an uncle into a competition.
When Logan was first born and Derek was still playing for the Chargers, T.J. sent him a No. 90 Watt Steelers jersey.
“J.J. found out about that and he’s like, ‘OK, I just ordered one today, it’s in the mail,'” Gabriella said. “They don’t want to find out that Logan is getting more gifts or just spending more time with the other uncle.”
Since Derek signed with the Steelers in free agency, T.J. has the edge in spending time with Logan. It’s not uncommon for him to pop over to Derek’s house, walking distance from his own in Pittsburgh, to see Logan before he goes to bed. It’s a chance for him to bond with his nephew — and get an edge in the competition to see who can make Logan laugh the most.
With Derek and T.J. playing for the same team, Logan is inundated with Steelers gear, but J.J. still tries to sway Logan with some Texans toys.
“He’s wearing Steelers stuff all the time,” J.J. said. “He lives like four houses away from T.J. The whole thing is just set up for me to fail in terms of being a great uncle. I can send him all the Texans stuff I want but it ends up in the dog’s chew-toy bin.”
T.J. might have the edge in the uncle race, but he still has some work to do to be the No. 1 Watt babysitter. So far, he’s watched Logan one time, and Logan napped for most of it. T.J. brought him a rock — “he loves rocks” — and Logan didn’t cry when T.J. picked him up from the crib.
Naturally, T.J. wants to be the best at everything, but there’s one hurdle keeping him from fully excelling at babysitting duties.
“I don’t know what better job I could’ve done,” T.J. said. “I’m not changing diapers, though. That’s where I draw the line.”
Derek shook his head.
“That’s a crucial part of being a babysitter,” Derek said. “We’ll see, maybe J.J. will change a diaper down the line, and it’ll make things shift in the other direction.”
For years, whenever J.J., Derek and T.J. worked out together at NX Level in Waukesha, Wisconsin, owner Brad Arnett knew he had to adjust the schedule. The three brothers turned everything into a competition, whether it was a sprint workout, plyometrics or netball throws.
“Someone may win, but the other two are going to find fault as to what he did wrong that let him win,” Arnett said. “So you’ve got to do it again. And you’ve got to do it again. And you’ve got to do it again. So I just always have to add additional time to the workouts when they’re here, because at some point there’s going to be some type of competition. It’s never-ending, but that’s what makes them who they are.”
With J.J. in his 10th NFL season, he’s had to be smarter about the way he trains. While Derek and T.J. are able to go back and forth the way J.J. was able to in the past, J.J’s wife, Kealia, said that has had to change.
“[All three] would go until they were completely exhausted and get it right, and I think as J.J.’s gotten older, he’s realized that’s not the smartest thing to do,” Kealia said.
Because J.J. is in Houston and can’t compete in person with T.J. and Derek right now, the back-and-forth continues in group chats. Recently, the three brothers and a few other friends from high school were arguing about which Pewaukee High football team of the past would win if they took the players from their senior-year teams and put them on a field right now.
“I’ll give you insight on how stupid our group chat is,” J.J. began, before admitting that Derek’s team came out on top because he and T.J. were both on that squad.
The group chat is particularly busy on Sundays. Midway through the 2018 season, when J.J. and T.J. were going back and forth up the sacks leaderboard, the texts were more competitive than usual.
Every week, J.J. and T.J. kept tabs on each others’ stats, either by checking box scores after their own games or, if they were lucky, by watching the other’s game. Or in some instances, from musician Kendrick Lamar.
While it’s competitive between the brothers, J.J. says they’re also “each other’s biggest fans.”
“We each root for each other as much as we can, whenever we can,” J.J. said in 2018. “I want to see him get as many sacks as he can possibly get, just the same way he wants to see me. We compete, and there’s definitely a little bit of underlying competition there, but at the end of the day, if he gets 500 sacks, I’d be happy as hell.”
A special Sunday
That brotherly camaraderie is on pause this week as the two youngest Watts get ready to take on J.J.
Not only has it never happened for the Watt brothers, who have nearly six years between J.J. and T.J., but it’s very rare in an NFL game. Last season, the Edmunds brothers (Terrell and Trey for the Steelers and Tremaine for the Bills) faced each other. According to research by ESPN Stats & Information, that was the first known instance of three brothers appearing in the same NFL game since 1927, when Joe, Cobb and Bill Rooney did it for the Duluth Eskimos.
J.J. and Derek got to play on the same field in 2019 when the Texans played against Derek’s Chargers, and J.J. and T.J. were lined up for a Christmas Eve matchup in 2017 in Houston before J.J. broke his leg earlier in the year. Derek and T.J. played against each other the past two seasons when the Chargers and Steelers played, getting to face off by virtue of playing different sides of the ball.
That’s what makes Sunday special.
“It’s unbelievable,” J.J. said. “It truly is incredible. Just to have all of us playing at Wisconsin was really cool. Just to have all of us playing in the NFL was really cool. To play against another brother was cool. Now, to have all of us on the field at the same time in the same game, it really doesn’t get any better than that.”
Under normal circumstances, John and Connie would be at Heinz Field on Sunday afternoon in their half-Steelers, half-Texans jerseys. They would be sitting with Gabriella and Logan, and maybe Kealia and Rhodes if the Chicago Red Stars teammates could get to Pittsburgh for the game. But because of the ongoing pandemic, the proud parents plan to watch on the living room sofa at their home in Pewaukee.
“It’s going to be a special day no matter what happens,” John said. “Like Connie said, you hate to see one have to lose, but hopefully they all have a good game and come out of it injury-free and it’s something we can treasure for the rest of our lives. And them, too.”
Rhodes said even before Derek signed with the Steelers, he, J.J. and T.J. “always talked about it in kind of what-ifs and a dream, and how cool it would be to all be on the same field.”
“They’ve never really had that opportunity, so now, this past year when it came out on the upcoming fall schedule, I think they were just so excited to finally have it be reality and ever since have been looking forward to it,” Rhodes said.
With two sacks Sunday, J.J. would become just the fourth player to record 100 sacks in his first 115 games. But naturally, T.J. and Derek don’t want to see him hit that milestone at Heinz Field.
“I think J.J.’s got enough hardware, Defensive Player of the Years — he’s not very shy of telling people he has those awards, especially me,” T.J. said. “I think he doesn’t need this one.”