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J.J. Watt, University of Wisconsin

J.J. Watt is now representing the Badgers in the NFL.
J.J. Watt is now representing the Badgers in the NFL.

If J.J. Watt had come up to you four years ago and told you he was going to be a star in the NFL, you might have laughed him.

The tall, skinner Watt was just a freshman tight end at Central Michigan where he had ended up only after the Wisconsin Badgers had failed to offer him a scholarship.

But Watt wanted to be a Badger. And he lived his life by the motto "Dream Big. Work Hard." It was then when Watt decided to take that motto and help him excel on the field while also giving back to the community.

So, after playing in all 14 games and catching eight passes for 77 yards as a freshman at Central Michigan, the Pewaukee, Wis. native packed his bags and went home, accepting an opportunity to walk-on with his favorite team.

Head coach Bret Bielema told him he could earn a scholarship if he earned it.

Watt told Bielema he would get one within a year.

Sure enough, Watt arrived on campus for spring football that year and started turning heads. With a work ethic Wisconsin has maybe never seen before, he switched to defensive end, bulked up and started to prove that he could start in the Big Ten. And had he not had to sit out a season due to NCAA transfer rules, Watt very well may have started in 2008.

He was so impressive Bielema gave him that scholarship the following spring, within a year, and before Watt ever stepped on the field at Wisconsin for a game.

When the 2009 season came around, he was ready. Stud defensive end O’Brien Schofield got all the attention on his opposite side, allowing Watt to explode on the scene with 15.5 tackles for loss, 4.5 sacks, five pass breakups and two fumble recoveries while starting all 13 games  his sophomore year.

Off went Schofield to the NFL, however, and in 2010, Watt became the focus of opposing defenses. Despite receiving double and sometimes triple-teams, the intimidating defensive end that looked nothing like did just three years prior, placed his stamp on the Big Ten with 21 tackles for loss, seven sacks, nine pass breakups, three forced fumbles, two fumble recoveries and an interception.

Behind Watt, Wisconsin ended up winning the Big Ten and earned its first Rose Bowl appearance in 10 years as he won the 2011 Lott IMPACT Trophy.

Sure, Watt had proved his doubters wrong. And those who had laughed at him in the past were now taking him dead serious because there was little doubt he was headed for the NFL. Quickly after the Rose Bowl, Watt announced he would forgo his senior season and enter the 2011 NFL Draft.

But the work was not done. Watt was only projected for the late first-round/early second-round and that wasn’t good enough for him.

He immediately got to work, further improving his strength and agility. He impressed at the combine and when the draft came around in April, the Houston Texans selected him seventh overall.

Now, in the middle of his first NFL season, Watt is getting serious consideration for the AFC Rookie of the Year award.

But what’s amazing about Watt’s story is everything he did off the field while impressing people on it. Watt incorporated his charity just before his junior season at Wisconsin began and used all the hype he received only to promote the Justin J. Watt Foundation, which provides "after-school opportunities for children in the community to become involved in athletics, so that they may learn the basic character traits of accountability, teamwork, leadership, work ethic and perseverance while in a safe and supervised environment with their peers."

Go to the foundations and web site and you’ll see four familiar words: "Dream Big. Work Hard."

And to give back to Watt for what he provided them, Bielema and Wisconsin Athletic Director Barry Alvarez both serve on the board of directors.

Watt appears to have a long NFL career ahead of him and considering what Watt has done in such a short period of time, one can only imagine what he’ll be able to do in the years to come.

Especially off the field.

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