Steelers linebacker and Wisconsin native T.J. Watt wins his first Defensive Player of the Year at the NFL Honors

JR Radcliffe
Milwaukee Journal Sentinel
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It remains to be seen if T.J. Watt will unseat his older brother as the king of Pewaukee, Wisconsin. But he's had a heck of a start.

The youngest member of the Watt family was awarded his first Associated Press NFL Defensive Player of the Year on Thursday, the capstone to a massive fifth NFL season with the Pittsburgh Steelers. Watt, an alumnus of Pewaukee High School and the University of Wisconsin, took second in the voting last year behind Rams star Aaron Donald and third the year before behind New England's Stephon Gilmore and Arizona's Chandler Jones.

This year, Watt matched the single-season NFL record for sacks with 22½. And now, he's one big step closer to matching the three DPOY trophies hauled in by oldest brother, J.J. As it turns out, J.J. was on hand at the NFL Honors ceremony in Los Angeles to present the award to his brother.

"I just want to thank my parents," Watt said onstage. "Mom, dad, this is insane. My brothers, Derek and J.J., you guys have just pushed me so much to be able to get me to this point. My beautiful fiancée, Dani, for being my No. 1 supporter ... I grew up coming to this awards show, I think I've been five or six times, and never came home with hardware. But every time I left more motivated than the time I got here. I promise this only motivates me more, so thank you."

More:Pittsburgh Steelers All-Pro linebacker T.J. Watt and former Wisconsin All-American soccer player Dani Rhodes are engaged

Watt won in a landslide; he secured 40 votes, with Dallas rookie Micah Parsons finishing with five votes and Aaron Donald of the Rams getting three. T.J. and J.J. are the first brothers to win either the DPOY, MVP or Offensive Player of the Year awards.

To say it was a busy season for the Watt brothers is an understatement. Not only did J.J. leave the Houston Texans after a decade with the franchise and sign as a free agent with the Arizona Cardinals, T.J. agreed to stay in Pittsburgh with a four-year deal worth $112 million.

It's the largest contract for a defensive player in league history.

Pittsburgh Steelers linebackewr T.J. Watt (90) celebrates a sack against the Cleveland Browns at Heinz Field.

T.J., 27, a three-time first-team all-pro, then went out and had a landmark season. His 21 tackles for loss led the league, and he finished with 64 tackles, seven passes defended, five forced fumbles and three recoveries.

Packers fans are familiar with that sack record

New York Giants defensive end Michael Strahan (92) sacks Green Bay Packers quarterback Brett Favre during the fourth quarter Sunday, Jan. 6, 2002, at Giants Stadium in East Rutherford, N.J. The sack gave Strahan 22.5 sacks for the season surpassing New York Jets Mark Gastineau's NFL record of 22 sacks. (AP Photo/Bill Kostroun)

But the big stat was his 22½ sacks, matching Michael Strahan's 2001 season for the official NFL record. 

Yes, Watt and the Steelers had the benefit of the extra game on the schedule this season — the NFL upgraded to a 17-game ledger for 2021. But it also bears mentioning that Watt played in only 15 of those games, while Strahan needed all 16 in 2001, as did a trio of pass rushers with 22 sacks in a season: Jared Allen in 2011, Mark Gastineau in 1984 and Justin Houston in 2014.

There are additional caveats to consider. Strahan famously reached the milestone when Packers quarterback Brett Favre folded a bit too easily in the final game of the 2001 season. Not only that, but sacks have only been an official NFL stat since 1982. 

The web site Football Reference has charted sacks back to 1960 and lists Detroit rookie Al Baker as the record-holder with 23 in 1978 (16 games). Rams legend Deacon Jones had 22 sacks in 1965 and 1968 in just 14 games.

J.J. posted a career-best 20½ sacks in 2012 and 2014. He won his DPOY awards in 2012, 2014 and 2015, matching Lawrence Taylor for the most in NFL history (a feat since matched by Donald). 

More:What made T.J. Watt one of the NFL's top defensive players? We talked to a few people who know him best to find out.

Other Wisconsin connections to the prize include Packers winners Reggie White (1998) and Charles Woodson (2009), and former Packers linebacker Bryce Paup while playing for the Buffalo Bills in 1995. 

T.J. has played the past two seasons in Pittsburgh with middle brother Derek, who largely played a role on special teams for the playoff-qualifying Steelers. It's the first time all three Watt brothers reached the playoffs in the same year; J.J. returned from injury to compete for the Cardinals in the wild-card round against the Rams. 

Packers fans are also acutely aware of Watt's career arc

For Packers fans, especially those who double as Badgers fans, T.J. continues to be the one who got away.

Green Bay had the option to select Watt with the 29th pick in the 2017 NFL draft, though general manager Ted Thompson infamously traded out of the spot, backing up to No. 33 and obtaining another draft pick (eventually used on another Wisconsin linebacker, Vince Biegel).

Instead, Watt went to the Steelers at No. 30 (and all-pro tackle Ryan Ramczyk of Wisconsin went at No. 32 to New Orleans). The Packers took cornerback Kevin King at 33, and as one last twist of fate, Arizona star safety Budda Baker went three picks later.

T.J. Watt was a star football player and track and field thrower at Pewaukee High School.

At Pewaukee, the three-year varsity player T.J. played quarterback as a senior, then reported to Wisconsin as a tight end, just as J.J. did in his freshman season at Central Michigan. Both were converted to the defensive side of the ball, where they became stars in college and the pros. After injuries plagued his early college years, T.J. broke out as a junior, earning second-team All American after posting 11½ sacks.

All three Watt brothers won state shot put titles at Pewaukee, although it was T.J. that broke the school's discuss record set by their father, John Watt.

JR Radcliffe can be reached at (262) 361-9141 or Follow him on Twitter at @JRRadcliffe.

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