When J.J. Watt, a defensive end for the Houston Texans, delivered the commencement address to the class of 2019 at his alma mater, the University of Wisconsin-Madison, he was introduced as “the man who has been called a beast on the field and a saint off.” But in one particularly striking moment during his talk, he told the stadium full of people about a day he broke down in tears.
He stood—his six-foot-five frame ensconced in graduation regalia and imposing over the podium—and talked about the time he was home recovering from his second injury in two years. He’d come back from back surgery only to break his leg soon afterward. In between, his girlfriend had torn her ACL and he’d been trying to help her recover.
“I remember specifically sitting at my kitchen one day, I broke down and I cried. I was devastated. I was in tears and I just let them flow,” he said. “And that’s the day that I learned that no matter how big you are, no matter how strong you are, no matter how tough you may be, everybody needs to ask for help. At some point in their lives we all could use a helping hand,” he added. “Don’t be afraid to ask for help and also don’t be afraid to lend a helping hand to others.”
It was the second and perhaps most poignant lesson in a list of four Watt presented about how to “dream big, work hard,” as his motto goes. “Nobody accomplishes their dreams alone,” he said. “I implore you to find somebody on this planet who has accomplished their dreams without the help of another human being. Nobody does. You need help.” And don’t forget how vital that help was and how grateful you are for it, because if and when you can, you should also help others along their paths.
Watt shared another story about how he didn’t get the football scholarship he wanted for UW-Madison and began his college career at another school. When he did transfer, he worked in stadium maintenance—cleaning seats, power washing floors, and painting railings—and walked onto the team, dreaming of running out onto the field in a jersey. He had help from one of the coaches, Charlie Partridge, who reviewed films with him late in the evenings after all his other work was done and taught him how to play defensive line.
It was another way in which he didn’t achieve his goals alone, but it also taught him that “the path to your dreams...never goes the way you imagined it will.” Yes, he eventually got to the NFL, which had been his ultimate goal. But it wasn’t a smooth ride. There were obstacles and challenges and people who didn’t believe he could do it. He had to change course and work even harder than he’d imagined. But he stayed committed. That was lesson number one.
Lessons three and four played on similar themes. Three: “As you go through your journey and you chase your dreams, be sure to find those silver linings on your darkest days. There are going to be nightmares. I wish I could say there aren’t but it’s just the truth. You’re gonna go through some very difficult times as you navigate these waters moving forward,” he said, recalling a time when he felt that “the sky is literally falling.”
When Hurricane Harvey hit, Watt and his teammates were stuck outside their city en route back from New Orleans, feeling helpless. He turned to social media to start raising money and to a fellow UW-Madison alum to help him make a plan for how best to support victims of the storm. When the difficult times inevitably come, he said, “remember to learn something from them. Remember that you can rise above them. And remember that there is an opportunity to grow.”
And that brought him to lesson four: There’s always more to learn. “Nobody in the world has all the answers,” he said, and it’s okay not to. That applies to college students who don’t know or change their minds about what they want to major in. It also applies to the new grads who are embarking on their careers and to those who are years in and figuring out or thinking far ahead to their next steps, as Watt is.
“When I sit here and I think about what I want to do after my football career someday, some days I think I have all the answers,” he said. “Other days I sit there with my cup of coffee, I stare blankly, and I think what the hell am I going to do with my life.”
He won’t be a football player forever, that’s a fact. And the next step after that feels unknown and scary, and that’s okay. The same goes for anyone who’s unsure what their dreams are or how to get there. The path forward isn’t always clear, after all, and you’ll probably need some help along the way.
Photo of J.J. Watt speaking to the class of 2019 at the University of Wisconsin-Madison courtesy of UW-Madison Campus Connection/YouTube.
A longtime word nerd and bookworm, Stav studied history and dance at Stanford and later journalism at Columbia. Before joining The Muse, Stav was a staff writer at Newsweek, where she wrote about everything from Nazi hunters to Chinese adoptees to Good Girls Revolt, the real story and fictionalized TV show about a 1970 gender discrimination case at the magazine. She prefers sunshine and tolerates winters grudgingly.More from this Author