Houston Texans defensive end J.J. Watt stands 6-foot-5 and weighs 295 pounds. At the 2011 NFL Scouting Combine, he ran the 40-yard dash in 4.81 seconds. It's that remarkable blend of size and speed that helped him win the NFL Defensive Player of the Year award last season.
Now imagine him on skates holding a hockey stick.
Watt, who begins another NFL season Monday, grew up playing hockey, attending University of Wisconsin games, and competing on local travel teams that ventured as far as Canada and Germany. More than a decade after making the switch from the ice to the gridiron, the NFL star holds a spot in his heart for hockey.
"Growing up in Wisconsin, a big hockey state, I started skating when I was 3 years old. I played all over," Watt told NHL.com. "The hockey community [in Wisconsin] is great. It's very tight-knit. It's a lot of fun. You have to be tough to play hockey. You have to work hard, and I think that's why I was drawn to it."
Watt left the sport when he was 13, slowly starting to grow into the body that would one day torment NFL quarterbacks. The scheduling constraints of weekly hockey games and practices, along with the financial burden of constantly replacing his equipment, convinced Watt to pursue football instead. It was a decision that paid off by the time the Waukesha native was starring on the football field with Wisconsin.
"I grew up watching the Badgers play hockey. In my bedroom, I still have a couple of signed posters from when I was a kid. I loved it," Watt said. "The Badger hockey program is unbelievable. That was one of my favorite things, going to games there at the Kohl Center. One of my favorite college memories is actually when they played the outdoor game at Camp Randall Stadium, Wisconsin against Michigan [in 2010]. It was nice to go as a fan and watch."
Watt spends much of his summers focusing on offseason conditioning. It's a top-secret workout regimen he jokes may or may not include skating. In fact, Watt is so passionate about hockey he has a room in his Houston home dedicated solely to playing shinny ball hockey games with family, friends and teammates.
"I love hockey. Any time it's on TV, I'm always watching. My goal is to one day go to the Winter Olympics to check out some Olympic hockey," said Watt, who also attended Milwaukee Admirals (American Hockey League) games growing up.
At Wisconsin, Watt couldn't help but be drawn to the hockey program he grew up idolizing. It was through that admiration he became close friends with Blake Geoffrion, the Badgers forward who as a senior in 2010 won the Hobey Baker Award as the top Division I college hockey player.
Geoffrion was a second-round pick (No. 46) by the Nashville Predators in the 2006 NHL Draft who was acquired by the Montreal Canadiens in a 2012 trade. Just as he was carving out an NHL career, his path changed abruptly during an AHL game last November. Playing for the Hamilton Bulldogs at the Bell Centre, Geoffrion sustained a compressed skull fracture following a hard hit from Jean-Philippe Cote of the Syracuse Crunch. The injury forced Geoffrion to announce his retirement in July; he is now a pro scout for the Columbus Blue Jackets.
"I texted him very shortly after [the hit]. Being an athlete and knowing him, you know how much hard work has gone in for so many years to get to the level we're at. To have it all taken away in such short notice is tough," Watt said. "I saw what happened and immediately reached out to him and just tried to think of something to do for him."
Two days afterward, Geoffrion announced on Twitter he was feeling better and that his old friend had a special on-field celebration planned for that Sunday against the Chicago Bears.
"I just told him, 'If you get a chance, watch the game. I have a little hockey celebration planned if I get a sack for you,'" Watt said. "Unfortunately I didn't get a sack, but he texted me back and said he appreciated it and that he was going to be all right. I was really disappointed I didn't get to do that for him.
"I was going to fire one top shelf and then drop to a knee, the hockey celebration. That would have been good."