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Watt returns looking to bounce back after 2 major injuries

September 5, 2018
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Houston Texans defensive end J.J. Watt (99) during the NFL preseason football game between the Houston Texans and Los Angeles Rams on Saturday, Aug. 25, 2018 in Los Angeles, Calif. (Ben Liebenberg via AP)

HOUSTON (AP) — J.J. Watt smiles and chuckles quietly when asked if he’s heard from Houston Texans fans who can’t wait to see if he’ll be the player he once was.

Watt returns Sunday after injuries limited him to eight games over the last two seasons.

“I’m very excited,” he said Wednesday. “I’m sure there are a lot of people who are cautiously optimistic. Obviously the last two years we’ve said the same thing. So, I’m just looking forward to going out there and playing football, letting it loose, having fun and letting the chips fall where they may.”

The three-time Defensive Player of the Year will get an immediate test when the Texans open their season with a trip to face Tom Brady and the New England Patriots. Watt is healthy and appears ready to make a comeback after playing three games in 2016 before having season-ending back surgery, and missing the last 11 games of 2017 after breaking his left leg.

“They’ve been doing things for a long time at a very high level, so it’s always exciting to get out there on the field and be able to play against a team of that caliber,” Watt said. “Very much looking forward to the challenge and looking forward to get back on the field myself.”

While the anticipation of seeing how Watt will perform in his first regular-season game since Oct. 8 is great, Watt insists that after everything he’s been through he’s simply savoring every moment instead of worrying what might happen.

“It’s been a long road, it’s been a grind, it’s been a lot of ups and downs over the last couple of years, obviously ... but the thing I’m most looking forward to is today’s practice,” he said. “Little things — I love practice, I love the meetings, I love focusing on an opponent, going out there with my guys and trying to figure out the best plan, and just the game of football. I just love being a part of it.”

The return of Watt and outside linebacker Whitney Mercilus, who sustained a season-ending injury in the same game as Watt, to play with 2014 top overall pick Jadeveon Clowney should make Houston’s defensive front one of the team’s strengths. New England coach Bill Belichick was asked about the difficulty of dealing with Watt.

“He’s very hard to block,” Belichick said. “He’s a great player, one of the great players in the league. He has a lot of company up there, too. They have a very good defensive front.”

Watt has twice led the NFL in sacks with the last time coming in 2015 when he had 17 1/2. But the 76 sacks he’s piled up in the first seven years of his career only tell half the story of his prowess as a pass rusher. He also developed such a knack for using his huge hands to swat down passes at the line that he earned the nickname “J.J. Swatt.”

The four-time Pro Bowler was Defensive Player of the Year in 2012, 2014 and 2015 and never missed a game until 2016, when he started struggling with a back injury that ended his season. He knows that his back problems combined with last season’s injury to his leg had some people doubting he can ever be dominant again.

Watt, who Texans fans booed on 2011 draft night, used to worry about proving people who doubted him wrong. But he’s stopped worrying about stuff like that now that he’s approaching 30 years old.

“I’ve realized there’s people that doubt the best players in the history of the game,” he said. “I’m sure there’s people that doubt Tom (Brady), which — he’s the best quarterback of all-time. I’ve learned that peoples’ opinion doesn’t really matter.

“The peoples’ opinion that I care about are my family, my friends, my teammates, my coaches, my girlfriend,” he continued. “Whatever everyone else thinks doesn’t affect my day-to-day life, but I’m going to go out there and try and make those people I mentioned proud.”

Watt has done plenty to make people proud in the last year with a fundraiser he started to help victims of Hurricane Harvey raising more than $41 million. He announced last week that the funds have been used to rebuild 600 homes and 420 childcare centers, as well as provide 26 million meals, give 6,500 people health services and more than 10,000 people medication.

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