When Steelers coach Mike Tomlin called him earlier this year and told him the team was preparing to seriously pursue his older brother, Derek, 27, in free agency, T.J., 25, thought carefully about what he would tell him.
He wanted to give Derek a heads-up that the Steelers would be calling, but he didn’t want to reveal too much.
“I didn’t want to ruin the surprise or get his hopes up,” T.J. said in an interview with ESPN this week as part of his new partnership with Six Star Pro Nutrition. “I was trying to play both sides of the card.”
Derek’s agent took a similar approach and downplayed the Steelers’ interest in his client until the three-year, $9.75 million offer was on the table.
“They knew how excited I would be for that opportunity to play with T.J. and to play for such a great organization,” Derek said in March. “Then they revealed that, ‘Hey, buddy, all along they were one of the teams all along that wanted you bad. They really respect your game,’ and they think it’s a great fit for me there.”
Looking back after the deal was done, T.J. realized that the Steelers had been interested in his brother as a special-teams addition for a while.
Before discussions between the Steelers and Derek became official at the start of free agency, T.J. talked about Derek with Tomlin during his exit interview. But he didn’t think much of it at the time.
“I knew they were high on him as a football player, just from playing them the last two or three years,” T.J. said. “They would always say something whether it was [special-teams coordinator] Danny Smith or Coach T, just how well of football he’s playing — not only as a fullback but also as a special-teams player. We just talked about the opportunity of my brother being a free agent and that it could be an option. … I never took anything very seriously, thinking that people were speaking nice of my family, which I wouldn’t think was weird of anybody to do.”
Given the state of the COVID-19 pandemic in the United States, it might be a while before the two Watt brothers are able to get on the field in Pittsburgh. Because the Hall of Fame game was canceled, the Steelers are slated to start training camp on July 28, though the NFL and NFLPA are still negotiating virus protocols for camp and the season.
“If the report date is the 28th, and that’s still true, on the 27th, you can bet your butt that I’ll be there,” T.J. said. “As long as it’s safe for us to play football, I’m going to do it. I don’t really know all the specifics, and I think that’s what makes this whole thing unique. Nobody has all the answers. I think we’re going to find them out as we go.”
With the pandemic forcing teams to hold their offseason meetings virtually, T.J. spent the bulk of his offseason in Wisconsin, giving him the most time he has spent at home in recent memory.
“I think, mentally, I had such a break from the grind as far as being able to be around my family for such an extended period of time and my friends that I don’t normally get,” Watt said. “I think in the offseason, you’re home for a certain amount of time, and then you have to go back to Pittsburgh, and I don’t see my friends and my family quite as much as I’d like to.
“But when I’ve been home for six months straight, I’m not spread so thin, where I can do things the way that I want to and see the people I really want to. It’s been kind of refreshing from that aspect of it. I feel more than ready and the best that I have going into a season.”
T.J. wasn’t the only Watt hunkering down in Wisconsin. Derek and their oldest brother, Houston Texans star J.J. Watt, 31, were there for longer-than-usual stints. Prior to the COVID-19 outbreak, the group also made a trip to the Bahamas for J.J.’s wedding to professional soccer player Kealia Ohai in February.
In Wisconsin, when T.J. wasn’t working out at another local facility, the trio trained at J.J.’s home gym.
“I think that’s one of the silver linings you can take from all of this,” J.J. said on a Zoom call with reporters in May. “It’s obviously a very unfortunate time for us, but if there is a silver lining, it’s the amount of time that we get to spend with, in my case, my wife, my dogs, my brothers.”
That family time won’t end when T.J. returns to Pittsburgh in the next week or two. Derek, his wife and their young son are already in the city settling into their new house.
“They’ll be living in my neighborhood with me, which is not too close to my house, luckily, so I won’t have to be too annoyed with them,” T.J. said with a wry laugh. “I’ll be ding-dong-ditching them every other night to see if they can catch on that it’s me or not.”