TEMPE, Ariz. — The days of Arizona Cardinals defensive end J.J. Watt getting home from a full day of practice, meetings and weightlifting or walking in the door after punishing his body in a three-hour game and then laying on the couch and kicking his legs up are over.
The first thing he does after getting home is take his son, 5-week-old Koa James Watt, from his wife, Kealia Watt — a forward for the Chicago Red Stars of the National Women’s Soccer League — so she can get a much-needed break and he can get as much time with his firstborn as possible before bedtime. His afternoons are full of making bottles and playing on the floor.
His life as a football player is checked at the door. At home now, the 33-year-old is in dad mode.
“I feel like it’s unfair for her to be home all day, having to do all the work, change all the diapers, doing everything by herself while I’m here [at the Cardinals’ practice facility], albeit at work and working hard, but, I mean, I’m playing football, I’m lifting weights, like I’m with my friends. It’s pretty awesome,” Watt told ESPN. “So, when I go home, A, I really, really wanna spend time with him. I mean, I miss him all day long, and, B, I want her to have time to herself.”
For the past five weeks, life has been one adjustment after the next for J.J. and Kealia. The Watts’ lives aren’t their own anymore, and their focus can’t solely be on the next practice or game. It’s on Koa — who’s called Koa for now but if his name evolves into K.J., in the same way his dad is J.J. and his uncle is T.J. Watt, a linebacker for the Pittsburgh Steelers, then his parents will roll with it, Kealia said.
And that has been a major change, 30-year-old Kealia said. But it’s just been a preview of what’s to come.
Kealia plans on returning to the Red Stars, and when she starts working out again in the next week or so, the Watt household will become one big logistical circus.
“It’ll definitely be difficult,” she said. “But it’s so cool.”
What J.J. and Kealia are about to encounter is similar to what many families with two working parents face when juggling careers and family obligations, with a professional athlete twist. For the next month or so, Kealia will continue to stay home with Koa when J.J. is at work and then when J.J. gets home, she’ll be able to get her workouts in. Throw in one of J.J.’s upcoming three road trips or having family in town, and Kealia might find time to train a little more challenging. But if there’s anyone prepared to handle the rigors of shuffling calendars to fit in workouts, recovery and games, it’s two pro athletes.
“We’re definitely going to find a way because I certainly don’t want to deprive her of that, because I get to do it,” J.J. said.
IT HAS BEEN more than a year since Kealia played a soccer match. She tore her ACL in a NWSL semifinal against the Portland Thorns on Nov. 14, 2021. Four months later, she was running again. Then in June, she announced she was pregnant, ending any chance of a return to the field in 2022.
“It’s hard,” she said. “I’m sure it’s hard for any professional athlete when you’re pregnant and you obviously can’t play. And you stop playing so early that it’s an entire year that the whole season goes on and everybody’s playing and you can’t play.
“And then you have your baby and I’m obviously not able to work out yet or train or get back, and it’s really hard. It’s longer than an ACL [recovery], so that’s been difficult for me.”
For now, the extent of Kealia’s exercising is going on walks with Koa and, sometimes, J.J. Doctors told her she can’t start up again until six weeks after the birth. With that date approaching, Kealia is ready to begin preparing for the 2023 season.
Kealia has seen other women balance having a child and returning to the NWSL, so she knows it can be done.
“It’s obviously not forever,” she said. “You only have a certain amount of time you can play and then you have to retire. So I think it will just be the logistics and figuring it out.”
And J.J. is ready to be a soccer husband again, this time while carrying a diaper bag and pushing a stroller. He laughed at the thought.
“I’ll do whatever’s necessary,” he said. “She’s supported me in many ways, so I’m here to support her in any way I can.”
He has been that way before, dating back to early in their marriage when they both played in Houston — he for the Texans and she with the Dash. She thought a change of scenery could help her career but was concerned about leaving J.J. for part of the year. He said if it could help her in the long run, she had to go. He would never forgive himself if he held her back.
His message to her now hasn’t changed.
“This situation has been the exact same thing,” Kealia told ESPN. “It’s obviously much harder for us if I play and continue my career, but he is the No. 1 person that is like, ‘You have to decide for yourself and don’t think for one second about making it harder for me. I want you to do exactly what you want to do in your career.’
“It’s just incredible to have his support. If I have that, then, I mean, we can figure it out. So, I’m very lucky to have him.”
TWO DAYS AFTER Koa was born in the early hours of Oct. 23, J.J. was back at work preparing for the Minnesota Vikings. Fellow defensive lineman Zach Allen hasn’t noticed signs of exhaustion from Watt being a brand-new father.
“He still comes in ready to work all the time,” Allen said. “He definitely does have a little bit more of a smile on his face.”
But Kealia has seen him struggle with everything his new life has thrown at him. He hasn’t let the change affect his play on the field. In the five games since Koa was born, J.J. has four sacks.
J.J. has tried to keep his sleep pattern on schedule as much as possible. He takes an Epsom salt bath and goes through a stretching routine starting around 8:30 p.m. every night and then goes to sleep.
He and Kealia know this won’t be the routine forever. They’re just trying to get through the next five weeks and then the Cardinals’ season will be over, leaving J.J. with more time to be a dad.
“When we found out I was pregnant and the timeline and everything, and we knew we were going to have the baby in, literally, in the middle of his season, we knew it was going be tough and we knew that would be difficult, but he is so just amazing,” Kealia said. “I knew since we started dating, he was going to be like that and just be such a good dad.”
Growing up with two brothers — T.J. and fullback Derek Watt, also with the Steelers — and a father, John, who was engaged as a parent when he wasn’t working 24- or 48-hour shifts as a firefighter, has shaped who J.J. will be as a father.
Connie, J.J.’s mom, thinks he will be hands on but also strict, traits he has taken from both his parents.
He watched his parents operate with a “great kind of yin and yang,” J.J. said. John was “very hard” on J.J. and his brothers in sports, teaching them about discipline — he subscribed to the approach that being on time meant being 15 minutes early. Connie was hard on the boys in school, making sure their homework was done and having them read during the summer out of a fear that they’d fall behind.
“We had no wiggle room,” J.J. said. “Like, you had to be working hard in sports and you had to be working hard in school. … They were always trying to make us better.”
T.J. isn’t so sure J.J. would be the right parent to help with Koa’s academics.
“I don’t know how much he’ll be able to help out his kids with their homework seeing that he didn’t graduate college,” T.J. joked to ESPN. “I didn’t either, so you can put that in there. But I like to take my jab when I can.”
Derek, who has two sons, tried to prepare his brother “a good amount” for being a father. He believes J.J. was ready for it and has a “very good” understanding of what being a dad was going to be like.
Family will always be the centerpiece of raising Koa, J.J. said.
“I want to make sure that that family aspect is huge,” J.J. said. “I want to make sure that you understand the meaning of that thing. We always talk in sports about the name on front and you have the name on the back. I want my son to be proud of who he is and where he’s come from and to make his mom’s family proud and my family proud, as well.”
Parenthood is basically what J.J. and Kealia have expected. When J.J. is home with Koa, he constantly talks to him. They haven’t yet watched film together, but when J.J. gets home from games he tells his son about what happened on the field and then tells him about Derek and T.J.’s games.
They watch soccer together, talking through the game his mom plays.
J.J. and Kealia are slowing getting the hang of being a mom and dad to Koa.
“Everything anybody’s said about being a dad is 100% true,” J.J. said. “It’s the greatest thing in the whole world.”