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Long Since Decided, J.J. Watt Retiring From 'Unbelievable Ride' Of NFL Career

Cardinals defensive end 'lived out a dream' of 12-year career

Cardinals defensive end J.J. Watt waves to his family after the Christmas night game against the Buccaneers, which turned out to be the final home game of his career.
Cardinals defensive end J.J. Watt waves to his family after the Christmas night game against the Buccaneers, which turned out to be the final home game of his career.

J.J. Watt knew.

He's known for a long time, long enough to have told family, and friends, and even some people inside the building with the Cardinals. Some teammates knew too, that this season was going to be Watt's last as a player and he would be retiring.

What he didn't know was when he'd reveal the news – he acknowledged he was happy it never leaked, given his anger at his heart condition leaking out earlier this season – and the Cardinals defensive end admitted he didn't know it would come in the form of a tweet Tuesday morning "until I sent it."

The pictures of his family, of his newborn son Koa – taking not by a photographer but instead captured on his Mom's phone – led to him announcing it organically. That was the perfect way.

Twelve years was enough, Watt said during his first post-decision press conference on Wednesday.

"The mental stress and passion that comes with (playing football), it weighs on you. It's heavy," Watt said, noting some of the other factors – his son, his heart scare – that impacting the choice.

But while he is "old" for football at age 33, Watt knows he's young. There is a long life to lead. To be done, he just wanted to be playing well.

"There have been years I haven't been able to display that, I haven't been able to be that player," Watt said. "And that hurt."

"Did I win a championship? No," he added. "But I literally lived out a dream that millions of people would kill for, that anybody would love."

Watt has been excellent for the Cardinals, leading the team with 9½ sacks and dominating play at times. His body feels healthy and sturdy, nowhere near the injuries that wrecked part of his career – including 2021, when a shoulder injury sidelined him for more than half the season.

Watt worked relentlessly to come back for the playoff game after that shoulder problem. He's worked relentlessly at football always. That part of him hasn't changed, even with a wife and son.

"That's part of the reason it's time to walk away, because I don't want all my energy to go to that anymore," Watt said. "I'm ready to not commit all my energy to that."

There are still two games left. Fellow defensive lineman Leki Fotu declined to talk about Watt's decision until the season ends, because he wanted to stay focused on the games left – "I'm just happy for him" – and the best story about a teammate's reaction to Watt's decision actually was revealed by Watt himself.

After the news broke he said he got a FaceTime attempt from a number he didn't have. The voicemail was incoherent, and it turned out to be rookie linebacker Jesse Luketa – who had just had his wisdom teeth removed after being put under. After a text, the two FaceTimed and Luketa, mouth full of cotton, was still out of whack from anesthesia.

Luketa was asking for Watt to give him a jersey at season's end, but Watt couldn't understand him.

"He was high off his ass," Watt said with a smile. "He has no clue what he's doing."

Watt said it was the most memorable part of his day.

There will certainly be more memories as the schedule winds down. Coach Kliff Kingsbury was just happy Watt was able to play a healthy final season.

"It's a special time for him, the organization, and the NFL to celebrate him these last two weeks," Kingsbury said.

Watt doesn't have any set plans. Have the networks called him yet? Watt wasn't sure, still sorting through all the texts and messages on his phone. He may stay in Arizona or not, depending on where life might take he, wife Kealia and Koa. Kealia could jump back into her pro soccer career, and Watt said "I hope she does."

Kingsbury was asked if Watt might coach, but Kingsbury said no.

"I would say Hollywood before coaching," Kingsbury said. "Him and The Rock would be a good team."

What there won't be is more football. The three-time Defensive Player of the Year and five-time first-team All-Pro has done what he's going to do on the field – adding in these last two games, of course – and now would like to take on different challenges.

It's been a great career. And looking (way) back, that was something Watt didn't know.

"It's been an unbelievable ride," Watt said. "If you would've told me back then when I started I'd be able to play 12 years in the National Football League and meet the people I've met and accomplish some of the things I've accomplished and lived the life I live, I'd have been extremely thankful.

"And probably would've told you you were a crazy mother(expletive)."