End of an Era
After 12 years, two teams and 114½ sacks, defensive end J.J. Watt decided to retire from playing NFL football.
I feel fortunate to have captured his final year in the NFL and with the Arizona Cardinals through photography, and I want to share what it was like following a future Hall of Famer with my lens.
Firsts and Lasts
The first photo I took of J.J. happened to be on my first official day as Team Photographer for the Cardinals. It was the first day of OTA offseason program, and I jumped right in.
I only knew a couple guys on the Cardinals roster before my first day. As I got my footing and learned how to work in the Arizona heat, J.J. was always a constant subject.
This year was a lot of firsts for me, like my first time running an entire photography plan for media day. I didn't know a lot of the players personally, and I was a bit nervous.
J.J. was a total pro in front of the camera, and he knew how to bring the intensity as required.
My first Cardinals training camp ended up being J.J.'s last, but you wouldn't have guessed it based on his excitement every day.
Even if he wasn't practicing, J.J. was always doing something to catch my camera's attention.
After every open practice, the cheers of "J.J.! J.J.!" would be nonstop until he left the field. I was impressed with how many autographs J.J. would sign, and he always did his best to interact with everyone he could.
While a lot of the starting lineup didn't participate in preseason games, I still tried to capture whatever those players might be doing.
J.J. always seemed to just be waiting for his first opportunity to get out there. None of us knew that each first would also be the last.
Week 2 was J.J.'s first game this season, and it didn't take long before he was sacking and celebrating.
That game was also the start of a pregame tradition: J.J. stopping to pose for my camera during warmups.
It took a couple games for me to realize it would be an every-game occurrence, but I tried to be there every time.
Throughout the season, I photographed J.J. tackling quite a bit. I honestly focused on him almost every snap because I knew there was a good chance of something awesome happening whenever I did.
Where there's a J.J. Watt play, there's a celebration.
I never stopped clicking the shutter button when the whistle blew. Honestly, after the play is over is when the real fun starts!
Behind every NFL great is the hard work and dedication to becoming better every single day. It's pretty obvious how hard J.J. works.
To locker rooms:
To right before kickoff:
J.J. Watt was proving to everyone that he was still among the best.
Don't let that intensity fool you though, he knew how to have fun with the camera!
Whether it was cheesing for the 'gram ...
Showing off his breakfast ...
Or poking fun at his teammates.
The Final Countdown
The last week of J.J. Watt's NFL career began just like every other week: practice. I went to capture photos on Thursday, his second-to-last practice ever, and he was still all smiles.
I couldn't predict what he was feeling, but I did catch a glimpse of a quiet moment of him taking it all in.
Friday was the big one: The final practice.
The team has a walkthrough on Saturdays, but this was the last time the team would be running drills together at the facility, and the last time J.J. would be a part of it. I made it my mission to get as many photos of J.J. as I could.
I started off by heading over to the defensive line area where they were doing the "J.J. Watt drill."
I tried getting photos I hadn't ever shot before, like a closeup of the "99" on his helmet and isolating him on the field.
I stuck around until the very end of practice because I knew the team would huddle up. What I didn't know was that J.J. would give a speech in the middle to his teammates and teach them the wisdom he'd learned from so many years in the league.
It was really cool being able to hear that in person and see the admiration and respect the entire team has for players like J.J.
Coming to a Close
The spotlight was on J.J. from the moment he walked into Levi's Stadium for his final game on Sunday.
As a photographer, I knew there would be a million people trying to get "the shot" of his farewell to the NFL. I was in the scrums of photographers following him on the field postgame, but with my team access I was able to continue on into the locker room and get photos no one else could.
I loved being able to capture the postgame moments for the Watt family, and my two favorite photos are these of J.J., Koa and J.J.'s father, John. Three generations of Watt's taking in the end of one chapter and the start of another.
Players moved out of their locker room the day after the 49ers game. I waited to capture general content of the morning, but knew I wanted to catch one last glimpse of J.J. as an Arizona Cardinal.
Once all of his equipment was out of his locker, one message remained:
"You never get today back. Make it count."
J.J. Watt walked out of the Cardinals facility a legendary football player, a loyal teammate, a great man and a new father ready to make every day count for his family.
I'll take that advice as I refocus on the new year ahead and look back on my first season and J.J.'s last.
Thank you, J.J. Watt.