HOUSTON (AP) — J.J. Watt is healthy after missing most of the season following back surgery, and the Houston Texans star is eager to show that he can be even better than he was before.
"Just to know that there's new levels to reach that I haven't even reached yet is exciting, and I think that's one of the biggest things for me is knowing that," he said Wednesday. "It's not like I'm just out here trying to come back and be a football player again. I'm still trying to continue to capitalize on what I was before and be even better than I was before ... if I'm not trying to be the best player ever then I'm doing everyone a disservice."
Watt, who has named the defensive player of the year for the past two seasons, missed training camp and Houston's four preseason games after surgery in July to repair a herniated disk. The defensive end started the team's first three regular-season games before re-injuring his back and undergoing season-ending surgery.
It was the first time in his career that he'd missed a regular-season game after starting all 16 in each of his first five NFL seasons. The two back surgeries came after offseason surgery to repair a groin injury.
Sitting out for the first time in his career was difficult for the ultra-competitive Watt.
"You go through three major surgeries in one year, you're going to have some very down days — and there were," he said. "There were some days where it's just very, very tough, but that's what you learn a lot about yourself. That's when you learn what's important to you — who's important to you. You learn, really, what you want to do — what is important to you."
And for Watt, that reminded him why he started playing the game in the first place.
"You know, fame is cool," he said. "You get to do all these different things, but at the end of the day what's really important, what makes you happy (is) competing, being around my teammates, playing the game of football. Training ... just being able to be like a kid out there. Just being able to go on that field and play a kid's game on the biggest stages is a blast for me."
He also learned that it was more important to get completely healthy than to rush back to try to prove something.
"I finally kind of realized like: 'OK, do what you need to do to make sure that you're getting back 100 percent healthy,'" he said. "'Don't try to impress anyone even if it's yourself. Don't try and impress yourself how fast you can get back. Don't try and impress yourself with how much weight you can lift so early. Just do everything the right way.'"
Watt is finished with rehabilitation after his back surgery and said he'll be ready to practice when the Texans begin offseason training later this year. He feels great but knows it's way too early to say if he'll be the same player who piled up 76 sacks in his career.
"At this point of the offseason it's very premature to say something like that," he said. "I think that I feel very good about where we are in the process right now, and I feel very good knowing that I have many months ahead until next season to be able to continue to grow and build."
Watt doesn't believe his back injury will have a negative impact on his career in the long term, and he thinks getting a break from the rigors of the game after years of playing might actually help him.
"It's a full year of hits off your body and everything, but it's also a mental year off (of) the grind, the day-to-day ... you also start to feel like a rookie all over again," he said. "I was away from the game. Now I get to re-introduce myself to the guys, get to re-introduce myself to the game, and you feel like you have a brand new, rejuvenated energy. It's exciting for me, whereas earlier there would be people talking retirement and things like that. For me, I feel like I'm just getting started and it's really exciting."
The New England Patriots, who eliminated Houston in the playoffs this season, meet the Atlanta Falcons in the Super Bowl at NRG Stadium on Sunday. Watt is excited to see the Super Bowl in the city where he plays, but being so close to it makes him even more eager to reach the big game himself.
"It's obviously great for the city of Houston ... but at the same time, it's also very frustrating to see the faces of two other teams on the side of your own stadium," he said. "So, it's definitely a point of motivation. It's definitely something that you want to make sure that you do whatever you possibly can to be in this game next year."
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