WHITE SULPHUR SPRINGS, W.Va. (AP) — A year after missing all of the preseason on his way to an injury-shortened regular season, J.J. Watt made his return to training camp for the Houston Texans on Wednesday.
Practice never felt quite so good for the three-time NFL Defensive Player of the Year.
“It’s just good to be back on the field, be back playing football, be back with my teammates,” Watt said. “It’s just — it feels good. It feels like where I belong.”
Watt played in only three games last season due to a pair of back surgeries. The first was to repair a herniated disk in July, causing him to miss all of training camp and Houston’s four preseason games.
The defensive end, who won the Defensive Player of the Year award in 2012 and 2014-15, then started in the Texans‘ first three regular-season games before reinjuring his back and undergoing season-ending surgery.
Watt took part in Houston’s offseason program following his surgeries, but Wednesday’s start of training camp was a day one of the NFL’s most dominant defensive players had looked forward to throughout his recovery.
“Obviously, it’s been a long time coming,” Watt said. “We’ve done a lot of work to get to where we are, but today’s just the beginning. Today’s just Day One and I’m really looking forward to stacking up days and, like I said, I just really enjoy being with my teammates.”
The 28-year-old Watt has 76 sacks through the first 83 games of his six-year career, and Houston needs him to return to form this season — pairing with fellow defensive end Jadeveon Clowney to form one of the top pass rushes in the NFL.
“It’s great to have him back,” Texans coach Bill O’Brien said. “He’s a great player, one of the top players in our league, top defensive player in our league, so to have him back, it means a lot to our football team.”
To lessen the wear and tear on his back, Watt said he’ll “be smart” about his practice schedule during training camp, taking days off as needed to stay fresh rather than pushing himself as he’s done in the past.
His return has also come with a renewed sense of appreciation for being able to play, especially after the multiple injuries left him briefly pondering if retirement was closer in his future than he would have liked.
“Obviously, I went through some tough times there last year, but … I really enjoy playing football,” Watt said. “I really enjoy the fans. I enjoy every aspect of the game so I’m just really thankful to be able to be out here and playing.”