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JJ & Kealia Watt: For Family, Football, & Foundation

The two former Houston pros returned to the city where they met to tackle food insecurity with Frito-Lay. Boardroom caught up with the Watts to discuss the next chapter in their lives, their love for H-Town, and more.

As the lights go on at NFL stadiums across America this weekend, JJ Watt will take his place in the CBS studio for the first time. Following his retirement at the end of the 2022 NFL season, the future Hall of Famer and three-time NFL Defensive Player of the Year has a bit more time these days.

Though he hung up his cleats as a member of the Arizona Cardinals, Watt left a big part of his heart in Houston. He spent 10 seasons with the Texans and will take his spot in the Ring of Honor on Oct. 1. But football wasn’t the only thing that JJ committed to during his time in the city. In addition to solidifying himself there as one of the league’s most feared defenders, Watt met his future wife, Kealia, who then played for the NWSL‘s Houston Dash.

Kealia stepped away from the pitch in 2021 and has all sorts of advice for her husband as he stares down the next phase of his life. However, neither of them seems to be slowing down. Kealia brought JJ into her world, as the two announced an investment in Premier League club Burnley FC. Additionally, the two are jointly tackling their new roles as parents to their nearly one-year-old son, Koa.

This past week, the Watts headed back to the city they love to co-host an event in partnership with Frito-Lay Variety Packs and Cheetos® Mac ‘N Cheese. The community day set out to draw attention to issues of food insecurity across the nation. The couple also unveiled a donation to local youth nonprofit GENYOUth.

Boardroom caught up with the two to discuss their most recent investment in Houston, how they’re navigating retirement, and much more.

This interview has been edited for length and clarity.

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Bernadette Doykos: You both ended your careers away from Houston, but obviously it still is meaningful to you both as you’re back for this event. Can you speak to me a little bit about your relationship with the city and the ongoing efforts that you have with the JJ Watt Foundation?

JJ Watt: Houston is obviously such an incredibly special city to us. It’s where we met, it’s where we spent so many years building careers, relationships, friendships, and so much more. It’s hard to even put into a couple sentences what Houston means to us.

Everything we’ve done with our foundation to help kids around the city, kids around the country — and, of course, everything we went through during the hurricane — it’s all bonded us together. So this city means a lot to us. And to be back here today now doing a flag football event and to be helping combat food insecurity with Frito-Lay and GENyouth, it’s a special thing for us. Plus, anything we can do to help out Houston, we always love to do because Houston has given so much to us.

BD: I have no doubt that you guys get no shortage of offers of philanthropic opportunities and things that you can do to give back, whether it’s in Houston or anywhere else really. What was it about this particular opportunity with Gen Youth and Frito-Lay that made you excited to get involved?

Kealia Watt: Food insecurity is a huge problem in this country, and we also have such a special relationship with youth sports. JJ has been working his entire career to help provide equipment to underserved communities and to make sure that kids can get out and play sports because we truly believe that is so important for building character and learning. And so for this event to tie the two together, it means so much to us and to be in Houston with people we love so much, it’s incredible and perfect for us.

BD: Can you speak a little bit about your own experiences in youth sports and how you feel like they prepared you for what came down the line in life?

JJW: I’ve said it so many times before and it rings true every single time. Youth sports teach you so much about life and about how to be successful far beyond the field. It teaches you discipline, it teaches you work ethic, it teaches you teamwork, it teaches you time management, it teaches you all sorts of things on how to be successful outside of sports. And I think those [lessons] are so important, especially for kids to learn.

The experience is what teaches you and learning it, going through it and doing it with your coaches and with your teammates, that’s what makes it so special. And I know that I wouldn’t be anywhere near the person I am or where I’m in life if it wasn’t for youth sports. And I know Kealia can say the same, I’m sure.

KW: Yeah, I think youth sports is what made us who we are today, even before our professional careers. For me, I leared from the work ethic and having to go do things that are hard and do things that you maybe don’t want to do every single day. It’s really important to building your character and you carry that through your entire life.

JJW: And we’re fortunate to have been in the small percentage to make it professionally, but my best friends in life are from youth and high school sports. And I think that they always say the same thing, that the things that they learn from our high school coaches, from our middle school coaches, that they taught have helped them in life.

So it’s not just the athletes that go on to college or the pros, youth sports helps everybody.

Photo by Marcus Ingram/Getty Images for Frito-Lay North America

BD: Kealia, you stepped away from soccer in 2021. What advice do you have for JJ as he faces his first season away from the field?

KW: Yeah, I mean, I think for JJ at the beginning of his retirement, it was difficult and it was the same for me. We’re so used to a schedule and every single day, waking up a hundred percent trying to recover, working on your body, working on your craft. And so it is an adjustment.

I just tried to tell him it takes time, but just relax and you’ll find your way. And he started so many incredible projects and he’s going to start with CBS soon. So it’s an adjustment for everyone. But I’m really proud of how he has taken this step and he’s such an incredible dad. I think that’s helped and taken up a lot of his time. So we’re really happy to have him home and he’s doing really, really great.

JJW: I used to have a built in excuse as to why I need sleep so much and I longer have that. So it’s pretty unfortunate. That’s the one thing that I no longer get is the good sleep. I can’t say I need it.

BD: So you’re breaking it here first. You’re pulling a Brady, you’ll be back this week.

JJW: [Laughs] Purely for the sleep. Yeah, I might do that.

Photo by Marcus Ingram/Getty Images for Frito-Lay North America

BD: I know that you said relaxation is a part of what you get to do, although if we look at what you’ve done in the six months or so since you’ve retired, you’ve taken a job with CBS, you’ve taken this new role with Burnley FC, you’re doing all of this great philanthropic work. Can you just speak how you select these opportunities? For both of you, having stepped away from this thing that you had dedicated your whole life to?

JJW: Yeah, I think that’s something that you also learn as you go. The one thing that you did have when you’re playing is you had certain blocks of time that couldn’t do anything. Now you pretty much have a wide open schedule and you select and handpick what you want to do and when you want to do it. There’s certainly an arc to being able to say no and select when something doesn’t make sense for you. But then there’s also so much more time to do the things that you are passionate about and that you do care about.

I think it’s really important to have a good partner who can help you through those things. And Kealia has been great for me in that sometimes saying, ‘Hey, how much time do you think you have? You’re doing too much.’ And other times saying, ‘no, you’re clearly passionate about this. Go for it. Go all in and put your eggs in that basket.’

So it’s been great and we’re going to continue to figure it out together, and I’m very lucky to have somebody like her by my side through it all.

BD: Can you speak to your experience with Burnley FC so far?

KW: Yeah, it’s been so incredible. And yeah, what is so cool for us, like you said, is that it’s very different from American sports and the supporters are different and the tradition of it is different. There’s obviously promotion, relegation, which makes it completely different.

We have really loved this experience. We’ve loved the ownership group is so incredible. So to get to work with them and then [chairman Alan Pace] has been just so much fun. And it’s a dream come true for me because I’ve grown up playing soccer my entire life. So we’ve loved every second of it.

JJW: It’s a great transition out of playing because they’re still around the top league in the world, and you still get that adrenaline rush in a different way. I was saying earlier, the experience is almost more difficult than being an athlete because you have no control on the outcome of the game. When you’re playing, I can go out there and make a play to help us win. Or if we lose, I can say, ‘yeah, I needed to do better in these games.’

We’re watching from the stands and we’re just tooth and nail hoping that our team puts the ball on the net or that we keep the ball on that and we can’t do anything about it. It’s just passive watching. So it’s almost more nerve-wracking in that sense.

BD: I like to imagine that there is a secret group text of celebrity soccer owners. Is that true or have you spoken to anybody else who’s involved?

JJW: There’s not one with all of us in it, but we certainly text. We certainly [have] conversations amongst the different owners because right now it’s still a small group and it’s a very exciting group.

And so there’s a lot of things that I’m still trying to learn and everybody wants to know. And obviously, Tom [Brady] just got in [with Birmingham City FC] and Ryan [Reynolds]’s been doing it successfully with Rob [McElhenney] at Wrexham. I mean Michael B. Jordan with Bournemouth. But there’s certainly been a swelling and I have a feeling there’s more to come.

So we’re excited and happy to be in early and to get America interested in Burnley before this thing really takes us off.

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BD: With all eyes on women’s soccer in the wake of the World Cup, Kealia, what are your thoughts on the future of the US program?

KW: The US program has dominated for so many years. Recently, other countries are putting money into their federations and they’re competing. And so this was a difficult World Cup for us, but I think that they’ll be back. It’s one of the best programs in the world, some of the best players in the world. It’s also a very young team. I’m really excited for the talent that they will continue to develop, and it’s a great time for women’s soccer.

It’s also a time of protecting the players and making sure that they feel comfortable playing. And that’s really amazing because it hasn’t always been like that. And so I think these girls are turning into superstars and saying, ‘this is enough,’ and I’m really proud of that. But excited for this US Women’s national team and the future. A lot of incredible young players.

BD: My last question on that note is would you all consider an investment in the NWSL as one of your future endeavors?

JJW: Yeah, the league is growing. They’ve done incredible work, and I think a lot of the credit goes to the players. The women have done an incredible job building this, and they’re the reason that this league is what it is now and it’s only going to continue to grow and get better. So I think there’s certainly interest there.

KW: To see where it started, even my first year to where it is now, and the valuations of these teams. To see what Angel City and San Diego, and these teams with investment and money, it’s just blowing up and I’m so excited to see that.

We love the NWSL and would love to be part of that.

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About The Author
Bernadette Doykos
Bernadette Doykos
Bernadette Doykos is the Senior Director of Editorial Strategy at Boardroom. Before joining the team, her work appeared in ELLE. She previously served as the head of evaluation for a nonprofit where she became obsessed with systems and strategy and served as the curator of vibes and extinguisher of fires for the design thinking firm Stoked. She is constantly plotting a perfect tunnel ‘fit and a playlist for all occasions.