For the first time in his NFL career, defensive end J.J. Watt will be switching teams.

The beloved pass rusher was released by the Houston Texans Friday after 10 years with the team, a move both designed to give both the player and organization a fresh start.

Wherever Watt lands, he takes with him an impressive resume: he’s a three-time NFL Defensive Player of the Year, a five-time first-team All-Pro and has 101 career sacks, twice leading the league in a single season.

Over the past five years, the 31-year-old has missed significant portions of three seasons due to injuries. Still, his two fully healthy seasons — in 2018 and 2020 — showed just how valuable Watt can be. In 2018, he had 16 sacks and seven forced fumbles, and this past season, he had 52 tackles, 14 tackles for loss and five sacks.

A heartfelt goodbye

Watt, who’s known for his kindhearted nature and philanthropic nature, took to social media to share a heartfelt thanks for Texans fans on Friday morning.

“I came here 10 years ago as a kid from Wisconsin who had never really been to Texas before, and now I can’t imagine my life without Texas in it,” he said in a video shared on Twitter. “The way that you guys have treated me — besides draft night, I mean you guys booed me on draft night — but every day after that, you’ve treated me like family, and I truly feel like you’re my family. 

“Since that day I have tried to do everything in my power to work and earn your respect and make you proud on and off the field. You guys have given me everything and more, and I can only hope that you feel that I’ve given everything I have.”

A connection to Utah, and philanthropic efforts

Watt married former Alta High soccer star Kealia Ohai last year, and the two met through their time in Houston. Ohai, who now goes by the name Kealia Ohai Watt, played for the Houston Dash of the National Women’s Soccer league from 2014-19. The couple have been generous during their time in Houston — that included reportedly donating $350,000 to the Houston Food Bank last year to help pay for more than one million meals in the wake of the coronavirus pandemic.  

“The city of Houston has been unbelievable to me, it’s where I met my wife. It’s where I’ve met lifelong friends and my teammates,” J.J. Watt said. “I’ve had incredible coaches and training staff and equipment staff and cafeteria workers and the weight room staff and front office people, people on the street, people in restaurants and grocery stores and showing up at my house.”

Morning links: JJ Watt, Kealia Ohai take pictures with young fans dressed in their jerseys; Saturday spring football in SLC?

Watt earned the prestigious Walter Payton NFL Man of the Year Award after helping the city of Houston recover from Hurricane Harvey, which made landfall in the city in late August 2017. Watt started a social media campaign that raised more than $41 million that went toward Houston’s hurricane relief efforts, per the Texans website

“The connection is special, and I will never, ever take that for granted because I know how rare it is,” Watt said Friday of his connection to Houston.

Texans chair and CEO Cal McNair acknowledged the impact Watt had with the organization and the community.

“Change is never easy, especially when it involves the ones you love. J.J.’s impact on not only our organization, but the entire Houston community, is unlike any player in our franchise’s history,” McNair said in a statement. “I told J.J. earlier this week that we will forever consider him a Texan. We take solace in knowing that this is not a goodbye but a ‘see you soon.’ For now, we will build upon the foundation that J.J. created here and forge ahead with our unwavering mission to bring a championship to our city, create memorable experiences for our fans and do great things for Houston.”

Discord in Houston

One of the biggest storylines to dominate the NFL world in recent weeks has been that Texans quarterback Deshaun Watson has requested a trade. During the team’s 2020 season finale, a microphone caught Watt apologizing to Watson at the end of a 4-12 season. 

“I’m sorry. We wasted one of your years. I mean, we should have 11 wins,” Watt told the quarterback in a video shared on Twitter. 

It’s been a rough year for the organization, including the end of the Bill O’Brien era in Houston, as he served as both head coach and general manager in 2020 before being fired midseason.

On to the next step 

Watt had one year remaining on his contract with the Texans — worth a reported $17.5 million in base salary in 2021, per Spotrac — but by being released, he is immediately eligible to sign with another club. 

Where Watt will play next is up for plenty of speculation. Of note, he has two siblings — T.J., a linebacker, and Derek, a fullback — who play for the Pittsburgh Steelers. His wife, Ohai Watt, plays for the Chicago Red Stars of the NWSL after joining the team last season.

“I’m excited and looking forward to a new opportunity and I’ve been working extremely hard, but at the same time it is always tough to move on,” J.J. Watt said. “I just want you guys to know that I love you, I appreciate you, I appreciate the McNair family for drafting me and giving me my first opportunity in the NFL.

“Thank you, Houston. I love you.”