Houston Texans defensive end J.J. Watt, who helped raise more than $37 million for people affected by Hurricane Harvey, was named the recipient of the prestigious Walter Payton NFL Man of the Year Award Presented by Nationwide at NFL Honors on Saturday.
"This award is about the inherent good that lies within humanity," Watt said after accepting his award. "It's about the city of Houston and its ability to overcome adversity at a time when it all seemed lost. It is about the hundreds of thousands of people from all over the country and all over the world who donated to a city they may have never been to, to people that they may never meet. But they donated simply because they saw their fellow humans going through a difficult time and they wanted to help out.
"I cannot express how humbled and honored that I am to be mentioned in the same sentence as Walter Payton. A man who did everything right not only on the field but also off of it."
Carolina Panthers tight end Greg Olsen and Baltimore Ravens tight end Benjamin Watson were the other finalists for this year's award, which recognizes an NFL player each year for excellence on and off the field.
In the wake of Hurricane Harvey, Watt posted a video on social media announcing a fundraising campaign with an initial goal of $200,000, to which he matched the first $100,000. In 19 days, he raised more than $37 million. Watt then dedicated himself to finding organizations that will apply the funds in the way he has promised the donors and victims of Harvey.
"I cannot thank everyone enough for their support and donations from across the country and around the world," Watt said in October to those who donated to his fundraising campaign. "You have truly shown what is possible when everyone bands together for one common cause. While we are going to do some truly incredible things with this $37 million to make it stretch as far as possible, it is only one small step in the massive recovery effort that lies ahead. I encourage you to please continue to find organizations to donate to, whether they be some of the ones listed below or others. Houston will bounce back from this and we will rise up stronger than ever."
Watt's dedication to charitable service stretches beyond his efforts in aftermath of Hurricane Harvey. In 2010, he started the Justin J. Watt Foundation in Wisconsin out of a desire to help underserved kids. His personal motto of "Dream Big, Work Hard" culminated into a mission that he continues to use to impact communities nationwide. The foundation has provided more than $3.4 million in funding to middle schools and organizations that have insufficient funding for after-school athletic programs or no after-school athletics whatsoever for sixth through eighth grade children.
"J.J. is one of the most selfless, giving and inspiring young men in the NFL and we are proud he is a Houston Texan," Texans owner Robert McNair said in a statement. "During one of Houston's worst disasters, J.J. was our shining light after raising more than $37 million for victims affected by Hurricane Harvey."
Watt has been named to the Pro Bowl four times and is a four-time first-team All-Pro. Leading the league in sacks in 2012 and 2015, J.J. was named NFL Defensive Player of the Year both seasons and in 2014 as well. Watt, who missed most of the 2017 season with a fractured tibial plateau in his left leg, has played in 88 games for the Texans and recorded a total of 394 tackles and 76 sacks.
The NFL Foundation, Nationwide and United Way Worldwide will donate $500,000 in Watt's name. A total of $250,000 will be donated to the winner's charity of choice and $250,000 will be donated in his name to expand the NFL Foundation's Character Playbook across the country.
Olsen and Watson will each receive a $100,000 donation to their charity of choice and a $100,000 donation in their names to expand Character Playbook. All other 29 nominees (one from each team) will receive a $50,000 donation to their charity of choice and an additional $50,000 donation in their names to Character Playbook.