T.J. Watt is the baby brother of the American dream, and he's heartbroken.
"He's a superstar," the kid was telling me Thursday after the Steelers' practice at the Rooney Sports Complex. "He's a superhero, really."
The reference, of course, was to J.J. Watt. The NFL's Defensive Player of the year three times with the Texans. Maybe the best player at any position on the planet for the better part of 2011-15. And yeah, a bona fide hero to the people of Houston for his extraordinary social-media fundraising effort following Hurricane Harvey, one that erupted from an original goal of $200,000 to $38 million and counting.
And then, a dozen days ago against the Chiefs ...
I can't sugarcoat it, I am devastated.
All I want to do is be out there on that field for my teammates and this city.
— JJ Watt (@JJWatt) October 9, 2017
Fractured tibia. Done for the season. Months and months of excruciating rehab. And at age 28, after missing large parts of the past two seasons, wholly fair questions as to whether we've seen the last of the very best from one of the game's all-time greats.
That's being felt in Pittsburgh, too, on the receiving end of calls and texts. Pretty much every day.
"I'm so proud of him, honestly. I can't even tell you," T.J. Watt would say. "The way he's handled this whole situation, he's being really positive. I mean, it obviously hurts when it happens. But what I'm hearing from him now, it's nothing but positive, and that's rubbing off on me. It can be easy to get caught in that everyday routine of coming in and doing your work ... you can maybe get lulled a little to sleep. But to talk to J.J., a guy who's had that taken away from him, it kind of reminds you how important it is."
Every game. Every practice. Every drill.
"It's a different perspective, for sure. It's a shame when you see any player anywhere go down with an injury. But when it hits home ... yeah, it hits harder."
I asked if he can grasp how, after all his brother has done for his city on and off the field, now followed by the outpouring of emotion for this latest career setback -- J.J. will have played a total of eight games these past two seasons, including a back injury in 2016 -- he's become one of the most respected, beloved athletes in North American professional sports.
"Oh, yeah, definitely. He just means so much to so many people, and rightfully so," T.J. said. "I'll say it again: I couldn't be prouder of him. I couldn't be prouder to have him as my brother."
One step at a time. pic.twitter.com/wChUNkOqvN
— JJ Watt (@JJWatt) October 11, 2017
• I had a good chat with Martavis Bryant, also on Thursday, the first time we'd spoken since Kansas City. And I'm here to reiterate, yet again, his mind and heart are set on winning a Super Bowl in Pittsburgh.
I don't care how that comes across. I know better than to try to beat down a viral narrative.
But the fact is, Bryant's gotten some miserable advice and support from those representing him for far too long. He needs to grow up and outsmart that, sure, but it's a factor nonetheless. And in this case, it was Bryant's agency that reached out to the Steelers and sought the trade. It wasn't the player. Everything I've now been told on all sides points firmly to that.
Now, that doesn't mean the agency wasn't in contact with Bryant. And again, it doesn't mean Bryant gets wholly absolved. But it does mean Bryant himself was never in contact with anyone over his head in the matter. And he should be way past trusting those who were.
• One last thing on that: The agency reached out to two national reporters about an hour after the end of the game in Kansas City. That wasn't a coincidence. It was done to make the biggest possible splash while also avoiding the chance reporters could ask Bryant anything directly.
For example, I'd spoken to him about 15 minutes after the game ended. Another half-hour after that, long after Bryant had left for the team bus, the room was closed.
• The Steelers aren't trading Bryant.
• The Pirates aren't for sale.
• The Penguins aren't about to change their mindset regarding a third-line center.
Jim Rutherford's set on waiting as long as needed to get the right player rather than rushing to address the obvious hole in the forward group. And though neither he nor Mike Sullivan has been exactly ecstatic with the collective two-way play of the forwards -- the next game in which they diligently track back through the neutral zone will be the first all season -- they see that as an issue solvable with the current roster.
• Josh Archibald hasn't played yet, but Sullivan genuinely likes him. He sees Conor Sheary's speed combined with Bryan Rust's fearlessness in his game. And he'll track back in the neutral zone, too. I'll be surprised if he doesn't get into a game on the Florida trip this weekend.
FROM MATT GAJTKA
in Sunrise, Fla.
Ryan Reaves came here to play hockey, so his 5:50 of ice time over the first seven games has to leave him disappointed. He hasn’t let any of that on during the couple of conversations I’ve had with him so far this season, leaning on his experience as a career fourth-liner to deal with the lack of playing time.
When I say that, I mean both the emotional aspect of being on the outside looking in for much of the game and also the physical challenge of keeping muscles warm when getting fewer than 10 shifts a night.
Clearly, the man is popular in the room, and Sullivan took care to say Thursday increased special teams play over the opening weeks of the season has kept Reaves’ role minimal. But, if this trend continues into the second month of the season, there will rightfully be questions about the merits of that draft-floor trade with St. Louis. Sure, Reaves can have an effect in a few shifts, but essentially playing with 11 forwards goes against the way teams win these days.
FROM KATIE BROWN
Ian Cole is back to eating solid foods again after sacrificing his face blocking a shot almost two weeks ago. After the morning skate Tuesday in New York, the state of Cole’s teeth was naturally a big topic of conversation. It’s definitely weird to see someone you’re used to seeing with teeth now missing a few of them.
Interestingly enough, Cole’s father, Doug, happens to be a dentist in Michigan. Imagine what he felt watching his son’s teeth go flying through the air and landing on the ice.
“He's handled it pretty well, actually,” Cole said of his dad. “The one thing he always told me was make sure I wear a mouthguard, because I have really nice teeth, and not to get them knocked out. Then I go get them knocked out and his reaction was, 'That's OK, we can fix them.' He's been pretty good about it. He does tend to second-guess everybody, just in general, so he's been trying to second-guess the doctors and oral surgeons here. He's been great about it, and he's asking a lot of questions and asking me to ask questions for him. And our doctors here have had great answers. It's been great.”
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