Man of the Year, from Port Arthur to Minneapolis

Published 6:07 pm Tuesday, February 6, 2018

As football seasons go, 2017-18 worked out according to my plan.

I’m New England born, and earned a degree at The University of Alabama. So another Super Bowl appearance by Tom Brady and another national title for the Crimson Tide made for successful campaigns for this casual fan, who played exactly one season of organized football as a freshman for the St. Peter’s Catholic Boys High School Midshipmen in 1968.

There, I started at offensive guard — at 127 pounds — for a team that didn’t win a game in the state’s smallest school classification at a school that closed the following year. We were the worst of the smallest.

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I’ve had a lot more success watching football than taking the field.

My three semesters in residence in Bama’s graduate school included coach “Bear” Bryant’s last two national championships. As a reporter I covered Bear’s burial in Birmingham’s Elmwood Cemetery on a cold January day in 1983.

Beat that.

As a fan, I attended the first-ever Patriots game at Schaefer Stadium more than four decades back, a pre-season matchup where we spent four hours in the parking lot after the televised Sunday night game. The stadium was so far behind construction schedule there were no working restrooms and there were no lines painted in the parking lot, creating a massive, post-midnight traffic jam. Tom Brady was yet unborn.

All of which is preamble to this: I’m a J.J. Watt fan now.

No, I’ve never followed Wisconsin, his alma mater, except in relation to the school’s effect on Alabama’s standing. Before moving to Jefferson County, I’d never followed the Houston Texans.

As for J.J. Watt, there was too little chance to watch the jumbo lineman play this year. In week No. 5, he sustained a brutal leg injury that ended his season.

But that tibial plateau fracture had no effect on his big heart or his social conscience. The four-time Pro Bowler dedicated himself to the continuing task of tending to those who suffered from the ill effects of Hurricane and Tropical Storm Harvey. Thanks to his injury and long recovery period, he’s had time to dedicate himself not only to raising funds — his initial goal was $200,000, his total was $37 million — but also to distributing help.

He was doing just that on Jan. 25, when he visited Jireh World Church, a non-denominational congregation at 3505 Procter St., Port Arthur. Pastored for a decade by Pearlanna Carron, it had the look of a “working church” that day, with focus on those who needed a hand.

It was far from the big city news media; the only folks to notice his arrival and hard work were church volunteers and those who needed the groceries delivered by Watt’s favored social service group, South East Texas Food Bank. We learned about the visit when a local official sent out his photo, taken with Watt, at Jireh World Church. We arrived after he’d gone.

Carron said she’s a Watt fan, too, and not necessarily because he sacks quarterbacks.

She’s a fan, she said, because he’s a sweet guy, someone who wasn’t looking for external gratification or awards when he showed up for 90 minutes at Jireh, as he has at places all over Houston and beyond. Instead, he took part in the distribution of food, chatted with flood victims, took selfies with anyone who asked. He gave of his time and himself.

I thought of that visit Saturday night, when Watt, as well spoken off the gridiron as he is fearsome on it, accepted the Walter Payton NFL Man of the year award in Minneapolis. The award reflected the good work of Watt and his foundation for hurricane and flood relief. Watt, in accepting the honor, made the award about Walter Payton, a Hall of Fame runningback and better human being, about the first-responders who helped during Harvey flooding, about the donors who funded the cause, about the flood victims themselves.

But consider this: In lending help, Watt didn’t just drop off a check. He showed up to meet people and offer solace.

He helped plot a plan that will extend up to two years to make sure the money goes to the right places. He’s not walking away from the cause.

After his Port Arthur visit, Watt tweeted out that he’d “met some truly special people today and am extremely thankful for all of the volunteers and helpers who make things like this happen.”

Those truly special people met a special guy, too.

“People helping people,” Watt tweeted. “There is nothing more beautiful.”

Beat that.

Ken Stickney is editor of the Port Arthur News.