SAN FRANCISCO - J.J. Watt’s day started with a ceremonial bow following yet another sack. It ended with an emotional goodbye fitting for the end of the career of one of the NFL’s best defensive players.
Watt managed to go out still playing at a high level, adding two more sacks to his career total in the Arizona Cardinals’ 38-13 loss to the San Francisco 49ers on Jan. 8.
It was an emotional end to a brilliant career with Watt nearly in tears as he walked off an NFL field for the final time as a player at the two-minute warning.
As the crowd and 49ers players cheered, Watt waved up to his family in a suite as he walked off and embraced coach Kliff Kingsbury and his Cardinals teammates.
"I could not have asked for the way that it happened tonight," Watt said. "I wish it was a win. But the way the fans here acted, the way the 49ers acted, it was a little bit reminiscent of my last game at Wisconsin. It was really special. It felt right, and it still feels right now."
After the game, Watt went back on the field with his wife, Kealia, and his 11-week-old son Koa, who saw his father play for the first time on Christmas.
"It’s special," he said. "I should have had my son in attendance for my whole career. I play a lot better when he’s here. To share that moment, I appreciate my wife for bringing him out here and all that, I appreciate my parents for flying from Wisconsin to Phoenix to up here and now they’re going to fly back home. I knew they wouldn’t miss it, but I’m still grateful and thankful for it."
Watt didn’t expect to be so emotional, but he couldn’t control himself, starting with a tribute video played at a team meeting Saturday night that made it hard for him to fall asleep.
Then he woke up Sunday and saw a photo of his younger brothers, T.J. and Derek, wearing his jersey to their season finale for the Steelers earlier in the day.
"I woke up and the first thing I saw on my phone was a picture of them walking into the game and I lost it again," he said.
Watt announced his decision to retire after 12 seasons less than two weeks ago and went out with three sacks in his final two games.
He took a bow after bringing down Brock Purdy in the first quarter — the 50th QB he sacked in the regular season or playoffs. He added another in the third quarter, giving him 120 1/2 in the regular season and playoffs — the 23rd most in the NFL since sacks became official in 1982.
Watt was among the premier defensive players in the NFL during the early 2010s with Houston and ended his career with Arizona.
During a four-year stretch from 2012 to 2015 that was as dominant as any by a defensive player, he had 69 sacks and earned all three of his AP Defensive Player of the Year awards.
Watt was solid during his rookie season, but became a star in 2012, with a stunning 20 1/2 sacks and 39 tackles for a loss. His production dipped slightly in 2013 before two more big seasons. He had 20 1/2 sacks in 2014 and 17 1/2 in 2015.
His numbers slipped during the latter half of his career, largely because of injuries. He missed big chunks of time in 2016, 2017, 2019 and 2021, but had a late-career revival with the Cardinals — his 12 1/2 sacks this season are his most since 2018.
"I said I wanted to go out playing good ball, and I’m playing good ball," Watt said. "I know I still can. I just choose not to. That’s all."
SANTA CLARA, CALIFORNIA - JANUARY 08: J.J. Watt #99 of the Arizona Cardinals looks on after the game against the San Francisco 49ers at Levi's Stadium on January 08, 2023 in Santa Clara, California. (Photo by Ezra Shaw/Getty Images)