J.J. Watt on $99 shoes: 'I wanted to create something that everybody can afford'

There wasn't much time for J.J. Watt to breathe in 2016.

In January, he was under the knife because of a sports hernia that first held him out of practice more than a month earlier. The 6-foot-5 defensive end, a big-bodied icon of Houston Texans football and the muscular face of today's NFL, didn't let it bother him during the season beforehand. He did, after all, also play through a fractured hand to lead the league in sacks and become only the second player to ever claim the Defensive Player of the Year award for a third time.

Six months later, with an injury-induced withdrawal from a fourth straight Pro Bowl appearance in the rear-view mirror, Watt was back in the operating room.

A herniated disc sidelined him through all of the summer and into the Texans' preseason schedule. And just over two weeks after he returned to the field for Houston's regular-season opener, the four-time All-Pro was on injured reserve, done for the year and slated for another back surgery.

"I've never been out like that in my entire career," Watt said. "It was an anomaly."

A concerning one, at that.

Suddenly the NFL's poster boy for physicality and defensive dominance, a real-life rendition of Marvel's Juggernaut, had been shoved to the background of the 2016 season. The surest future Hall of Famer of his generation, the first player to log multiple 20-sack seasons and at one point the highest-paid non-quarterback in the game, had been relegated to a talking point in debates about durability in football. He went from invincible, missing not one game in five years, to damaged goods.

How things have changed.

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After an injury-riddled 2016, Watt is returning to the spotlight.   USATSI

Now, entering Year 7 of his NFL career, Watt is back to living large. He's past rehabilitation. And he's living like a man with time on his hands, even though the road to recovery after the double dip of back surgeries has demanded plenty.

He's returned to Texans practice, eliciting high remarks from coach Bill O'Brien and tantalizing fans with the possibility of a healthy Houston D-line.

"Being on the field is the most important thing for me right now," Watt told CBSSports.com. "It feels good to be doing what you love, waking up in the morning and knowing you're living the life you love and appreciate again. And I can't wait to play. My parents always taught me to never be satisfied, and whenever that point comes that I am, I'm done. But for right now, I'm giving everything I have because I still have the passion and still have the fire."

In between work with the Texans, he's promised a local radio host on Twitter that he'll become a billionaire (and between Gatorade endorsements and his $100 million contract, he's well on his way). He's gone public about his girlfriend, pro soccer's Kealia Ohai. He's stuck his hand -- without a cast -- into the community, swinging away at charity softball and volunteering at area food pantries.

And a day after his own line of menswear debuted with Dallas' Mizzen+Main, he's touting new kicks and apparel through Reebok.

The shoe itself, dubbed the JJ II after Watt's initial JJ I release with the company, is a byproduct of the superstar's extended absence from the field.

"Obviously I had a lot of time to work on this shoe, to really create something special," he said. "And for myself, with this whole year being a comeback to the field, I needed the best possible shoe to work out and get back on the field."

There are other reasons the JJ II is particularly of interest to the Texans' perennial MVP, too.

Partly because its first color scheme, with variations of white and eye-black darkness, is inspired by the veteran's "no-nonsense attitude" on the field and in the gym. Partly because its signature training features, like Liquidfoam cushioning and Leno weave ventilation, represent the work that went into Watt's journey back to the gridiron.

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The JJ IIs, which will release nationwide July 14, will first feature black and white color variations. Reebok

And maybe because, you know, he's still trying to become a billionaire.

"Maybe," Watt said with a laugh.

In actuality, the JJ IIs will clock in at $99 a pair Friday when they hit stores nationwide. That's just about $400 cheaper than this year's debut Lonzo Ball kicks, for those who are keeping score.

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The JJ IIs will hit stores nationwide on July 14. Reebok

But for Watt, unveiling the shoes, the latest tangible proof of his ever-expanding brand, isn't all about raking in the money.

"I grew up in a middle-class family," he said. "My dad was a fire fighter and my mom was a secretary and worked her way up, so we weren't rich. I couldn't always afford the coolest shoes on the market."

Now, Watt's got plenty of money. He's got plenty of fame and recognition, too, as his trophy case and NFL resume showcase rather well. And thanks to the staff at Texans games and practices, he doesn't even have to worry about doing his own laundry or finding his own shoes.

"But I realized not everybody has that luxury," he said. "I wanted to create something that everybody can afford, everybody can wear to the gym, during workouts and after the gym."

For Watt, one of today's faces of pro football, unveiling the shoes is also about proving he's got something special back.

Some time to breathe.

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