J.J. Watt, having raised more than $18 million for Hurricane Harvey victims, on Sunday did something priceless.
The NFL star led members of the Houston Texans in the ongoing relief effort firsthand.
For about an hour and a half, Watt stood outside in 90-degree heat handing out boxes of supplies to hundreds of people in need. He also posed for photos, signed autographs and, in one instance, hugged a woman who brought a cutout of Watt and wept at the sight of the All-Pro defensive end who's entering his seventh season with the Texans.
Several people in the blue-collar neighborhood of mostly Hispanics and African-Americans showed up wearing replicas of Watt’s jersey No. 99.
‘’You don’t get this kind of star power to our part of Houston,’’ Armando Walle, a state representative whose district includes the neighborhood, told USA TODAY Sports. “So for our community to be able to see someone like that here is wonderful. To give them some hope."
The goal was to help people with immediate needs, Watt said. He also noted that all of the supplies — including water, food and clothing— were donated and he hasn’t used any money raised through his online fund.
“It’s been incredible to witness all of the people we’ve been able to help today,’’ Watt, 28, said while addressing more than 100 high school students who volunteered for the event. “Just to see how thankful they are that everybody’s willing to help them out.’’
Watt’s efforts began modestly enough a week ago when he started a crowdfunding campaign through YouCaring.com, made a $100,000 donation and set a goal of raising $200,000. As word spread, donations flooded in and YouCaring’s website briefly crashed.
While the fund grew by millions of dollars each day, Watt’s family organized a flood relief drive in his hometown of Pewaukee, Wis. More than 300,000 pounds were donated and loaded onto 10 semi trucks that arrived Saturday night at a warehouse in Houston, Watt said.
Watt was there to greet them.
For about six hours, according to one of the truck drivers, Watt helped unload and reload supplies. Then he was at the Texans’ NRG Stadium at 11 a.m. Sunday to help load four buses of his teammates and their family members headed to four sites.
Watt, joined by his girlfriend, Kealia Ohai, led a group of volunteers to Carroll Academy. Virtually everyone appeared happy to see Watt when they drove through a procession and the Texas’ hulking pass rusher loaded boxes in their cars.
“My kids won’t believe this. Can I get a picture?’’ asked Jessica Sustaita after Watt loaded a box of supplies in her car. “Thank you so much for everything you do.’’
And on it went.
“High five,’’ cried out another woman holding up her right hand, and Watt completed the high five.
“What up, J?’’ said a man using his phone camera to take a photo of Watt.
“Hey, bud, I appreciate you,’’ said another man who seemed to want only to express his gratitude.
Wearing a sweat-soaked black T-shirt, black shorts and a white cap with his J.J. insignia, Watt exchanged pleasantries with Houston Mayor Sylvester Turner and bantered with his teammates. But mostly he stayed focused on the task at hand, loading boxes of supplies into cars.
“All set,’’ Watt said, patting the roof of a van as it pulled away and taking another box.
After more than an hour, he took a short break to address high school students who helped distribute supplies in the face of a recovery expected to cost about $160 billion.
“It’s going to take a lot of hands and it’s going to take a lot of money,’’ Watt told the volunteers. “But as long as we all do our part and as long as we all try and contribute everything we can, we will get this city back and we will get this city stronger than it’s ever been and we can do that together.’’
Before the event, Watt said he is consulting experts about how best to spend the $18 million he has raised online and that the money will stay in Houston.
“I know you are trusting me with that money to make sure that I make the right decisions," he said. “I’ve taken my time. I want to make sure I do this right because this is a long-term project.’’
That stood in contrast to the event on Sunday.
As Watt headed back for the bus, a frenetic day nearing its end, he ran into a group of high school football players. They broke into a spontaneous and loud cheer. Watt posed for one last picture but kept moving.
There is more work to do.