Sushi rolls and sponge baths: an offseason with the Romeo and Juliet of recovery
ON THE EVE of his eighth NFL training camp, J.J. Watt opened a text message and got emotional. Attached was a cellphone video, filmed in a hospital 10 months earlier, in which the Texans' defensive end wore surgery socks, with a giant bandage around his left knee, as a physical therapist showed him how to take a single step forward.
"It's crazy when you look back at that," says Watt, who returned to the practice field on July 26 after fracturing his tibial plateau in a game last Oct. 8 and missing the last 12 weeks of 2017. The NFL Defensive Player of the Year in '12, '14 and '15 had not only broken a bone but also torn cartilage—the sort of injury doctors say they usually see with car accidents. Multiple surgeons had to put his leg back together with a metal plate and screws. "That day, you're thinking to yourself, How the hell am I ever going to get back to who I am?"
If anyone could understand that feeling, it was the person who recorded the video. Kealia Ohai was with Watt at the Memorial Hermann-Texas Medical Center last October when her boyfriend underwent surgery. And she knew the setting well. Ohai, the captain of the Houston Dash, a pro soccer team in the NWSL, had torn her left ACL and meniscus on the field three months earlier. One of Watt's surgeons had even operated on her.
For two months after his surgery, Watt couldn't walk, so he leaned on Ohai to assist with almost everything. She'd bring him a toothbrush and a bowl of water so he could brush his teeth sitting down. She mastered the art of sponge baths and took over the critical household chore of cooking chocolate chip pancakes.
At the same time, Ohai was in the most intense stage of her own rehab. Before she'd leave the home she shares with Watt for her four-to-five-hour physical therapy sessions, she would make sure Watt had his phone, food and water within arm's reach. When she came back, he'd be sitting in the same spot—it was too painful for him to move.
In so many ways, this was old hat. For most of the two-plus years Watt and Ohai have been dating, he's been rehabbing one serious injury or another. When Watt needed back surgery for a herniated disc in the summer of 2016, Ohai would carry his urine bottles from bed or from the couch to the toilet, where she'd dump them out for him. (And this after they'd been dating for only two months.) But this time was different: Now the heartbeats of two franchises were confronting feelings of anxiety, frustration and uncertainty together. "Neither of us could feel too sorry for ourselves," says Ohai, "because the other one was going through the exact same thing."
For instant pick-me-ups the couple relied on sushi rolls of yellowtail tuna and truffle vinaigrette from Kata Robata or Neapolitan pizza from Pizaro's; and to conquer the boredom they devoured episodes of Peaky Blinders, a British crime drama, on Netflix. Watt resumed walking on Nov. 28, ahead of his doctors' schedule; he vacationed in Italy and visited the Coliseum in January; and toward the end of winter he started playing backyard goalie for Ohai—as long as she kicked from at least 20 yards away, to soften the sting.
Ohai, a forward, got back on the field in April, 10 months after her tear, and last month she was called up to the U.S. women's national team's training camp, an opportunity she'd worried might disappear for good after she tore her knee. "That was cool for J.J. to see," she says. "I think that gives him hope and confidence that he's going to [come back strong] too. I truly believe he's going to have the best season of his career."
Before Watt left last month for training camp in White Sulphur Springs, W.Va., he gave Ohai a handwritten note, thanking her for all her support. In return, she sent the 20-second-long video she'd been saving since October. And for Watt, watching the clip was like rewinding through the past 10 months.
"People say you're going to come out on the other side of an injury better," says Watt. "I always questioned that. But this one, I really do feel, when I look back at it all, I did come out better. She helped me through the struggle so I could see the beauty at the end."