HOUSTON — J.J. Watt raised more than $37 million for Hurricane Harvey relief efforts and Jose Altuve led the Houston Astros to their first World Series title, both giving hope to the city as it picked up the pieces from the devastating storm.
On Monday night, the two were honored by Sports Illustrated when they were given the magazine’s prestigious Sportsperson of the Year award. Sports Illustrated executive editor Steve Cannella said they chose the pair because Watt and Altuve perfectly embodied the “Houston Strong” slogan the city adopted in the wake of the August hurricane and its catastrophic flooding.
To celebrate the award, given annually since 1954 to honor a player, coach or team who has best exhibited athletic achievement and sportsmanship on and off the field, the players share this month’s Sports Illustrated cover. Looking dapper in matching dark-colored suits and white dress shirts, they are pictured smiling broadly, with their arms slung over other’s shoulders and a headline that declares: “Houston Strong.”
“I grew up in Wisconsin and I remember when I was in school I saw Brett Favre as the SI Sportsperson of the Year and I thought that was awesome,” Watt told The Associated Press. “So now to be able to be on one myself and share it with Jose and have it represent the city of Houston and everything we’ve been through I think it obviously holds a little bit of extra meaning.”
Altuve, the American League’s Most Valuable Player, said the Astros felt a responsibility to bring the championship to Houston to give the city a boost as it recovered.
“I think the World Series gave the people a big smile and hope during the tough time they were getting through,” he said. “And I feel really happy that we did it because they really deserved it.”
Watt, a three-time Defensive Player of the Year with the Houston Texans, became the face of Harvey’s relief efforts with his fundraiser. He began the campaign in the days after the storm with the goal of raising $200,000. But he kept upping the target as donations poured in from more than 200,000 people.
He deflected credit for the huge sum he raised, saying that the real acclaim should go to those who pledged money.
“It was incredible to see how people from all over the country, people from all over the world, people from all different backgrounds, all different communities came together to support a city and a people that were having the toughest time of their life,” Watt said. “I think that’s the message that I took from it all and I hope people take from this all is how when everybody has one common goal and everybody comes together and puts all their differences aside we can accomplish some truly incredible things.”
Watt has had a tough couple of years, playing just three games last season before having season-ending back surgery and breaking his left leg this year in Houston’s fifth game. In the last few days he’s began visiting some of the people his contributions have helped and it’s given him some perspective on his setbacks.
“Having a chance . . . to be able to see some of the stuff that’s going on and being able to focus on some of these efforts, yeah it’s been really cool,” he said. “And it does (help). It goes to show you that there’s so much out there beyond football. And I can’t wait to get back on the field and to be able to put on a show on the field. But in the meantime it’s been very cool to be able to see everything that’s happening outside of the field.”
It’s impossible to quantify just how many people the money Watt raised will help. But he said they will be rebuilding more than 1,000 daycare centers and hundreds of homes as well as providing donations of food and medical care.
“It’s tough to put exact numbers on it, but there will obviously be many, many people that will benefit from all the generous people who donated,” he said.
The Astros placed a “Houston Strong” patch on their jerseys in the days after the storm and it remained a tangible reminder of what the city lost in the storm as they defeated the Los Angeles Dodgers to win the title. Altuve said he thought about that slogan and what it meant each time they moved closer to their goal of bringing the city that elusive championship.
“When I see that I see the proof,” he said. “I know for a fact that our city is really strong because after the hurricane they tried to come back and they tried to get better every, single day and that’s what strong people do. That’s why I feel like the strong patch and the ‘Houston Strong’ was a good name for the people of Houston.”