Heart of the matter: Doctor recommends Cardinals' J.J. Watt undergo procedure to fix heart problem

Arizona Cardinals defensive end J.J. Watt stretches before the Oct. 2 game against the Carolina Panthers.
Arizona Cardinals defensive end J.J. Watt stretches before the Oct. 2 game against the Carolina Panthers.

Always the quintessential professional, J.J. Watt stuck to his regular pre-game ritual on Sunday at Bank of America Stadium in Charlotte, N.C. The Cardinals’ veteran defensive end did his solo pass-rushing shadow work against a goal post at one end of the arena, did some private stretching in the end zone, then would return in uniform to finish his normal routine.

That included his customary high knee-bending sprints, the usual quick-burst runs, followed by a friendly walk around the stadium by the 6-foot-5, 288-pound Pied Piper of Fun to play a game of catch football with kids and teenagers who happened to be wearing any Cardinals’ gear.

A few hours later, the biggest, baddest man on the field was sobbing like a baby.

It was emotionally raw, extremely authentic, and insanely beautiful, if you’ll pardon the observation.

Watt, the NFL’s three-time Defensive Player of the Year and future Hall of Famer, could have died last Wednesday when his heart, for reasons still unknown, went into atrial fibrillation. Though the condition isn’t always serious but can be and causes an irregular and often very rapid heart rhythm, all we know is that medical personnel shocked his heart back into its normal rhythm the next day, he was pronounced fit to play, and he appeared in his 138th regular-season NFL game three days later.

Arizona Cardinals defensive lineman J.J. Watt is introduced before they take on the Los Angeles Rams at State Farm Stadium in Glendale on Sept. 25, 2022.
Arizona Cardinals defensive lineman J.J. Watt is introduced before they take on the Los Angeles Rams at State Farm Stadium in Glendale on Sept. 25, 2022.

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WATT: Makes key play days after treatment for irregular heartbeat

He had three tackles and two deflected passes, the second of which directly resulted in a fourth-quarter interception that, two plays later, led to a Kyler Murray touchdown run, a 20-10 Cardinals lead and helped secure a 26-16 victory over the Carolina Panthers.

“That shows you what type of person and competitor and human being he is,” coach Kliff Kingsbury said after the game. “He's special. We were all obviously worried when he wasn't around for a couple days, getting the tests run and handling that. I think it was definitely inspiring for all of us. Played at a really high level. He just continues to amaze, the type of person and player he is.”

Watt, 33, has made some pretty impressive and improbable comebacks before in his 12-year NFL career. In Houston, he fought his way back from surgeries to repair a broken hand, a battered back (twice) and a fractured leg. In 2019 with the Texans, he was able to return from what was supposed to be a season-ending, torn pectoral injury. Last season with the Cardinals, he rehabbed his way back from what was expected to be season-ending reconstructive shoulder surgery.

But this?

“I’ve had injuries before, I’ve had surgeries before, but I’ve never been nervous,” Watt said. “I’ve never been scared of anesthesia, I’ve never been scared of surgery, I’ve never been scared of pain. But when they told me they were going to put me out and shock my heart, I was scared.”

Arizona Cardinals defensive end J.J. Watt (99) works against Los Angeles Rams offensive guard Austin Corbett (63) during an Oct. 3, 2021 game.
Arizona Cardinals defensive end J.J. Watt (99) works against Los Angeles Rams offensive guard Austin Corbett (63) during an Oct. 3, 2021 game.

Who wouldn’t be? Watt, however, talked to numerous cardiologists and electrophysiologists from across the country and said he was assured there was nothing else he could do. The rapid, unusual heartbeat, which can lead to risks of a blood clot, stroke, heart failure and other complications, could return in a day, perhaps in 20 years or perhaps never again.

According to Dr. Shephal Doshi, director of cardiac electrophysiology and pacing at Providence St. John’s Health Center in Santa Monica, California, a situation such as the one Watt experienced isn’t rare and often isn’t life-threatening.

Doshi, however, recommends that Watt should strongly consider having a catheter ablation procedure to fix the cells in his heart that are misfiring. The procedure is performed 100,000 times a year in the U.S., he said, and although the patient must be treated with blood thinners for two months afterward, Doshi suggests Watt have it done now instead of waiting for another A-fib to occur, which he adds is bound to happen.

Either way, the procedure would keep Watt off the football field for at least eight weeks at the minimum. There’s a 10-15 percent chance, Doshi said, that Watt may have to undergo a second procedure if the situation reoccurs.

Doshi is not involved in Watt's treatment, and has no first-hand knowledge of Watt's individual situation.

“Absolutely, he needs to have it,” Doshi said. “The issue is do you wait for the offseason, or do you do it now? … The team has to decide with J.J. and his physician that, ‘Hey, do we want to bite the bullet now and have you ready at the tail end of the season or should we continue to let you play and if it happens again, then at that point we’ll make a decision?’

“But what if you get to Week 10 and then he’s out for the playoffs? There’s no right answer here. … My personal bias is, potentially get it done now and have him for the end of the season.”

As he stood in front of a podium near the visitor’s locker room in Charlotte after Sunday’s game, Watt reiterated that he wished the entire issue had never been revealed, publicly. He’s the one who broke the news, but only because he caught wind that Jay Glazer from Fox Sports was going to announce it nationally without his consent.

That’s a whole different part of this story, which probably should be further explored, but it doesn’t nearly trump Watt’s decision to ultimately suit up and play. He wouldn’t have done it, he said, if his wife, Kealia, hadn’t been by his side throughout the entire process or he heard something different from the array of medical experts he and the Cardinals consulted first.

Then again, playing football has always meant everything to Justin James Watt, the Walter Payton NFL Man of the Year in 2017 and a five-time, first-team All-Pro and Pro Bowl selection.

“I didn’t know what else to do,” he said. “I mean, I’ve been playing this game my whole life. You know, they said I was fine, so once my heart was reset, they said you’re fine if you feel comfortable. I mean, I’d probably be more uncomfortable sitting on my couch at home. This is just, this is what I know. Right or wrong, maybe that’s messed up, but if I was sitting at home watching the boys play knowing they said that I was perfectly fine to play, I would have felt weird, so I just did what I know.”

Watt made that decision knowing something else. He and Kealia are about to become first-time parents to a baby boy sometime within the next few weeks. Watt might not have said it, but that thought was weighing on his mind maybe more than anything and when he was asked about it, he couldn’t hide his emotions.

There were long pauses in his voice. He lowered his head to hide wallowing eyes that started to fill with tears. He tried to fight it, but he wept.

“Yeah, I mean, for months we’ve been looking at ultrasounds of our baby boy and they’re all extremely happy and then Thursday we were looking at ultrasounds of my heart,” Watt finally said. “It was … It was tough. It’s been … it’s been a week. It’s been a week but happy to be here, happy to … yeah.”

It didn’t get any easier in the tiny press conference room for Watt or any of the dozen or so folks who were there to witness it. Especially when Watt was asked a follow-up question about whether he considered not playing Sunday at all.

“Yeah. Yeah, I did,” he said. “I mean, it’s been tough, you know? It was … It’s just weird. Just weird. I have a baby on the way.”

That’s another reason why Doshi said Watt should have the ablation procedure done now. He’d be fatigued for the first couple of days but would still be able to train and work out and could then enjoy some quality paternity time with his wife and newborn.

“That would be my recommendation,” Doshi said, adding, “All we know is we didn’t fix it yet. Expecting him to play high-level athletics and to put his body through what he’s been put through, he’ll likely have it again unless we try to fix it at some point.”

Reach McManaman at bob.mcmanaman@arizonarepublic.com and follow him on Twitter @azbobbymac.

This article originally appeared on Arizona Republic: J.J. Watt: Heart procedure could be option for Arizona Cardinals star