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From rummy to eating to being the best uncle, Watt brothers always competing

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On the wall that extends from the first floor to the second in the Wisconsin home she shared with her mother, Chris Walczak hangs pictures of every person in her entire family and their significant others.

Included in the photo collage are a few recognizable faces: J.J. and Kealia Watt, Derek and Gabriella Watt, and T.J. Watt and girlfriend Dani Rhodes.

Amid all the framed family members is a single piece of paper tacked to the wall, and on it, a point of pride to Walczak and her ultra-competitive grandsons: the winner of the rummy game most recently played at her kitchen table. Just a few feet away in a chest drawer are a stack of fresh notepads and pens along with a stash of scorecards from the decades of kitchen-table competitions.

Long before the Watt brothers — J.J., 31; Derek, 27; and T.J., 25 — prepared to compete on the same field when the Houston Texans visit the Pittsburgh Steelers on Sunday (1 p.m. ET, CBS) — just the second set of three brothers since 1927 to play in the same NFL game — they gathered around Walczak’s table with their grandmother and great-grandmother Sophie Musial. Walczak would mix up their special drinks — cranberry juice and Sprite — and pour it into a set of special sippy cups with lids and swirly straws they still use today.

“She is extremely competitive, and up until she passed at 101, she was not going to let anybody try to win,” said Connie Watt, the matriarch of the Watt family, of Musial. “She was going to try to be the competitive one. So that was always a lot of fun and that trickled down now.”

If John and Connie Watt ever wondered where their three sons got their competitive nature, they don’t have to look much further than their grandmother’s kitchen table.

“Sometimes you never finish a game,” said J.J., the Texans’ star defensive end. “Sometimes you go longer but it’s all about just sitting around the table talking, spending time with family and being extremely competitive. Great-grandma, even when she was 100 years old, takes no prisoners. When that’s the attitude of your 100-, 101-year-old grandma, it kind of trickles down throughout the whole family.”

The basement arena

The basement walls of the Watt family home during the brothers’ childhood were always dotted with scuff marks and dings, tangible memories of shinny hockey games, indoor mini-baseball and wrestling matches.

Growing up, the brothers transformed their basement into an all-sport arena with wrestling mats and a full hockey net. When they weren’t playing with neighborhood kids outside across the three backyards of adjoining lots in the cul-de-sac, they were in the basement, careening into lamps, TVs and often each other.

“Specifically,” said Derek, a fullback for the Steelers, “I don’t necessarily know of something that we broke.”

T.J. jumped in: “I broke your face one time.”

That was life in the Watt household with three boys separated by nearly six years. There were always games, and inevitably they would get taken a little too far.

Connie always timed snack breaks conveniently to deescalate a competition.

“We had to step in a few times when they were younger, like I say, down in the basement, shinny hockey games, or out in the backyard, whatever they were doing, just to let things cool down for maybe 30 seconds or so,” John said. “But then they would be right back out again after that. So usually, when things got too bad, it would just be up to Connie to say, ‘OK, I got a snack or have some kind of food waiting for you guys up here. Let’s take a break.’ And that would definitely get them up and get them apart for a while.”

Even if he got heated back then, T.J., the youngest, is quick to credit those backyard and basement games for helping him turn into an elite athlete and competitor.

“It was super important in my development, to play with J.J. and Derek to get beat up a lot when I was younger,” said T.J., a Steelers outside linebacker. “But [also], to be resilient and continue to grow and learn from my experiences playing with those guys.”

And as adults, the Watts haven’t lost their uber-competitive streak with each other. Instead of shinny hockey, they turn other things into competitions: who can jump the farthest, eat the most food or finish a bowl of their least-favorite vegetable.

Gabriella, Derek’s wife, remembers watching her now-husband down an entire bowl of chopped bell peppers — one of his aversions at the time — because J.J. dared him.

“It was not like him at all, but he didn’t want to turn down his brother’s competition, so he went ahead and did it,” Gabriella said.

“J.J. did not think that Derek was actually going to do it because he knows what a picky eater he is, but then he sees, ‘Oh my gosh, the bowl is slowly having less and less peppers.’ He’s trying to get in his head, ‘Oh, isn’t that gross, isn’t that gross? It’s going to hurt your stomach.'”

Of course, Derek finished the entire bowl.

The trio also turns board games and card games, like rummy, into high-stakes affairs — with each other and with their significant others. Their wives and girlfriend don’t back down from a challenge, either. Kealia and Rhodes are professional soccer players, both playing for the Chicago Red Stars, and Gabriella played sports before pursuing a career as a sideline reporter.

“They’re supposed to be a fun way to end a night and kind of relax, and I think especially in quarantine, it’s sometimes gotten the best of us where we’re like, ‘OK, we’re not playing cards or a board game tonight,'” Rhodes said. “That’s not a fun thing anymore.”

It’s not just that the brothers want to win, it’s that they don’t want to finish last.

And whenever one of them does, there’s always a reason.

“We set up golf games in our apartment,” Rhodes said. “If he loses, it’s because he golfs lefty and he was using my righty clubs or something like that. There’s always competition and there’s always excuses on whoever’s end is losing.”

Say uncle

Since Derek and Gabriella had their first son, Logan, a year and a half ago, the brothers have become even closer.

“And even more competitive,” Connie said with a laugh.

Leave it to the Watts to turn being an uncle into a competition.

When Logan was first born and Derek was still playing for the Chargers, T.J. sent him a No. 90 Watt Steelers jersey.

“J.J. found out about that and he’s like, ‘OK, I just ordered one today, it’s in the mail,'” Gabriella said. “They don’t want to find out that Logan is getting more gifts or just spending more time with the other uncle.”

Since Derek signed with the Steelers in free agency, T.J. has the edge in spending time with Logan. It’s not uncommon for him to pop over to Derek’s house, walking distance from his own in Pittsburgh, to see Logan before he goes to bed. It’s a chance for him to bond with his nephew — and get an edge in the competition to see who can make Logan laugh the most.

With Derek and T.J. playing for the same team, Logan is inundated with Steelers gear, but J.J. still tries to sway Logan with some Texans toys.

“He’s wearing Steelers stuff all the time,” J.J. said. “He lives like four houses away from T.J. The whole thing is just set up for me to fail in terms of being a great uncle. I can send him all the Texans stuff I want but it ends up in the dog’s chew-toy bin.”

T.J. might have the edge in the uncle race, but he still has some work to do to be the No. 1 Watt babysitter. So far, he’s watched Logan one time, and Logan napped for most of it. T.J. brought him a rock — “he loves rocks” — and Logan didn’t cry when T.J. picked him up from the crib.

Naturally, T.J. wants to be the best at everything, but there’s one hurdle keeping him from fully excelling at babysitting duties.

“I don’t know what better job I could’ve done,” T.J. said. “I’m not changing diapers, though. That’s where I draw the line.”

Derek shook his head.

“That’s a crucial part of being a babysitter,” Derek said. “We’ll see, maybe J.J. will change a diaper down the line, and it’ll make things shift in the other direction.”

Legendary workouts

For years, whenever J.J., Derek and T.J. worked out together at NX Level in Waukesha, Wisconsin, owner Brad Arnett knew he had to adjust the schedule. The three brothers turned everything into a competition, whether it was a sprint workout, plyometrics or netball throws.

“Someone may win, but the other two are going to find fault as to what he did wrong that let him win,” Arnett said. “So you’ve got to do it again. And you’ve got to do it again. And you’ve got to do it again. So I just always have to add additional time to the workouts when they’re here, because at some point there’s going to be some type of competition. It’s never-ending, but that’s what makes them who they are.”

With J.J. in his 10th NFL season, he’s had to be smarter about the way he trains. While Derek and T.J. are able to go back and forth the way J.J. was able to in the past, J.J’s wife, Kealia, said that has had to change.

“[All three] would go until they were completely exhausted and get it right, and I think as J.J.’s gotten older, he’s realized that’s not the smartest thing to do,” Kealia said.

Because J.J. is in Houston and can’t compete in person with T.J. and Derek right now, the back-and-forth continues in group chats. Recently, the three brothers and a few other friends from high school were arguing about which Pewaukee High football team of the past would win if they took the players from their senior-year teams and put them on a field right now.

“I’ll give you insight on how stupid our group chat is,” J.J. began, before admitting that Derek’s team came out on top because he and T.J. were both on that squad.

The group chat is particularly busy on Sundays. Midway through the 2018 season, when J.J. and T.J. were going back and forth up the sacks leaderboard, the texts were more competitive than usual.

Every week, J.J. and T.J. kept tabs on each others’ stats, either by checking box scores after their own games or, if they were lucky, by watching the other’s game. Or in some instances, from musician Kendrick Lamar.

While it’s competitive between the brothers, J.J. says they’re also “each other’s biggest fans.”

“We each root for each other as much as we can, whenever we can,” J.J. said in 2018. “I want to see him get as many sacks as he can possibly get, just the same way he wants to see me. We compete, and there’s definitely a little bit of underlying competition there, but at the end of the day, if he gets 500 sacks, I’d be happy as hell.”

A special Sunday

That brotherly camaraderie is on pause this week as the two youngest Watts get ready to take on J.J.

Not only has it never happened for the Watt brothers, who have nearly six years between J.J. and T.J., but it’s very rare in an NFL game. Last season, the Edmunds brothers (Terrell and Trey for the Steelers and Tremaine for the Bills) faced each other. According to research by ESPN Stats & Information, that was the first known instance of three brothers appearing in the same NFL game since 1927, when Joe, Cobb and Bill Rooney did it for the Duluth Eskimos.

J.J. and Derek got to play on the same field in 2019 when the Texans played against Derek’s Chargers, and J.J. and T.J. were lined up for a Christmas Eve matchup in 2017 in Houston before J.J. broke his leg earlier in the year. Derek and T.J. played against each other the past two seasons when the Chargers and Steelers played, getting to face off by virtue of playing different sides of the ball.

That’s what makes Sunday special.

“It’s unbelievable,” J.J. said. “It truly is incredible. Just to have all of us playing at Wisconsin was really cool. Just to have all of us playing in the NFL was really cool. To play against another brother was cool. Now, to have all of us on the field at the same time in the same game, it really doesn’t get any better than that.”

Under normal circumstances, John and Connie would be at Heinz Field on Sunday afternoon in their half-Steelers, half-Texans jerseys. They would be sitting with Gabriella and Logan, and maybe Kealia and Rhodes if the Chicago Red Stars teammates could get to Pittsburgh for the game. But because of the ongoing pandemic, the proud parents plan to watch on the living room sofa at their home in Pewaukee.

“It’s going to be a special day no matter what happens,” John said. “Like Connie said, you hate to see one have to lose, but hopefully they all have a good game and come out of it injury-free and it’s something we can treasure for the rest of our lives. And them, too.”

Rhodes said even before Derek signed with the Steelers, he, J.J. and T.J. “always talked about it in kind of what-ifs and a dream, and how cool it would be to all be on the same field.”

“They’ve never really had that opportunity, so now, this past year when it came out on the upcoming fall schedule, I think they were just so excited to finally have it be reality and ever since have been looking forward to it,” Rhodes said.

With two sacks Sunday, J.J. would become just the fourth player to record 100 sacks in his first 115 games. But naturally, T.J. and Derek don’t want to see him hit that milestone at Heinz Field.

“I think J.J.’s got enough hardware, Defensive Player of the Years — he’s not very shy of telling people he has those awards, especially me,” T.J. said. “I think he doesn’t need this one.”

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Toronto FC hoping to make MLS Cup run having spent much of 2020 far from home

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On a recent Thursday in Hartford, Conn., Toronto FC goalkeeper Quentin Westberg pondered the dichotomy of wanting to reach MLS Cup on Dec. 12, but also desiring to see his family again. Meanwhile, Jim Liston, the team’s director of sports science, was planning a trip to Lowe’s to buy 15 garbage cans so players could have an ice bath after training. As for manager Greg Vanney, he was fretting about his team’s health and the lack of practice time their schedule was affording.

Such is the life of a team as it attempts to not only navigate its way through the COVID-19 pandemic, but has been forced to do it away from home.

Due to travel restrictions between the U.S. and Canada, TFC — like the league’s other two Canadian teams, Montreal Impact and Vancouver Whitecaps — set up a “home” base in the U.S. for the remainder of the season; Toronto were stationed in Hartford. (Vancouver Whitecaps took roost in Portland, ground-sharing with Timbers, while Montreal Impact split use of New York Red Bulls’ facilities in Harrison, N.J.) This was on top of nearly every team spending nearly a month inside a bubble back in July at the MLS is Back Tournament outside Orlando, Florida.

The Reds spent about seven weeks back in Toronto as they played a series of matches against Canadian teams. In mid-September, the remainder of the regular season — and the temporary move to Hartford — beckoned. The vagabond nature of the campaign is what led Liston to joke that he was willing to discuss “whatever five seasons” the team has been through so far. But for Vanney and the players, the campaign has required a special kind of focus.

“A lot of what we’ve done here, and what we try to preach here is just control the controllables, and don’t get too drawn into the things you can’t,” Vanney told ESPN. “Roll with it, and make the best out of whatever the situation is.”

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Toronto has largely succeeded in spite of its odyssey. While there was disappointment at missing out on the Supporters’ Shield to the Philadelphia Union, TFC went 7-3-2 during its Hartford sojourn and finished with the second-best record in the league. But the challenges have still been immense. Simply being out of one’s home environment is difficult enough, but the time spent away from family and loved ones weighs heavy on the psyche, even as Vanney has given players the occasional trip back to Toronto — under quarantine — to reconnect with loved ones.

“It’s just very different, very challenging and emotionally exhausting,” Westberg said of his experience while based in Hartford.

Westberg has arguably had it tougher than most. The TFC goalkeeper is married with four children, including a baby girl who was born in June. For that reason, Westberg and his wife, Ania, made the decision at the end of September that it would be better for her and their kids to head back to his native France so they could be surrounded by family. Westberg called it “the least bad decision,” but there are difficulties nonetheless.

“I’m a very even person, and this year has challenged me a lot,” he said. “I’m still pretty even, but I keep a lot to myself and for sure there’s some difficult days, seeing your family [struggle] from your absence.”

The inability to be home has affected the players and staff in other ways. In Toronto, there are ways of disengaging from the game. Being with friends, loved ones or even in familiar surroundings can be the best medicine in terms of forgetting a bad game or training session. But in Hartford, at the team’s hotel, that escape is nearly impossible even as players try to distract themselves by reading or taking online classes.

“You don’t really unplug,” Westberg said. “You FaceTime family, or this or that, but it’s too short. You’re 100 percent focused on your soccer, and your whole day basically relies on being ready for whatever soccer activity that you have next, whether it’s practice or game. It’s good for your physique, it’s optimal for the way you eat and the way you [train]. But mentally, you’re not as fresh as your body.”

That isn’t to say there are only negatives to the separation. There is also an us-against-the-world mentality that Toronto has adopted, given that their players and personnel are experiencing the season in a way that is vastly different than most other teams. The team staff has done what it can to make their surroundings a home away from home, whether it’s personalizing the locker rooms at Rentschler Field or having hotel staff brand the surroundings in TFC colors. The hotel went so far as to bring in a barista who could consistently give the players their coffee fix. Supporters groups have even sent down banners in a bid to convey the fact that the players are remembered.

The care that TFC takes for players has extended to families back home, with the club supplying meals to loved ones three times a week.

On the logistical side, Liston made sure that one of the gyms used at MLS is Back was brought to TFC’s hotel in Hartford, and he remarked that the food at the hotel is “arguably the best we’ve ever had on the road.”

There have also been efforts to create new routines. Assistant coach Jason Bent, aka DJ Soops, has been in charge of the pregame music selection for the past 18 months — no easy feat for a squad that has a considerable international presence. In Hartford, Bent has set aside Thursday nights to spin music in one area of the hotel. He’ll even go live on Instagram or Twitch for those who prefer to relax in their rooms.

“[We] opened it to players and staff and basically anyone that’s part of our bubble to come relax, listen to music and just enjoy each other’s company,” Bent said. “I enjoy making people happy so if it’s helping everyone even in the slightest, I have no problem arranging the set and spinning.”

For Vanney, the pandemic and operating outside of the team’s home market has meant any number of challenges. He said the team has used three different training facilities in Hartford, with varying field conditions. He recognizes that the trips home are vital for the mental health of his players and staff, but any breaks also mean less time spent on the practice field. The compressed schedule, which at times involved games every three or four days, has had an impact as well. Even the best-laid plans in terms of squad rotation were impacted as minor injuries began popping up.

“We end up with a lot of guys in different positions because they need special kinds of treatment or care to help them get fit and back to health,” Vanney said. “So it ends up being a lot of different things kind of going on all at once, and that’s been the challenge of it.”

Recovery from matches has been complicated by the fact that TFC doesn’t have access to the same level of facilities that it does at home — hence Liston’s emergency trip to Lowe’s to fashion impromptu ice baths for the players. Then there are the different ways the players occupy themselves on the road as compared to home, especially amid the pandemic.

“There’s really no life outside of the hotel,” Liston said. “[At home], you may go walk the dog in the afternoon or go for a walk with your wife or friend or girlfriend or family and you’re out and about. The recommendation [here] is to kind of stay put. So you’ve got a really active population and pro athletes, who we’re asking them to be sedentary the rest of the time, kind of stay in the hotel from a COVID and safety standpoint. That’s not optimal for recovery either.”

There are also the creature comforts of home that are no longer available on the road, which can impact sleep.

“Sleep is the number one tool for recovery, and that’s definitely been a challenge,” Liston said. “We do well-being questionnaires and the scores on quality of sleep, and hours of sleep, just drop.”

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Another change has been same-day travel, which has drawn mixed reactions from the TFC players and staff. Vanney and Westberg are generally in favor, saying it reminds them of when they each played in France. Flying back the same night also means a training day isn’t lost. Liston has a different perspective in that he prefers arriving the day before, and then leaving the same day.

“I think [same-day travel] makes for a really long day,” he said. “And there’s definitely a negative impact on performance, taking three bus rides and a plane ride before your game. You’re getting home — it can be 12:30, but it could also be 1:30 in the morning, and that’s where you know our well-being scores and sleep hours and quality just disappear. When you have so many games in succession, you can’t make up the sleep.”

With the playoffs set to begin for TFC on Nov. 24, the end is in sight, even as it makes for a complex — and even conflicting — set of emotions.

“This is the tricky part. I miss them a lot,” Westberg said of his family. “But in a way I want to see them as [late] as possible in December, because obviously, there’s this idea that we want to do well in the playoffs and we want to keep going. TFC has a history of setting high standards and high expectations. It’s a heavy load to carry but also an exciting one.”

Win or lose, it’s a season they’ll never forget.

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Bettman: NHL is mulling temporary realignment

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The NHL is considering a temporary realignment of its teams for the 2020-21 season due to COVID-19 travel restrictions, according to commissioner Gary Bettman.

Bettman said Tuesday that restrictions on travel across the Canadian border, as well as “limitations in terms of quarantining when you go from certain states to other states” within the United States, could mean the NHL creates a more regionalized alignment for its upcoming season.

“As it relates to the travel issue, which is obviously the great unknown, we may have to temporarily realign to deal with geography, because having some of our teams travel from Florida to California may not make sense. It may be that we’re better off — particularly if we’re playing a reduced schedule, which we’re contemplating — keeping it geographically centric and more divisional-based; and realigning, again on a temporary basis, to deal with the travel issues,” Bettman said during a 2020 Paley International Council Summit panel with fellow commissioners Adam Silver of the NBA and Rob Manfred of MLB.

The NHL board of governors has a meeting scheduled for Thursday which will provide a progress report and possible recommendations for a season format, based on talks between the league and the NHL Players’ Association. The target date for starting next season remains Jan. 1.

Bettman said the league is considering a few scheduling options for the 2020-21 season. Something that’s off the table: playing the entire season in the kind of bubbles the NHL had in Toronto and Edmonton, Alberta, to complete last season. But Bettman said teams opening in their own arenas is a possibility, along with a modified bubble.

“We are exploring the possibility of playing in our own buildings without fans [or] fans where you can, which is going to be an arena-by-arena issue. But we’re also exploring the possibility of a hub. You’ll come in. You’ll play for 10 to 12 days. You’ll play a bunch of games without traveling. You’ll go back, go home for a week, be with your family. We’ll have our testing protocols and all the other things you need,” he said.

Bettman also indicated that the NHL is exploring “a hybrid, where some teams are in a bubble, some teams play at home and you move in and out.”

The NBA’s board of governors unanimously approved a deal with the players’ union that sets the stage for a season that will open on Dec. 22 and with a reduced schedule of 72 games. Silver said that the commissioners are in communication on COVID-19-related issues, especially the NBA and the NHL, since the two leagues’ teams share arenas and, in some cases, team owners.

Silver said he senses that the NBA will have fans in many of its buildings this season.

“We’re probably going to start one way, where we’re maybe a little bit more conservative than many of the jurisdictions allow,” he said. “What we’ve said to our teams is that we’ll continue to work with public health authorities. Arena issues are different than outdoor stadium issues. There will be certain standards for air filtration and air circulation. There may be a different standard for a suite than there will be for fans spaced in seats.”

Silver said there will be standardized protocols that are consistent from arena to arena, such as proximity between players and fans: “In certain cases, for seats near the floor, we’re going to be putting in testing programs, where fans will certify that they’ve been tested — some within 48 hours, some within day of game.” While Silver supported a continued expansion of the NBA postseason through its play-in tournament, Bettman said that he’s not in favor of expanded playoffs or “playing with the fundamentals of the game.” The NHL had 24 teams in its postseason last summer.

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The Battleground States Where We’ve Seen Some Movement In The Polls

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With apologies to The Raconteurs, the presidential race continues to be “steady as she goes,” with little sign of tightening despite a plethora of new polls. FiveThirtyEight’s presidential forecast gives Joe Biden an 89 in 100 shot at winning the election, while President Trump has just an 11 in 100 chance. This makes Biden the favorite, but still leaves open a narrow path to victory for Trump, for whom a reelection win would be surprising — but not utterly shocking.

At the same time, we also have fewer polls from live-caller surveys, which have historically been more accurate and have shown slightly better numbers for Biden, than polls that use other methodologies, such as polls conducted primarily online or through automated telephone calls. Nevertheless, while the overall picture has shifted only a little in recent days, a few battleground states have seen at least some movement in their polls, which has slightly altered the odds Biden or Trump wins in each of those places.

What election stories need to get more coverage | FiveThirtyEight Politics Podcast

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