One winter night three years ago inside the Kohl Center on the Wisconsin campus, the Badgers football team gathered for a bonding exercise that included a basketball shooting contest.
You might say one new teammate in particular jumped out at him.
"I see this guy 6 feet 5 and 295 pounds rebounding shots and he's wearing jeans, T-shirt with a hat and, flat-footed, he just starts dunking the ball hard enough to rattle the rim over and over and over,'' recalled Tice, now a graduate assistant coach at Pittsburgh. "I was like, 'Who is this guy? I hope he's good because he sure looks the part.'''
These days, J.J. Watt plays the part of the NFL's most dominant pass-rusher for a Super Bowl-caliber Texans team committed Sunday night at Soldier Field to "showing the world what we're about,'' Watt said Wednesday.
If the Bears want to be the defense leaving the biggest impression on a national television audience, they can ill afford to let the man nobody can block control the game.
"He's one of the top players, if not the top player, we've played,'' Mike Tice said of the 23-year-old Sports Illustrated cover boy.
Watt, nicknamed "J.J. Swatt,'' still soars explosively enough with a 37-inch vertical leap to become the first NFL defensive lineman ever to bat down 10 passes through eight games. He still possesses the brute strength Nate Tice witnessed in the weight room that has helped Watt power his way to a league-leading 10 1/2 sacks. He still combines freakish athleticism with uncommon intensity that didn't always endear him to Wisconsin teammates upon his arrival.
After Watt left Central Michigan eventually to walk-on at his home-state school in 2008, he spent a season on the scout team vowing to impress coaches enough to earn a scholarship. Former Wisconsin H-back Mickey Turner, also a Pittsburgh grad assistant, recounted to Nate about the day a coach yelled at him for missing a block on Watt.
"Block the guy, he's on the scout team!'' the coach barked.
"Coach,'' Turner replied. "He's pretty good, you know.''
Before the rest of the Big Ten knew Watt's potential, the Badgers did.
"Some guys on scout team take plays off but they say J.J. was like, 'Screw it, that's my shot, I'm going after it,''' Nate said.
For two full seasons, Watt went after it against Gabe Carimi, the Bears right tackle he occasionally will line up against in the Texans' multiple 3-4 defensive alignment. The Bears hope Carimi can lean on his experience from those Madison days when the two future first-round NFL draft picks developed a mutual respect.
"Two great football players competing every single day,'' Watt recalled to Houston reporters. "Definitely a battle."
Who won more?
"It was pretty even,'' Nate said. "J.J. would win one and Gabe would get the next one. Once in awhile a guy might get frustrated and give a little push but they weren't getting into fights. They got along.''
Expect Carimi's frustration to mount if both former Badgers spend too many snaps opposite one another. Carimi enters Week 10 struggling as much as Watt is soaring; blocking the run better than protecting the passer. At times uncomfortable recalling Watt, Carimi praised his work ethic but sounded as if he preferred to save specific recollections for the reunion.
"We know each other well,'' Carimi acknowledged. "There's not going to be advantages (for me) because he has the same advantage. It's all evened out."
All things even, Nate Tice will root for the Bears, saying, "Family trumps all and the Bears sign the checks.'' Still he feels connected to both his old teammates.
Watt was the first teammate to "Friend'' Nate on Facebook after he enrolled at Wisconsin and the two still communicate weekly. Carimi made a big enough personal impact that Nate predicts confidently that, against the Texans, Chicago will "start to see the Gabe I knew from Wisconsin who mauled people.''
As for his dad, Nate laughed at the notion of telling Mike Tice something about Watt he might not know. When father and son speak, usually after 10 p.m., they rarely talk shop anyway. One memorable football exchange came after an ugly Bears' victory the same weekend Pitt had beaten a Football Championship Subdivision (FCS) school.
"I sent a text, 'Pretty good game, a win's a win,' '' Nate said. "And my dad texted back, 'We can't play an FCS team every week. In the NFL you'll take it any way necessary.' ''
Especially against a Texans defense powered by a familiar source — a Watt as powerful as any player in the league.