Former first lady Mrs. Barbara Bush applauds for Republican presidential candidate Jeb Bush during a campaign event in Greenville, S.C. on Feb. 19, 2016.
Sean Rayford—Getty Images
April 18, 2018 6:45 PM EDT

The unlikely friendship between the white-haired former First Lady and the hulking football star began four years ago, when Barbara Bush and J.J. Watt got together in Houston to film a spot promoting literacy.

Bush wore shoulder pads and eye black. “If we’re going to tackle illiteracy here in Houston, JJ,” Bush said in the video, “we’ve got to get our game faces on.” Watt, the 6-foot-5 Houston Texans defensive end, was smitten.

“I just thought it was the coolest thing in the world that the former First Lady, Mrs. Barbara Bush, was over here with shoulder pads and eye black on,” Watt tells TIME. “She was all in.”

After hearing that Bush had died on Tuesday at age 92, Watt tweeted several photos of his favorite moments with her – including a shot of her with the shoulder pads and eye black.

“You were a beautiful light in this world, and I am forever thankful for your friendship,” Watt wrote.

Bush has thrown out the first pitch at Watt’s charity softball game; Watt has been over to the Bush house for cookies.

A local news site dubbed the pair “Houston’s favorite comedy duo” for their frequent hammy appearances together. At one event, Watt mock-confronted Bush about betraying him when she filmed another literacy spot with former Houston Rockets center Dwight Howard.

“She just had this energy about her,” says Watt. “I was in a room with her, her husband, and her son. Two former presidents and Mrs. Bush. She’s the one that had the crowd around her, and had everyone waiting for what she was going to say next.”

Both Watt and Bush share a passion for philanthropy. Though the NFL star missed most of the 2017 season with a broken leg, Sports Illustrated named him a Sportsman of the Year, after he helped raise more than $37 million for Hurricane Harvey relief. (He set an initial goal of $200,000).

Watt says Bush helped inspire his efforts. “She set a great example for myself and so many others,” he says. “Absolutely I wanted to try to not only make her proud, but make so many other people proud, and try to help out as many people as I can.”

The news of Bush’s passing left Watt saddened. “We lost an incredible human being,” he says. “The second thing that comes to my mind is I was happy that she was surrounded by her family and friends, and she can spent her last hours in the way that she chose to.”

What’s the First Lady’s legacy? “She provided an excellent example of what it meant to live a life in service to others,” Watt says. “With her literacy campaign, all way up to the very end, she wanted to do things to help other people. The greatest lesson I learned from Barbara Bush was if we all do a little bit to help our fellow human each day, we’re going to leave the world in a better place than we found it.”

More Must-Reads From TIME

Write to Sean Gregory at

You May Also Like