IRVING, Texas – It was No. 1 of 992, but Jason Witten remembers his first NFL catch vividly.
"It was (against the) Atlanta Falcons, (my) first game, old Texas Stadium," he said. "You can imagine the adrenaline going through your mind as a rookie.
"I remember afterward just thinking, 'It's football.' I always remember that one just because it was the first."
The 21-year-old Witten gained 13 yards on the lone reception of his Cowboys debut Sept. 7, 2003.
A month later, he missed the first and only game of his now 13-year career after having surgery to have three plates inserted in his fractured jaw, which he suffered a week earlier against the Cardinals.
Now, here's where these two statistics intersect:
- This Sunday against the Dolphins, Jason Witten will break Bob Lilly's Cowboys record for consecutive games played (196). Witten's 196-game playing streak since that Week 6 absence in 2003 is the longest among all active NFL players.
- He also needs eight catches to join Tony Gonzalez as the second tight end in NFL history (and only the 11th player ever) to reach 1,000 in a career.
Two records about to be rewritten, possibly both as soon as Sunday.
Witten, an offensive captain on this year's team, is focused on how the Cowboys can end their longest losing streak in 26 years. But he understands the significance of both milestones and the matching traits that define his career in Dallas:
Longevity. Durability. Consistency.
"I do think I would be disappointed in myself if I didn't recognize, really because of the respect I have for the game of joining that group of 1,000 catches, the receivers that have done that and tight ends," Witten said Thursday. "What a special group to join. I'm honored and privileged.
"It's been unbelievable to have that kind of (games played) streak and fortunate the process that has allowed me to do that week in and week out, to be mentioned with Bob Lilly. You learn real quick when you come to this organization who Mr. Cowboy is. And just the way he played and the way he approached it, he was just the ultimate team guy."
Witten is appreciative of his teammates and coaches/staff members, including the athletic trainers and strength and conditioning coaches, who have helped him play at an elite level for so long.
One of those teammates was Dan Campbell, a veteran mentor to Witten at tight end for three years in Dallas (2003-2005) and the current interim head coach of the Dolphins.
Campbell believes strongly that Witten became a great player from his own hard work.
"He's a self-made man. I would like to think I helped a little just as he was growing from his rookie season, but let's call it what it is – he's a special human being," Campbell said. "He's somebody that came in as a rookie and worked, he wanted to be good, he wanted to understand the game. He was always tough from the time he walked in.
"It is so hard for me to fathom, just having played the position and knowing everything that I went through in 11 seasons as a player and just the way that my body feels now, I don't know how he does it. And not only that, he's in his 13th year, he's still playing at a high level. It is absolutely amazing."
Whether it arrives Sunday or later in the season, Witten will approach his 1,000th catch the same way he has the first 992. Each one is continuous proof that he's still a productive, reliable teammate.
"It's not the catches that you have – it's the ones you don't that keep you motivated and want to go back and learn," he said. "That process, that journey to get to this point is what I feel like has been my biggest strength – it never stops; it's a show-me game. And you have to be able to kind of approach it that way."
Witten has done that for 196 games and counting. Sunday, No. 197 will go in the record books.
"He's the most unbelievable example I've seen as a player or a coach where you can just point to him and say, 'Do what 82 does' in really everything he does each and every day," head coach Jason Garrett said. "So, he's one of those guys that you root for, you cheer for. I have chills down my spine right now just talking about him. I think he's something else, and he deserves all the success that he's had."