Wow, am I really writing this?
There were times when I just never thought this day would come. And even last week, I didn't see this one on the radar. Not sure many of us really did.
So it's a sad, sad day to be writing a farewell column about Jason Witten.
I've had the privilege of covering this team for 20 years, and in that span, I've been there for the end of Aikman, Irvin and Deion. I had a few years there with Emmitt and Woodson and, of course, this latest group with D-Ware and Romo and Dez.
No disrespect to any of them, but Jason Witten is by far the best football player I've ever been around.
I didn't say the most talented. Didn't say the most gifted. And I guess he's not the most accomplished, considering that elusive Super Bowl ring sadly never made it his way.
But when it comes to being a football player, Jason Witten is the best I've ever seen.
Every thing you want from a football player, Jason Witten personifies.
You name the cliché adjective and Jason Witten hits the mark – every time.
- Strong? Yeah, this guy caught more passes for more yards than anyone else in team history, but still found a way to block defensive ends and linebackers for 15 years.
- Athletic? No, he wasn't the fastest or most agile player. But even in his final season – a Pro Bowl one at that – he was getting open. Everyone used to say he wasn't that athletic, but he got open for 15 years.
- Tough? Come on. Never a question there. In 2012, just a few days after suffering a ruptured spleen in a preseason game, Witten was driving by me in a golf cart at training camp and slammed on the brakes. He stopped cold and said, "Hey, Nick, I'm playing in that game against the Giants. Everyone keeps saying I'm going miss the game … you watch." Well, sure enough, he got the second, or third, or fourth opinion he needed to play in that game and keep his streak alive. That's just one example. There are hundreds more. Undoubtedly, Witten is the toughest player I've ever seen, and I would bet that anyone else with a much longer tenure in this business would probably say the same.
- Committed? To me, that should've come before toughness because the reason we all call him that is because he's committed. Witten has always been so committed and dedicated to his job that he made sure nothing stopped him. He's had broken ribs, high-ankle sprains – you name it. One year, Witten was on freakin' crutches for both ankles on the Monday before a Thanksgiving game. Yep, played. And we all probably know of the story that Witten put weights in his pockets before stepping on a scale in front of Bill Parcells, who told him he couldn't play the next game if he didn't get his weight up after suffering a broken jaw. That was his rookie year and he was committed then. It only grew stronger by the years.
- Competitive? Wow, here's another one that has a ton of examples, and they're not always from the games, or even relating to football. I remember being at some charity Go-Cart event with NASCAR driver Denny Hamlin and Witten was supposed to be out there turning a few laps with the media and friends. He ended up running one of my fellow colleagues – a longtime beat writer for the Cowboys – completely off the track and up into the tires. I've seen Witten completely stare down a high school kid on his team at the Cowboys U youth camp because he was jacking around while Witten was trying to give out some instructions. On the surface, it was just a flag football game, but Witten took every bit of competition to another level.
- Still Competitive? Yeah that one needs another paragraph or six. But I keep thinking back to moments from training camp. There was the year Cole Beasley decided to leave the team for a few days, dealing with some personal issues. While the Cowboys eventually talked him into coming back to the team, Witten was not happy about it. The story goes that Beasley eventually apologized, at least to the offensive players, for walking out on the team, and Witten accepted that. Hey, he knows a good player will help the team, but he wanted to make sure everyone was all-in. Jason Garrett loves to tell the story of a play that required the tight end to "wham the nose" and block the nose tackle in the middle of the line. They called for a different tight end so their All-Pro pass-catching star didn't have to take on that brutal hit. Witten quickly jumped up in a practice and yelled at Garrett, "You don't think I can wham the nose?" You can best believe when that play was called in the game, Witten was indeed doing the whamming and no one else.
- Talented? Yeah, let's not forget this one. He was called so many things over his career, but rarely this one. Jason Witten was all of the above, and he was clearly talented. There's a reason he found a way to get open for so many years. He just understood the concepts of the game – leverage in blocking, how to get off the jam, how to use the defender on his hip and shield his body to get to the ball, how to cup his hand the right way for a one-handed catch when the other is being grabbed in the middle of the route. You name it, and Witten just figured it out. Yeah, he had good coaching along the way, but I still think he developed himself into the football player he is today.
The thing I love the most about Jason Witten is his consistency. It didn't really matter the occasion, you always knew what you were going to get. And for most fans, they can agree with me, knowing that no matter the injury, he was always in the lineup.
But to me, it was more than that. For 15 years, every time you saw Jason in the hallway or the locker room, it'd be something like "Hey, Nick, what's up? You doing good?" I'm forever grateful for the Christmas parties for the kids where he would go out of his way to take a picture with my daughter, even when the rules said not to. Or the fact that he made a point to congratulate me when our entire media team received nine Emmy nominations last year. Seriously, how many players even care enough? But Jason Witten did. He cared about everything that came with the job.
He cared about the community. He cared about the lives he touched on and off the field. He cared about his teammates. He cared about being a Dallas Cowboy. He cared about being a football player.
You know, the first time I ever heard of Jason Witten, I hated him. Yep, as a die-hard Arkansas Razorback fan, I thought we were about to beat Tennessee in 2002 to end an epic, six-overtime classic. But instead, Witten caught a 25-yard touchdown pass in the sixth overtime to send his Volunteers to victory. Seriously? We got beat by a baby-faced tight end who wears No. 1? Really, what tight end wears No. 1?
Well, I eventually calmed down, of course. And a few months later, got to meet him, and like everyone else, just loved everything about him. It didn't take long to realize how fitting his jersey number was. For me, when it comes to Dallas Cowboys, he's No. 1.
He's the best person that has come through this organization in 15 years. And to me, he's the best player as well.
You can't get a better combination than that.