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Spagnola: Of All Witten Accomplished, Saying Goodbye Might Be Hardest

FRISCO, Texas – Do not for a minute kid yourself. This was hard. Real hard for Jason Witten.

Saw where some nationally somebody flippantly said, well, of course Jason Witten was going to retire and head to the Monday Night Football booth as an analyst. That he never wavered.

Well shut your mouth. You must not know Jason Witten.

Witten refused to quit on his team that season opener in 2012 after he lacerated his spleen in that preseason game against Oakland. Against many medical advisors' better judgment, he searched for a doctor who would say, 'Yeah, you can play. You can't hurt yourself worse.' That is if he could tolerate the pain.

Well, Witten found that Doc, and played the 2012 season opener against the New York Football Giants. Even caught two passes for 10 yards. He didn't quit.

When most would have called in sick for three games back in 2003 after breaking his jaw against Arizona, with then head coach Bill Parcells sort of poking him in the ribs, telling him Mark Bavaro, his tight end with the Giants, actually played with a broken jaw, Witten didn't quit.

He missed only one game, and as it turns out, the only game he ever missed in his 15-year career, and wound up playing the very next week, even though he had no ability to chew up solid food. The rookie was there for his team.

And who will ever forget that game on Nov. 4, 2007, in Philadelphia when after catching a 23-yard Tony Romo pass, having his helmet ripped off during an attempted tackle.

Did Witten quit? Hell no, he rambled down field another 30 yards for a 53-yard game. Did he just give up inside the 10 and safely run out of bounds? Heck no, he was trying to score, and only went down after being tackled, helping his team to a 38-17 victory over the Eagles by catching 8 passes that game for 113 yards. Like, who needs a helmet when you are running in the open field, and a bigger than life tribute to his guts and intestinal fortitude resides here at Ford Center, right above the player entrance way into the indoor practice facility for not a soul to forget.

There is not an ounce of quit in Jason Witten.

That is why this retirement saga has dragged on for the better part of a week. After 15 seasons, 239 games played, 1,152 catches for 12,448 yards and 68 touchdowns, 11 Pro Bowls, Witten just couldn't come to grips with retirement. At first, with his 36th birthday looming this Sunday, Witten thought retirement and calling games on Monday night as the lead analyst was a great idea.

Then he didn't.

I was told after Saturday's NFL Draft came to a conclusion Witten just couldn't pull the trigger on leaving the Cowboys; of not playing football any longer. That he was going back and forth on this life-changing decision.

Just the other day he still hadn't made up his mind, agonizing over the decision, to the point I'm told of bringing himself to tears.

See, there is this long-held theory of mine that almost all NFL players rarely leave the game graciously, say, well, I've had a good career, it's time to move on. Oh no, most leave the game kicking and screaming, insisting they still can play until no one wants to pay their salary any longer.

So maybe this paints a better picture of how utterly difficult it was for Witten to step to the podium out at The Star Thursday afternoon, after a week's worth of consternation, to finally say he was retiring from the game of football he's played since being a little kid.

To finally tell his Cowboys teammates, the Jones Family, head coach Jason Garrett and anyone else he's come in touch with after all these years having pulled on his No. 82 that he's leaving the game. And you know, now we know he pulled on that No. 82 for the final time on Dec. 31, 2017, at Philadelphia, a number that should never be pulled on again by a Dallas Cowboys player, in the same sacred vein as No. 12, No. 54, No. 74 and No. 8. Mike, Bucky, just tuck that number away in the equipment room.

So believe me, for a guy like Witten to come to grips his playing days are over, that's hard.

That's emotional. You bet he wavered.

"I don't know anybody knows then it's time to go," Witten said during his near 16-minute address to upwards of 200 people gathered in the Star's Training Table dining room made up of family, teammates, coaches, support personnel, media members and nearly everyone working at The Star for the Cowboys organization.

"It was emotional. Certainly, it was difficult, a difficult time."

Why it was an emotionally-charged 46-minute goodbye for a guy who reset the standard of excellence for the Cowboys franchise, both on and off the field. There were a whole lot of hugs as Witten, his wife Michelle and their four children entered the front lobby to walk through the middle of a receiving line made up mostly of teammates, coaches, Garrett, the Jones Family and several front-office personnel members.

The handshakes were hardy. The hugs were real.

Then Witten proceeded down the steps where members of the organization lined the hallway, congratulating Witten for what he did, not only for the team during his 15 years while matching the record for longest tenure in franchise history, but also how he represented the organization.

And when it came time for Witten to speak, he went for nearly 15 minutes with what I'll consider an eloquently prepared speech thanking everyone from former Cowboys players, Cowboys teammates, his three head coaches – Parcells, Wade Phillips and Garrett – every member of the Jones Family, including the wives, the trainers, the weight and conditioning coaches, the equipment guys and even Jerry's administrative assistant Marylyn Love.

And yes, there were tears. Some from Witten, though his composure was remarkable. Some from Garrett. Some from Jerry Jones.

You just needed to see how the likes of Sean Lee and Dak Prescott were leaning forward in their seats, hanging on his every word.

And for the rest of us, there were times tears, too, being flicked away now and then. And not because this was a sad occasion but more so for how heartfelt Witten was while addressing the organization.

Yep, ol' me included, who had the privilege of watching him play every one of those franchise record-setting games, watching him catch every one of those record-setting passes and finishing third in club history with those 68 touchdown receptions, behind just Dez Bryant (73) and Bob Hayes (71).

Witten might as well save his notes, for in five years when the Pro Football Hall of Fame inducts him, places his bust in the rotunda room in Canton, Ohio, he'd do well to just repeat everything he said on this afternoon.

And maybe the best part of what he had to say – what he did for the organization – Witten didn't make this day about himself. It was about all the people who helped him along the way, and best expressed by Garrett, telling the story of the day Witten basically talked to the team for 30 minutes, explaining his patented Y-option route he ran on a critical fourth-down play the Cowboys converted on their playoff-winning touchdown drive against Detroit that 2014 season.

Garrett recalled how he pointed out what everyone else on the offense did on the play, from Dez Bryant all the way to guard Ron Leary, one by one, then giving the final credit to Tony Romo, the rookie free-agent quarterback he first met on the bus ride from the hotel in to The Ranch for their rookie minicamp back in 2003.

"So it struck me that this play, this signature play at this critical moment, he didn't make it about him," Garrett said, choking up recounting the story. "He did what he always does, he makes it about everybody else.

"Makes it about the team."

So another era in Cowboys history comes to a close. Have seen many of these. From Troy Aikman to Michael Irvin to Emmitt Smith to Darren Woodson to DeMarcus Ware to Tony Romo. And seems with these great ones, it always about the team, just like it should be.

A combination of having played 15 years, with Father Time knocking at the door in a young man's game, and an opportunity to more safely stay in the game as a lead TV analyst, finally got Witten off the field for good. No more helmetless runs. No more gritting through a busted-up jaw. No more searching for medical clearance.

But even all those clues did not make this decision easy. Not at all, even if he's aware it's better, as he said, "to leave the game three hours too soon than a minute too late."

"Like I shared with Jerry the other day, I got to the edge of the cliff numerous times over the last 72 hours, maybe longer than that," Witten admitted in the end, "and I couldn't jump."

Of course he couldn't. That's not Jason Witten. Never will be to easily walk away into the sunset.

So at the behest of Jason Garrett of what we should do in honor of Jason Witten, here you go Witt, or how Zeke affectionately calls him, "Old man Witt," me too, I tip my cap to you.

We all should.

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