There is this hill in Elizabethton, Tenn. Well, there are many hills as the little town Jason Witten called home as a teenager sits in the foothills of the Appalachian Mountains. The streets are more or less the track of a virtual roller coaster.
The hill is near the high school, even closer to the football field where his grandfather, Dave Rider, became a legend as the head coach. Spend a few days in the town and, make no mistake, almost to a person they will tell you that Jason is the second-most recognizable face around these parts behind his Pa-Paw.
Anyway, back to the hill. It's ridiculously steep, almost nauseating to look at the top from the other end, which I did a few years back. Actually ran up it, and this was when I was running a lot, and well, let's just say I was breathing like I had asthma and just smoked four packs of unfiltered cigarettes.
Starting in ninth grade, sometimes after practice, or even between double sessions in the heat of August, Jason and his older brother, Shawn, would sprint up and down the hill until one, or both of them, threw up.
When Jason Witten broke Michael Irvin's team record for receiving yards Sunday night against the Giants, I thought about the hill. Not sure why, just what came to mind. Jason running up the hill, always pushing himself to whatever his limits are, and oftentimes, those are limitless.
Next week, Witten will break the team mark for most games played. And really, that's going to be it in terms of records. There are none left to eclipse or he's not breaking them, say, most touchdown receptions.
As for how much longer Witten plays, I think we are definitely in the home stretch. Not quite bottom of the ninth, but the seventh-inning stretch has come and gone. I flat out, positively would bet almost anything that he's not staying past his time. Witten loves and respects the game too much for that. I also don't think it's going to be a before-or-during-the-season announcement. There's not going to be a farewell tour. That would be a distraction to the team.
Here and now, though, the 35-year-old looks like the same player he has been the last four seasons, which means he's still a top-10 tight end. What is so often lost about Witten and his lofty numbers is the guy is still blocking as much as any tight end in the league and doing so effectively. Those pass-catching tight ends who have played beyond 30 years old the last two decades, let's just say they were blocking as much as Muggsy Bogues.
Look, I'm old. I'm 42. Think it's human nature that as you grow older, we become jaded. (That might be the wrong word. I don't think of myself as jaded.) But what I don't understand, what I am more and more weary of, is why as a society we put athletes, actors, anyone associated with fame, on a pedestal. They have done nothing different than so many of us – they have succeeded in their chosen profession. It's just that their jobs pay a lot more money and involve being watched by millions. That doesn't make them worthy of being looked up to, idolized, labeled as heroes.
Run into a burning building when everyone else is running out, that's a hero. Jump on a grenade to save the lives of your friends, that's a hero. Dedicate your life to teaching and coaching young people, and always set the best of examples, never having a bad day, that's heroic.
Running fast, hitting a ball, being blessed with world-class talent, that's not heroic.
Well, Jason Witten is different. As much as anyone I know of, he has followed the mantra, "Much will be required of the person to whom much is given." And through these last 15 years, he's never let the fans or his teammates down. He's the only athlete that I'm entirely comfortable telling kids, "Yeah, be like him. Follow his example."
He couldn't be more human, either. His hasn't been the easiest of rides, going back to his childhood. If anything, he cares too much. He wants to help everyone.
There are many lasting memories I have of Witten. The pain and devastation, the tears after the Cowboys lost to the Packers in the playoffs last year. Nearly an hour after the game finished, he was still fully dressed, unable to muster the energy, to overcome the pain. Thing is, I honestly think he wants to win a Super Bowl more for the fans than himself.
Another memory is from his NFL Draft in 2003, when Witten fell to the third round after being promised by several teams they would take him in the second. In the bottom floor of his grandparents' house he ripped the door entering the garage off the hinges. Literally off the hinges. He also launched his cell phone across the front lawn into the bushes, to which his brother said, "You're going to need that later."
Here's hoping, unlike his good buddy Tony Romo, Witten's career has a storybook ending. Maybe this is the year. Then all those hills, all the pain, all the disappointment of these last 14 seasons will be worthwhile.
Some of the thoughts that run through an oversized, bald head:
- Here's the thing on Jaylon Smith. That was entry level, that was the Monday read through for a live taping on Friday. That should be, in terms of the circumstances, the worst game of his NFL career. That probably won't be the case, but think about it. His first game they count in the standings in 20 months. The nerves, the anticipation, the anxiety. Physically, he's still working his way into football shape, the reps and such. There were a lot of stay-at-home doctors minus the degree with a Twitter handle saying he wouldn't even return to the level he displayed Sunday night. Like ever.
- I was over the moon, heck, over Jupiter with how Smith played. He finished with seven tackles on 36 snaps, but he had another erased by a penalty and forced a fumble. The play of the game for him was the tackle on the reverse. In person, to see how far he ran, the explosive redirection. He's 22 years old and the nerve is improving on a weekly basis.
- Was able to confirm he isn't eligible for Defensive Rookie of the Year this season. He could win Comeback Player of the Year, though.
- Two more Smith observations: He was 40 yards downfield on a pass in the fourth quarter. Again, 40 yards downfield. Was always around the ball, too. Outside of the sacks and deeper passes, Smith was within a yard of almost every tackle.
- If the NFL redrafted the 2016 class, there's a real chance Dak Prescott, Ezekiel Elliott and Smith would be top-5 picks. Amazing draft class.
- Dak Prescott missed on a few throws, especially in the first half, but still, after some early nerves, he completed 16-of-23 throws. As expected, the offense was much more Dak friendly with an offseason to tweak it. This is no longer Tony Romo's scheme, lot of bootlegs, rollouts. I know he's big and strong, and I expected him to run more, just wish he would slide a split-second earlier.
- He was running into the locker room after the game with La'el Collins a few feet in front of him. Dak yelled, "There he is, right side! Right side!" Collins turned, smiled and said, "You know it."
- Benson Mayowa had a nice game, three pressures and a QB hit. Charles Tapper, too, was really impressive in his debut. As he was walking into the locker room, he was saying to no one in particular, "Got me one, got me one," in reference to his sack.
- That game absolutely flew by, think it was about two hours and 40 minutes. Know the league is trying to speed up games this season and five of the early games were less than three hours. Helped that I believe the Cowboys called just one of their six timeouts. Also helped that the 30-second timeouts, which have always lasted for a two-minute commercial break, were closer to 30 seconds.
- I predicted 8.5 sacks for DeMarcus Lawrence. If he stays healthy, that's going to be low. He and David Irving a month from now, that's a scary thought for opposing coordinators and quarterbacks. This defense has a chance to be one of the best in the league.
- This is a dangerous football team. Yeah, it was a sloppy win, like most of the NFL in Week 1. Lot of mistakes, lot of rust, but a play here or there and the Cowboys could have won that game 30-0. And the Giants were predicted to compete for the NFC East title. They still could, just one week. Lots of reason for optimism, though.