For the first time in eight years, I didn't interview Jason Witten at training camp this season. It's not that he said no or there wasn't time, I just decided not to. Instead, I observed and reflected.
In the summer of 2014, four of us traveled to Witten's hometown of Elizabethton, Tenn., for his annual football camp. We were working on a documentary for the team's Deep Blue series, which aired last August, and a lengthy feature story. One story from that four-day trip that stands out for me, more and more as time passes, took place the morning of the camp.
It was ridiculously early. The night before, college basketball coach Shaka Smart was the keynote speaker at a leadership dinner hosted by Witten's foundation. Family, friends and former high school and college teammates were all in attendance, so guessing it was a somewhat late night.
Those I was with were television/camera folks, and they needed to set up lighting and all that good stuff. An hour or so after the sun came up in the foothills of the Appalachian Mountains, there was nothing for me to do, so I headed for the football field at the high school, named in honor of Witten's grandfather, the legendary coach there.
Several tents were being set up around the field, stations for the camp, some sponsor giveaways, concession stands were stocking drinks and snacks on the surrounding track. I was just walking around checking it out for a few minutes when I noticed Witten doing the same. He was asking anyone and everyone if they needed help, if they had everything they needed, what he could do. There he was helping stack T-shirts, the next minute bringing in cases of water. He visited with every single person on that field, thanked each and every one.
Of course, there were countless volunteers on hand, but here he was, arriving the same time as they did, and doing the same grunt work. His wife, Michelle, then six months pregnant, folded each of the 1,000-plus Witten camp T-shirts the day before and gave them all out at the front gate that morning.[embeddedad0]
We have all heard the stories of athletes showing up at their own camp several hours after it has started, signing a few autographs and splitting stage right. Witten ran drills with the players, met with every coach, gave several speeches and didn't say no to a single photo or autograph. He was among the last to leave that day, more than 12 hours after arriving.
Earlier this summer, I was talking with a longtime Texas Rangers executive about Ivan "Pudge" Rodriguez and he said something that immediately, like within the second, reminded me of Witten. He said, "When Pudge was playing, we didn't appreciate him like we should have, even though he was the best catcher in the game most of that time. You sort of came to expect it from him. It wasn't until he was gone that you understood how great he was, how much the team missed him, how much better he made us."
In the last 11 seasons, Witten has zero fumbles in seven of them. And one in the other four. He caught 77 passes last season and didn't drop only one. He didn't drop a catchable ball. For comparison, Ted Ginn Jr. dropped 10 and caught just 44 passes. Dez Bryant dropped five with 31 catches. And Witten still blocks more than 90 percent of the league's tight ends.
On the first day of camp, Saturday July 30, Witten led Dallas Mayor Mike Rawlings, Police Chief David Brown and the families of the five fallen Dallas police officers onto the field, joined arm in arm with them and his teammates. It was a moving moment, and we soon learned that the idea was Witten's as upon hearing the news his immediate thought was, "What can we do? How can we help?"
I watched him that day. After practice he did a press conference about the police, the families, he spoke from the heart. As he walked away, several reporters grabbed him for one-on-one interviews, and he stopped and did every one, somehow finding a different spin on the same question he had answered two minutes previous. And always a handshake and a smile, despite his hands being in unimaginable pain after catching hundreds of footballs during the morning walk-through and afternoon practice.
Then, a good 12 hours after he sat down for breakfast, nearly 45 minutes removed from the end of practice, he walked over to the fence and signed autographs for 10 minutes, took pictures, just tried to make a memory for the fans, for the kids. Finally he jogged off – yes, jogged – like he always does.
Of the 90 players to come off the field that day, he was the only one who jogged back to the locker room.