Sullivan: Now Among Game's Greatest, Tight End Wasn't First Choice For Witten

The author of *America's Team: The Official History of the Dallas Cowboys, Sullivan also writes a new column in each issue of Dallas Cowboys Star Magazine. For subscription information, please click here.*

There has always been a neat, simplistic narrative about how Jason Witten became a tight end. We tend to like our stories neat and tidy, gift wrapped even for the holiday season. Word is, most folks receive the bulk of their news nowadays via Twitter and headlines. So the Witten tale has worked just fine since the first time it was told, more than 15 years ago.

The story, as it even appears in the Dallas Cowboys media guide, is that Witten was recruited to the University of Tennessee as a defensive end, but after several injuries to the tight ends early in his freshman season of 2000, he unselfishly agreed to move to offense in the best interest of the team. Considering he's just the second tight end in the history of the NFL to catch 1,000 passes, and the first of which to actually block, the story works perfectly. The tight end who wasn't becomes perhaps the best to ever play the position.

Except that, well, Tennessee head coach Phillip Fulmer didn't exactly sign Witten to play defense, although he allowed the latter to believe that during the recruiting process. Also, Witten didn't exactly agree to change positions. In reality, his immediate reaction was to transfer to more or less any other school in the country. Not at season's end, either. Like on the very night he was told the news. Heck, he was so upset that Eskimo University sounded like the ideal place to spend the winter.

Not surprisingly, Witten wasn't a high-maintenance recruit coming out of Elizabethton High School in the foothills of Tennessee. He really only made a single request.

"I had made it clear when I was getting recruited that I didn't want to play tight end," Witten said. "I thought I could make it as a defensive player."

While playing at Elizabethton for his grandfather, Dave Rider, a legendary coaching figure in Tennessee who played with Cowboys Ring of Honor member Chuck Howley at West Virginia, Witten played both tight end and linebacker. He earned All-State honors in the latter, with 163 tackles, nine sacks, five forced fumbles, three fumble recoveries, two interceptions and two blocked kicks. On offense, he caught 26 passes, 14 of which went for touchdowns.

However, he only played tight end because the elite players didn't leave the field in Tennessee, and he needed an offensive position. Witten loved, absolutely loved, playing defense, the nuances, the tackling, the singular mindset of attacking the football. Offense, outside of scoring touchdowns, was kind of boring in comparison.

Every school in the country wanted Witten, but Fulmer already knew the family, having recruited Jason's older brother, Shawn, who ended up signing with Virginia Tech. Also, Jason grew up dreaming about playing for the Vols, who were coming off the most successful five-year stretch in the program's history at 54-8, and it didn't hurt that his girlfriend, now wife, Michelle, was already in Knoxville, having graduated high school a year earlier. More or less, all Fulmer needed to do in terms of Jason signing was promise he would play defensive end. Done and done. 

"You recruit guys and until you get them to campus, you really don't know for sure what they're going to be," Fulmer said. "Some you might, but most of them you don't. I'd seen Jason play basketball, not just football. I knew he was a heck of an athlete, a great athlete. He wanted to play defensive end, and we'd had a great run of fantastic defensive ends. But I didn't know for sure if that that was his forte. He could have probably played there. Would he have excelled as much as he did? I don't know. I don't think so."

Still, there was no reason to rush Witten into changing positions, so as a true freshman, he started the year playing special teams and saw some second-string snaps at defensive end. Then there were the injuries to the tight end position midway through the season, Fulmer deciding the time was now to make the change.

"I wouldn't have made the move if I didn't think it was better for him and for us," said Fulmer, who won 152 games and a national title in his 17 seasons as Tennessee's head coach. "Jason made me promise him during the recruiting process that I wouldn't move him, so now you've kind of got more than a professional thing, you've got a real personal thing involved.

"And when we sat down and talked about it, I said to him, 'Jason, I know I told you this, but I think it's going to be in the long run a lot better for you. You've got some choices. You can stay at defensive end, and I don't know if you'll ever excel at that position. You could move to defensive tackle, gain 30 pounds and still play defense. That might be something that's really good for you. But, I think if you'll move to tight end, I think you can really, really be a special player.'

"He was mad at me, and I kid about it. I don't know how long it was, but it was a long time. I usually tell everybody it was six weeks, although it probably wasn't six weeks, that he didn't speak to me. I did purposely wait until school had started, to be honest with you, because then I knew he couldn't transfer right away, and hopefully he would settle in and find his niche. And that's exactly what happened.

"It was just so obvious, almost on the first day, that this was where this young man belonged for a variety of reasons. Big, strong, powerful guy that could run and catch. As a defensive guy, he was good, but he just hadn't excelled at that point. Now, he might have if he had stayed there, but I think it's worked out pretty well for him. And I bring that up to him on occasion."

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Several of his college teammates say that was the most upset they ever saw Witten, and that after returning to his room following the meeting with Fulmer, his immediate plan was to transfer. However, after speaking with his teammates, and calming down as the night went on, he understood it was the best move for the team, and for Witten, it's always about the team.

That first campaign he was primarily a blocker as he learned more and more about the position with each passing week. He started two games and caught an 11-yard pass in the same game he tallied three tackles.

The transformation really took shape, though, during that next offseason after Fulmer told Witten, "Listen, if you'll just invest yourself in this and trust this process, you'll play a long time in the National Football League."

As Witten recalls, "He was the first person that told me that maybe I had a chance to play at this level. That was crucial for me."

As a sophomore, Witten caught 28 balls for 293 yards and two scores, his first touchdown coming against Alabama. The following year, he was All-SEC and Academic All-SEC, setting single-season school marks for tight ends with 39 receptions and 493 yards, including one of the most memorable catches in the program's history, a 25-yard game-winning touchdown in the sixth overtime against Arkansas. That April of 2003, he was the third-round selection of the Dallas Cowboys.

The rest, as they say, is indeed history. A history that will one day include the Ring of Honor and the Pro Football Hall of Fame. Not bad for a kid who absolutely wanted nothing to do with catching the football.

"I was concerned that if I went to tight end, I would never have a chance to go back. That was what was most concerning for me," Witten said. "I guess there's an old saying: Coaches always know best. And Coach Fulmer did. He invested in me and really taught me a position on the fly.

"Think about that. In the SEC, going from playing defense one week to playing offense against some of the toughest talent in the country. He didn't blink in putting me in that opportunity and trusting me, knowing that I would come out on the other side being a better football player. My life wouldn't be the same if he didn't make that decision."

Follow Jeff Sullivan on Twitter, @SullyBaldHead, or email him at jsullivan@dallascowboys.net.

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