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Sullivan: Witten’s Legacy More Than Just Statistics Or A Defining Play

The numbers are transcendent, absurdly so considering Jason Witten has 147 more career receptions than Dez Bryant and Rob Gronkowski combined. And yes, the video of him running down the field minus the helmet is a fun watch and says so much about his mindset as a player.

Still, I think the legacy of his career, of his life to this point, is so much more than statistics and a singular defining replay.

There are lessons, ideals really. And not just pertaining to football. Sure, there’s something to be said about just showing up every day, no matter what the circumstance, be it work, school, family, football. Nothing in life has ever been accomplished by not showing up. Never mind that Witten missed just one game in 15 seasons. He never missed a day of work and was usually among the first to arrive and last to leave the team’s facilities.

I first met Jason Witten in 2008, and in the 10 years since, I’ve written more words about him than anyone else over my two-decade career. There have been countless feature stories and columns, and in 2014, a journey to his hometown of Elizabethton, Tenn., to work on a Deep Blue *documentary and lengthy profile for *Dallas Cowboys Star Magazine.

So yeah, a lot of memories …

At training camp in San Antonio, likely my first in 2009. At that point in time, my image of Witten was as super nice guy, somewhat soft-spoken. This was based on the interviews I saw on television and my one interaction with him. In the midst of a routine pass-and-catch drill, a fourth-string rookie free agent quarterback overthrew a wide-open Witten for like the seventh time in three minutes.

As Witten walked back to the line of scrimmage, he was chewing the guy out at opera-like octaves. I was stunned, and later asked him about it. His response, “I don’t care if it’s the first practice of camp, a volunteer workout or the Super Bowl, you have to hold everyone accountable.”

For a time there, the best-kept secret around the league was Witten’s trash talking. Word has definitely spread over the years, though. I’m not sure he’s ever caught a pass, in practice or a game, without a few words of “encouragement” to the nearest defender. Of course, immediately after that, he pulls his jersey down, and returns to the huddle, not another syllable spoken. It’s like he’s transformed, possessed really, from the moment the ball touches his hands to when he tugs the jersey down. In that moment, you do not want to cross paths with Jason Witten.

 There’s a famous Joe DiMaggio story that I often think about at training camp when Witten runs onto the field before each practice. More often than not, he’s the only one, and he always runs off the field, too. Late in his career, in a blowout win, DiMaggio belted a liner into the gap and rounded first as only he could, barely beating the throw into second. When the inning was finished, one of his teammates asked him why he was running full speed on a meaningless play. DiMaggio replied, “Because I never know when a kid is seeing me play for the first time.”

I’ve always liked to envision Witten giving me the same answer. I’ve purposely never asked him why he does so because I didn’t want to know otherwise.

The morning word of Ezekiel Elliott’s four-game suspension came down at camp last August, I happened to be walking to breakfast at the same time as Witten and Zeke. They were talking. Well, Witten was. Zeke was mostly nodding his head. They went to grab coffee before sitting down to eat, and the conversation continued. I’m not going to pretend to know what he was saying, but I will say Witten was as intense as I’ve ever seen him. I’d like to think it was a teaching moment.

Witten told me after the 2013 finale, a third-straight regular-season defeat and 8-8 finish, he barely got out of bed for two weeks because of how devastated he was. I’ve never come across an athlete who wanted to win more for the fans than Witten. He never hid from those emotions, either.

Following the Green Bay playoff loss in January 2017, Witten cried for several minutes, almost as if he knew this was his last, best opportunity for that elusive dream of a championship. After about 20 minutes at his locker, he finally started heading for the showers, albeit still fully dressed in his uniform.

A league official stopped him upon entry for a random drug test. Witten was incredulous at the timing, and after slamming his hand down on the table, yelled, “You have to be kidding me.”

Well, there was another word he said. Sure everyone can figure that out. What amazed me, though, was within a second or two, he looked up toward a young boy standing by the entrance door. Not sure if Witten knew the kid or not, but he said, “I’m sorry, you weren’t supposed to hear that,” in the gentlest voice possible. How he somehow caught himself in an instant, with the emotions he was dealing with, that absolutely amazed me.

About 30 minutes thereafter, he took questions at his locker. The first question, I kid you not, was whether or not he knew this meant he still hasn’t played in a conference championship game. I walked away in disgust while Witten politely answered the moron.

It reminded me of another occasion, this one back at Valley Ranch. His weekly session with reporters, who were asking the same question 87 different ways, all alluding to Jason Garrett’s job security. Even though he was frustrated with the line of questioning, the repetitiveness, he never showed it until a few minutes later when the interview had concluded.

As for broadcasting, this wasn’t the path I envisioned for him after retirement, just because coaching runs in his family – his grandfather Dave Rider was a legendary high school coach and both his brothers have coached – and I know it’s something that interests him. However, after thinking about it, for here and now, this does make sense. His kids are young, ages 3 through 12, and this allows him six months of the year off. He can be home most of the week, can even coach a few of their teams.

Witten is so committed to family. There are countless stories of him flying out for a speech or an outing in the morning, doing the event and flying home that night, often arriving at his front door at 2 a.m., rather than taking advantage of five-star accommodations. A few hours of sleep and breakfast with the kids.

I would be shocked if he didn’t give coaching in college or the NFL a chance in five or 10 years. Remember he’s still young, going to be 36 later this week.

Wrote earlier about lessons, and there are many: accountability, leadership, resilience, fortitude. However, for me, his greatest lesson has been forgiveness. Eddie Witten, who was 6-foot-8, nearly 300 pounds, physically and verbally abused his wife, Kim, and their three sons, Jason being the youngest. Some of the stories are horrifying. After their divorce, the boys saw less and less of their father, who also had an incredibly positive impact before demons with substance abuse took over.

After not seeing him for more than a decade, Jason and his brothers slowly reconnected with their father. The big event each year is Jason’s football camp in Elizabethton, and Eddie is always there with his No. 82 jersey on. He’s been to a few games, and they talk here and there.

Hearing the stories and seeing the forgiveness firsthand when I attended the camp in 2014 helped me reconnect with my own father the following year when my younger brother died. We hadn’t talked in more than 10 years, either, for reasons different than what Jason and his family endured. I told Jason about talking with my father and he was thrilled, giving me a fist pump and saying, “That’s great, man, just take it slow.”

I’ve written this before, but it’s worth repeating. Jason Witten is the first person I’ve covered in sports where I’m completely and totally comfortable telling parents, Yeah, have your kids look up to him, have them emulate him. It’s okay. He’s not going to let you down.

Off and on the field, Witten has set the example for future generations to follow. I’ve never admired or respected an athlete more.

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