FRISCO, Texas – If this was the first of many, then Jason Witten may have a tough time topping the inaugural presentation of his Jason Witten Collegiate Man of the Year Award.
Thursday was the first-ever presentation of the award, which honors exemplary leadership, both on and off the field, in a college football player. As the namesake, Witten played host to three deserving finalists at the Cowboys' headquarters at The Star, aided by a wealth of Dallas Cowboys and football royalty.
Starting with a field of 155 players, Witten and his Board of Directors whittled it down to three finalists: Oklahoma State quarterback Mason Rudolph, Alabama cornerback Minkah Fitzpatrick and UCF linebacker Shaquem Griffin.
"That's what tonight is all about, three great student-athletes that embody all the traits that you want, not only in a teammate but in a student-athlete, how they carry themselves on campus and certainly on the football field," Witten said.
It bears repeating that Witten had a star-studded cast helping him present the award. The three finalists were presented by former Cowboys quarterback and current CBS analyst Tony Romo, former NFL running back Walter Payton, son of Pro Football Hall of Famer Walter Payton and current Cowboys linebacker Sean Lee.
The evening culminated with the hardware going to Griffin, whose story is nothing short of inspiring. The UCF standout was born without the use of his left hand and had it amputated at the age of four. Despite such a significant setback, the Florida native rose to become an all-conference linebacker and a Peach Bowl Defensive MVP for the Knights.
"When you see some of his highlights and you see the kid play, it's really remarkable," Witten said. "Over the last 20, 25 years of my life I've been playing football. To think to do that without one of my limbs, it's really remarkable, just the fact that he's out there, he's out there on that stage playing big-time Division 1 college football. And then to be good and to be successful, it shows his courage, his toughness, and really he has no quit in him."
Added Griffin: "Whoever thought a kid like me, growing up where I'm from and going through all the adversity I had, to be able to have the opportunity to be here for a major award and a major event."
Upon hearing his name called by Witten and event host Sage Steele, Griffin took the stage with no shortage of emotion – not just for himself, but for his family watching nearby.
"I'm happy, I'm blessed," he said. "It was a long road, and just to have the opportunity to be able to talk before you and receive this award, it just goes to show that what I'm doing is the right thing. If I'm starting a tradition, I want to keep that going."
That was a poignant thought to finish the night. Thursday marked the first presentation of the Jason Witten Collegiate Man of the Year Award, but there figure to be many more. With that goal in mind, it was an inspiring way to start things off.