FRISCO, Texas – Rico Gathers was looking forward to a home ovation.
Last August, the first-year tight end had just caught a touchdown pass in each of his first two preseason games and was in line for more snaps when the Cowboys returned from Oxnard, California to take on the Indianapolis Colts.
He never took the field again in 2017 for a game or practice.
An accidental helmet-to-helmet collision during an Aug. 15 practice landed Gathers in concussion protocol, and he spent the rest of the year on Reserve/Injured.
"It was agonizing because I felt like I had finally gotten rhythm of what I wanted to do and I think they (the Cowboys) saw that," Gathers said. "I looked forward to that third game being back in AT&T Stadium and stuff, and coming in and doing the same thing and really focusing on the blocking aspect of everything rather than just scoring touchdowns and stuff."
The injury was unfortunate for Gathers and the team because he made considerable progress to that point as a not-so-typical late-round draft pick in 2016. Gathers wasn't a football player in college. Or high school. He was a star power forward on the Baylor basketball team, but at 6-6 and 285 pounds, he had the ideal frame and athleticism for the tight end position.
Now fully recovered from concussion-like symptoms, he starts organized team activities this month with new opportunity, and additional competition, for a roster spot.
Gathers said he was on the phone with his brother few weeks ago when his wife entered the room and told him the breaking news: Long-time tight end Jason Witten – the NFL standard at the position for the last 15 years – was retiring.
Just the day before, Gathers was working out with Witten.
"In that moment, he said something that was kind of weird. He was like, 'Yeah, let's get this last run in,'" Gathers recalled. "I'm just thinking 'last run' as far as, we're about to go on to the next drill. But he literally meant 'last run.' It was weird."
Witten's now in the ESPN broadcast booth, and the Cowboys now have one player (fourth-year veteran Geoff Swaim) with a career regular-season catch (9). The team wants to see how Gathers and the other young players, including fourth-round draft pick Dalton Schultz, step up this offseason.
"For me it's just about focusing on getting better," Gathers said. "I'm trying to be the best version of myself because I know if I'm the best version of myself I can help this team win. And that's in any way that they need me to, whether it's being a starter or a contributor."
After so much time away from the field, Gathers says he's focused on refining his technique and following his assignments from new tight ends coach Doug Nussmeier.
He fully understands he needs a full, productive summer to help his transition grow.
"I've got to make sure I'm healthy and make sure I'm able to be on somebody's 53-man roster," he said.