ADDISON, Texas – Perhaps it's fitting that Jason Witten began crafting his 700-word farewell to Tony Romo on a plane ride.
They first met in 2003 on a post-flight shuttle for new Cowboys rookies arriving to Dallas. Over the next 14 years they flew thousands of miles together on more than 100 Cowboys road trips.
In early April, a couple days after the team released its former franchise quarterback and Romo announced his new broadcasting career as lead NFL analyst for CBS, Witten was alone with his thoughts on a flight back from The Masters golf tournament.
He had yet to comment publicly on Romo's highly-publicized departure from Dallas. He began making notes for a tribute letter – more comprehensive than a brief quote in a news article or a short sound bite on radio could provide.
The final draft of "14 Years – Memories Forever" received 114,000 combined likes on the veteran tight end's official Twitter and Instagram pages.
"I really just tried to speak from my heart. What a dear friend and great teammate," Witten said last Friday after speaking at SUCCESS Live, a personal development conference hosted by SUCCESS Magazine.
"So many times, it's 'where does he rank (among other quarterbacks)' … I just didn't want to go that route. I wanted to kind of share my heart with our fans. I think he understands our relationship, but to think where he came from as an undrafted free agent and the opportunity to go along that journey with him, I tried to portray that image."
Witten is now preparing for the 15th season of his remarkable career – the first time he's on a Cowboys roster without Romo. He's as motivated as ever, fully committed to his returning teammates and a younger cast that includes new starting quarterback Dak Prescott and All-Pro running back Ezekiel Elliott.
The desire to compete and contribute to a championship-level team still burns.
"My expectations are high," he said. "My standard is really high for myself and ultimately it's to play this position at a really, really high level that's consistent to what people expect of me. But I think also to understand the opportunity that we have, this team."
Witten joined an extensive lineup of motivational speakers at the April 21 SUCCESS Live conference, discussing the tenets of his Hall-of-Fame caliber career – leadership, passion, work ethic – on stage with New York Times bestselling author Lewis Howes.
The timing was appropriate: the Cowboys had just completed the first week of their voluntary offseason program. This is the time of year when Pro Bowlers and champions are made.
The seeds of Witten's success took root as a young man under the guidance of his grandfather and high school football coach, Dave Rider, after he and his two brothers moved with their mother to Elizabethton, Tenn., without his abusive father – a personal experience Witten has shared publicly over the years.
Witten has applied his grandfather's lessons about respect, integrity and hard work to his everyday life – not just as a pro athlete, but at home with his wife Michelle and their four children. He's been active in community programs throughout his career, and his SCORE Foundation provides support to families impacted by domestic violence.
On the field, Witten knows his time in the NFL will eventually end. He's watched a close friend, Romo, step away from the game, and another longtime teammate, Doug Free, plan for retirement as well.
Next week Witten turns 35 years old. He recently signed a contract extension through the 2021 season, proof of his commitment to the franchise.
His focus now is helping ensure the Cowboys' 13-win season a year ago becomes a step toward bigger things.
"A lot of times people think you can just kind of pick up where we left off and we know we have to do more," he said. "There's a lot of new faces at key positions and you build on that. I'm excited for that opportunity.
"You've got to start that process over. As I said up there, I think the secret's in the dirt."