Witten’s Back; But His Heart Never Left the Game

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Jason Witten didn’t really enjoy the job. In fact, he was having second thoughts from the first few days, knew he wasn’t supposed to be there, knew his heart was elsewhere. Jason Witten is Jason Witten, though, and under no circumstances was quitting an option.

His father could physically abuse his mother and older brothers, leave them on the side of the highway without a phone 50 miles from home, and Jason was going to persevere. There’s resilient, and there’s showing up for a Bill Parcells-coached practice in full pads a week after having your broken jaw wired. Or finding another doctor to clear you for an NFL game with a lacerated spleen.

The job, of course, was one of the most sought after in professional sports. Analyst on Monday Night Football. And no, playing football, while a paying gig, has never been a job for Witten. It’s a passion, a love, a desire, a need really. Whenever Witten’s playing career concludes, he’s going to maybe take a year off (wink, wink, there’s no chance) and decompress, spend time with the family and start his coaching career.

There’s not going to be any more broadcasting, he’s not going to run a construction company and he’s not going to take up fishing. The rest of Witten’s “working” life is going to be the everyday grind of football and his family.

“It was really a neat job, a good job, a job on the big stage, but it’s not playing, it’s not being on a team, it’s not the same,” Witten said. “I remember my first preseason game, it was the Redskins and the Jets, and we went back to the hotel after and I’m watching the tape in the room and thinking, hmm. I called my wife Michelle and told her, ‘I don’t know about this.’

“It was great taking the kids to school and having lunch with my wife during the week. Certainly, there was something tugging at me all season, though.”

To say Witten is allergic to regret is like saying there’s a little water flowing over Niagara Falls. He absolutely abhors it. Sure, after a few of his most disheartening season-ending defeats, Witten has spent a couple of weeks barely living, spending most of those miserable days in bed, but that’s not so much regret as devastation. So when asked point-blank in late-August if he regretted retiring from the Cowboys on May 3, 2018 to join the MNF booth, he paused for nearly 10 seconds before answering.

“Do you regret something like that? No, because it was a unique opportunity,” Witten said. “I am fortunate to trust my gut and have the opportunity to come back and play. And you have to let it go at some point and focus on the future.

“If I knew I didn’t have another opportunity (to play) then I would say maybe so. Go back a year ago, coming off 9-7 and not making the playoffs, and how many more years are you going to play, how many snaps is he going to play? If that was going to be my last game, then yeah, I would say I regret it because I know how passionate I am about still playing. That part I would have regret.

“I try and live my life without regret. I have had a lot of adversity and you think back about those things. You put your feet on the ground and go earn it. Go make a difference, don’t allow excuses or have a pity party for yourself.”

Perhaps the biggest difference between Witten’s departure and just about every other retired professional athlete is his decision wasn’t physical, his body didn’t make the choice for him. Yes, he’s 37 now, and no, he’s not superhuman, but we’re talking about a guy who has missed one game his entire career and that came during his rookie season when Quincy Carter was throwing him the ball.

And the year away only helps, a year of not being hit for a living. By all accounts at training camp, he was a step quicker than in the 2017 campaign.

“It was different than Tony (Romo) and a few others. There wasn’t that circumstance of I couldn’t play any better. Where am I in my career? That’s for other people to talk about,” Witten said. “I didn’t think in 2017 that I wasn’t able to get the job done to my standard. I never left thinking my body couldn’t do it anymore. I know it’s not going to last forever. I’m not pretending I’m going to play until I’m 45.”

While Witten was wrestling with the idea of a return all last season, he was fully invested with broadcasting and felt like he was improving as the year progressed. Unlike his buddy Romo, however, Witten wasn’t a natural from the start. Heck, Romo is a once-in-a-lifetime situation. And being thrust into the spotlight, into one of the more high-profile platforms in media, isn’t the easiest of challenges. Even Cris Collinsworth and Troy Aikman spent a few years working their way up the ladder, not just thrown on their network’s top teams and told to go.

Not to make excuses for him, either, but working a three-man team when one of the guys (Booger McFarland) is on the field didn’t help the situation, either. And all three were in their first year together, each a rookie in terms of calling NFL games. As for the criticism, and there was plenty of it via talking heads and social media, Witten admits to hearing the negativity.

“Like with anything, I kept thinking, Give it time, give it time,” Witten said. “What you say doesn’t always come across like you wanted it too. I did enjoy interviewing. I liked asking good questions. So much of that is on the surface, things you have to cover. I liked getting in the weeds. And there were some cool moments. Calling Drew Brees breaking the touchdown record and interviewing him before the game and seeing his family there, that was like, wow, this is pretty neat. But there’s just something about being in the boat with the guys, and you’re not in the boat in broadcasting.”

Another aspect of the job Witten enjoyed was watching tape of different teams, not just the upcoming opponent – the broad spectrum of the NFL as he calls it. Also, being able to digest story lines taking place during the season.

“Like the Raiders trade Khalil Mack, and you have the Bears the next weekend and they are telling you how they made the trade, and that night you are thinking, What would I do in that situation?” Witten said. “Whereas a player, you might see Mack was traded on the scroll, and you’re like, man, Khalil Mack was traded. I can’t believe it. And then you have a second to think about it before a team meeting. So it was neat to hear a lot of different things and have time to process it.”

As for the timeline of unretiring, for starters, Witten made the decision more with his brain than his heart. And in those instances, there is almost never peace. When training camp started, there was the first tug, the first time there was legitimate football (not OTAs or minicamp) taking place where he would have been there. That was expected, though, and Witten had spoken with a lot of recently retired athletes and knew that was coming.

But yearning never relented. The tugging was almost daily. Every week he’d tell himself, tell his wife, this is just part of the retirement transition, keep grinding with the announcing. Few people enjoy the process of improving more than Witten, and this was just another challenge.

There were also a few chats with head coach Jason Garrett, who was more than interested in having his longtime captain return to the team. Witten was clear he wasn’t changing his mind during the season. He owed it to ESPN for giving him the opportunity. After calling a playoff game and then the Pro Bowl, Witten talked with Garrett and Cowboys executive vice president Stephen Jones. The first step was Witten finding out if he could get into the physical shape in which he needed to be. So he took a month and found he was feeling even better than in 2017. On Feb. 28, the announcement was made, “Witt” was back.

“I’ve been through a lot with those guys. There was a bond with these guys and I wanted back in. I just wanted an opportunity,” Witten said. “It was so hard watching games last year, hard on the family. Watching the Rams playoff game and the kids are screaming and hoping they can win it. You know, I thought I was going to enjoy calling a game with the Cowboys and I didn’t. It was so hard to watch them play and not be a part of the team.

“Part of broadcasting, I just didn’t feel like I was me. I learned a lot through that. I got better because of that. It wasn’t like I went back to playing because I couldn’t have done that another season. It was just such a unique opportunity. I wanted to play, I wanted to work my ass off with the guys. I know what the challenge is, and I have a lot to prove.”

One of the challenges, at least in Witten’s mind, was talking to the younger players who had grown into leadership roles since he left the team. At the first OTA practice, Witten addressed the team and even had some one-on-one discussions with several teammates.

“You bring a different perspective,” Witten said. “It was important for me for all these young players who I have a lot of respect for, I didn’t want them to take a backseat with me coming back. And they haven’t.

“I know they have a lot of respect for me. I also remember being a young player, and when it’s your time, you don’t want someone hovering over you. I communicated that to the team early on. Here are the wings, I’m deferring that. If they need me, I’m all-in, and there have been moments like that. That transition though has been seamless. You can’t really script how that’s going to go, and it’s been fantastic.”

On the field, entering what will be his franchise-record 16th season, Witten has looked spry, his hands as reliable as ever. At a late training camp practice in Frisco, the loudest cheers of the day come on a 30-yard seam route, Witten securing the Dak Prescott toss in stride. Later, in a two-minute drill, the tight end caught two more passes in tight coverage, talked his usual trash after each and tugged down his jersey, just like he has 1,152 times during the regular season.

More so, it’s obvious to those who have been around him the majority of his career that Witten is enjoying the journey a little more than in the past. Yes, he’s as intense as ever, but he’s taking an extra look around, soaking in the sights.

“I am smelling the roses a little bit along the way, just having the perspective of being away for a year, and appreciating all this more,” Witten said. “If I’m being honest, over the course of my career, and I don’t like looking back, I take pride in not doing that. But you know I was a driven son of a bitch. It’s a great blessing in a lot of ways. It goes fast. I am making the extra effort to, say, help a guy on a route, help with running a play a certain way or share an extra laugh with a teammate. Look, we’ve always had a good time around here, but I am more joyful and smelling the roses more without question.”

“Now, from the perspective of ethos, keep playing in the grass, lot of weeds around right now, how many plays is he taking off, can he do this, is he too old, blah, blah. I just have to trust what I’m all about. I’ll be honest, I don’t know what kind of year it’s going to be, but I feel on schedule and I wouldn’t bet against me. I haven’t had a day yet when I wake up and think, I don’t know how I’m going to get through this day.

It’s difficult to envision anyone betting against Jason Witten. Yeah, he’s 37 years old. The only tight ends in NFL history to catch 60 balls at that age are Tony Gonzalez in 2013 and Ben Watson in 2017. And while nothing is set in stone, there are more than likely going to be fewer snaps, especially with young talent on the depth chart in Blake Jarwin and Dalton Schultz.

Then again, there might not be a more reliable target in the league on third-and-5. And no one appreciates that more than Prescott.

Witten couldn’t be more appreciative of this opportunity. Of course, the decision was a no-brainer for the Cowboys, having a future Hall of Famer on the field and a Walter Payton Award winner in the locker room doing what he loves, what he desires, what he craves, back in the boat with his teammates, ready for the grind of another football season. This is the only place Jason Witten wants to be. On the field, in the grass, ripping up those weeds.

“That wasn’t the fairytale ending,” Witten said. “I don’t want to come back and be a good veteran presence and have respect. No, I want to help this team win however I can.

“My mind-set changed when I had this opportunity. I no longer want to ever think I can’t do it. I fully committed to it. I told people around me I don’t want to hear those things. I told the coaching staff early on, too. It is what it is. I’m 37 years old, been out of the game for a year and probably will have a lot of plays taken from me this year. I just ask for a chance. Coach my ass hard, be critical of me. Approach it like a rookie, you don’t know anything, learn it again. Just give me a chance.

“I don’t want people in my life who are going to get in the way of things we can’t change.”

What Witten can and wants to change with every fiber of his being is leaving the playing field for the final time, whenever that may be, with a Super Bowl ring. That’s the fairytale ending. The legacy of the man has already been written. The legacy of the football player is again an unfinished journey.

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