Rumored as likely for a couple weeks, the story verified yesterday: Jason Witten, Dallas Cowboys tight end, Mr. Dependable, Number 82, retired after a team-record 15 seasons. Observing well-known Blue Star tight ends like Billy Joe DuPree and Doug Cosbie as a kid, and Jay Novacek on the dynastic Super Bowl teams of the 1990s, I didn’t imagine we would see one arrive to outperform them all, by a large margin. I’ve been watching Cowboys games since I was a little kid in the mid-’70s, and can assure you he’s among the top few greatest players among the many greats ever to wear the star.
Rightly, fans, other players and coaches alike stand in starstruck admiration of Witten’s on-field accomplishments, including team records for games played (239), games started (229), receptions (1152), receiving yards (12,488), and a team and NFL record for receptions in a game by a tight end (18, against a team he tormented often, the Giants). He ranks first in NFL history for tight-end receptions in a season (110), second all-time in the NFL in single-game receptions by a tight end (18), and fourth for any position. It seemed like Witten would play forever; the big man in the #82 jersey, trotting on the field every game, was so dependable and easy to take for granted.
While these stats amaze us in and of themselves, they hint at a greater truth: such accomplishments happen only through a combination of avoidance of severe injury, with both great training and good luck involved, and unwavering dedication to the craft. Remembering Witten for his iron-man achievements in a violent sport, I can’t even fathom playing just two weeks after a busted jaw — the intervening game being the only one he ever missed — nor playing the season opener on a still-healing spleen just a few weeks after it got lacerated in a tremendous preseason hit. Of course, there was the hallmark play of his career: where two Eagles players slammed into him at once, bouncing off of Witten in different directions while his helmet flew in another, and he just kept running, for a 53-yard gain. Add in all the selfless, behind-the-scenes blocking prowess that made him the NFL’s most complete tight end, and his longevity rises from remarkable to astounding.
That all this deserved respect and accolades are showered on Witten — a man who is humble and still somewhat uncomfortable in the spotlight despite being one of the best all-time players on tradition-soaked America’s Team — is no coincidence. Witten is a man of strong Christian faith, and the Christian worldview clearly informs and guides his life and his work. In justifying his drive to excel and his unsurpassed work ethic, he cites one of my favorite verses, Colossians 3:23; “Whatever you do, work at it with all your heart, as working for the Lord, not for human masters,…”. This is a principle I’ve long strived to apply to severe-storms meteorology, and recognized it early in Witten’s football work, long before knowing he also specifically followed the same verse. As such, and knowing any player who earned the famously cranky Bill Parcells’ respect so early in his career must be doing something right, I became a Witten fan fast.
Many words exist to describe what he brought to the Cowboys and the sport at top performance level, and here are some:
Yes, honor…he gave it, he received it, and he earned it, on and off the field. No question, he will have a bust in the Pro Football Hall of Fame in the next 5-6 years. In 2012, Witten won the NFL’s highest humanitarian award, the Walter Payton Man of the Year, for his combination of playing excellence and community service. His charitable foundations and causes included kids’ fitness and the struggle to stop domestic violence — the latter a poignant point after spending part of his childhood around his wife-beating, alcoholic father. Witten’s charitable involvement isn’t for show — it is authentic, deeply personal and meaningful. He is even more devoted as a father and husband than he was to football.
Witten has earned every last bit of the respect he has gotten and will get. Thinking of his career makes me glad and thankful to be a fan of his and the Cowboys, the only regret being that he couldn’t get a Super Bowl ring to cap it off. For good reason, many coaches on his team have told new players: If you want to succeed, find someone who does it the right way, all the time, and follow his example…and that guy is #82.
Witten never, ever let his fans down, on or off the field. I can’t express how rare and refreshing that is, and how grateful I am to have followed his career with the Cowboys. His retirement press-conference speech showed once more the class and honor we have come to expect, respect and admire from Jason Witten.
Elke and I watched his classy and heartfelt retirement speech while eating lunch at Qdoba yesterday…
As a sportsman and a man outside sports, Jason Witten has been top-caliber, and he will succeed in TV and beyond at whatever he does, because he both played the game and conducts his life the right way. “I relied on grit…the secret is in the dirt. I have to be willing to go out and earn it.” Earn it, he did. Success wasn’t handed to him on a silver spoon. He rose from disadvantage and busted his ass hard to succeed, while also honoring those who helped him along that journey. Here’s a story about Witten’s most effective receiving play and how he made it so, exemplifying his playing style and work ethic.
“I hope I made you proud to be a Dallas Cowboys fan.” You did, Jason, and you do. May God’s blessings keep shining upon you in your TV gig and beyond.