ELIZABETHTON — Jason Witten turned 30 last month and the Jason Witten Football Camp turned 10 on Saturday, but exciting thousands of youngsters through the years never gets old.
A five-time All-Pro tight end, Witten has played in seven pro bowls. The Dallas Cowboys’ 6-foot-6, 265-pounder has 696 career receptions and 41 touchdowns.
And he’s even more valuable off the field, as his lengthy list of humanitarian endeavors attests.
“It’s definitely a humbling experience,” Witten said during a break between his youth and teenage camps Saturday. “In football terms, you’re called a veteran in your 10th year, and this is where this camp is. I’ve seen a lot of kids come through and now come back and be a part of the staff. It’s an awesome day. I’m just thrilled to be able be here and do this. … It gets better and better each year.”
Witten believes his Dallas Cowboys have gotten better since last season, which ended in a loss to the New York Giants in a regular-season finale with the NFC East Division at stake. Some 31â„2 hours after the Giants and Cowboys each began the do-or-die game with 8-7 records, the upstart Giants were on their way to another Super Bowl title and the Cowboys were left once again to pick up the pieces.
“We’ve gotta execute better,” Witten said. “Obviously, we’re extremely motivated. What happened last year — it was disappointing to lose that way we lost to the Giants and then they went on to win the Super Bowl.”
Witten and teammate Gerald Sensabaugh, who was at Witten’s camp, like where they’re at with veteran quarterback Tony Romo and young coach Jason Garrett. Sensabaugh signed a five-year extension in the offseason.
“I think we’ve got great leadership,” Witten said. “I think Tony’s an elite quarterback. Gerald, I’m thankful that he got a long-term deal. I think he’s headed in the right direction, and really gonna be a really, really good safety in the National Football League and a great leader for our team.”
Romo gets the majority of the blame for the stumbling style Cowboys fans have become accustomed to enduring.
“He’s a good quarterback,” Sensabaugh said. “I mean, you can check his stats. He’s up there at the top with the guys. … I think he gets overly criticized. …
“I think Coach Garrett has brought in a great attitude to our team this year.”
Sensabaugh said Witten is a tremendous leader, too.
A former Dobyns-Bennett standout, Sensabaugh smiles remembering his introduction to Witten on the same field that he was standing on Saturday, which is named for Witten’s grandfather, Dave Rider.
“I was a cornerback and he lined up out there, and I was like, ‘What are you doing out here? You’re too big to be out here,’” said Sensabaugh, whose Indians beat Witten’s Elizabethton Cyclones. “He was the biggest player out there. We had to have, like, four people to tackle him.”
Witten was well represented by his alma mater Saturday, including current Tennessee Volunteers such as quarterback Tyler Bray, offensive tackle Antonio “Tiny” Richardson and tight end Brendan Downs.
An experienced Bray, a veteran offensive line, a healthy Justin Hunter, a focused Da’Rick Rogers and the addition of junior-college wideout Cordarelle Patterson should make UT’s offense explosive in 2012.
“If we do what we should do, we should be unstoppable,” Bray said.
Downs had a productive spring in preparation for his upcoming sophomore season. The dismissal of large, athletic tight end Cameron Clear will likely increase playing time, too.
“It’ll be good just to get on the field more, but I’m not looking at it like that,” said Downs, who attended Witten camps long before he played at Tennessee High back when basketball was still his primary sport. “We’re past that. We’re just trying to get better every day now as a unit.”
Downs had three receptions and played in eight games as a freshman. He said Bray and the receivers are much more comfortable now, and the entire team seems more polished than what it was at this time last year.
“I’d say, like, we’re miles ahead of where we were — I mean, just from my standpoint,” Downs said. “I feel like we’ve got — we’re working harder, we’ve got a lot more depth. So I think that we’re a lot further ahead. …
“We’re gonna have some real good receivers; we should. It should open up the running game for us, too. So we’ll see how that works.”
The Vols will return to Carter County later this summer. A week of August camp will be conducted at Milligan College to help build unity in an offseason that’s included seven assistant coaches being hired by head coach Derek Dooley, who enters his third season with an 11-14 record at Tennessee.
Witten said it’d be good for the area to have UT’s team up here for a week, but didn’t feel like his August camps on campus deprived his Tennessee teams of any preparation.
“It is becoming more of a trend,” Witten said, “but we had a lot of hard days down there in Knoxville.”
Witten will play in the annual Niswonger Children’s Hospital Golf Classic on Monday at The Blackthorn Club at the Ridges. The star-studded field is scheduled to include Peyton Manning, Dan Marino, Billy Wagner, Phillip Fulmer, Frank Beamer, Bruce Pearl, Cuonzo Martin, Corey Pavin, Sensabaugh and Bill Bates.
“It’s gonna be a great event,” Witten said. “It’s great what Scott (Niswonger) does. I mean, more important than the celebrities, it’s the difference you make in the community with the hospital. Kids’ lives are getting saved every day because of it. … I think it’s great publicity for this area and obviously it’s for a great cause.”