Mayor Curt Alexander giving Jason Witten mayoral proclamation proclaiming the first annual Jason Witten Day.
ELIZABETHTON — “What a year he has had,” master of ceremonies Dale Fair said Friday afternoon about Jason Witten.
Fair was not referring to Witten’s accomplishments on the football field as a tight end for the Dallas Cowboys, even though those accomplishments were extraordinary for someone coming back from a lacerated spleen.
Fair was talking about the awards Witten earned with his tender heart rather than his sure hands. Speaking from the main stage of the 47th Annual Covered Bridge Celebration, Fair said Witten became the first man in history to receive both the Walter Payton Man of the Year Award and the Bart Starr Award in the same year.
The Payton award is presented to a National Football League player for his volunteer and charity work as well as his excellence on the field. The Starr award honors the NFL player who best exemplifies outstanding character and leadership in the home, on the field and in the community.
On Friday, Witten was given yet another honor this year. This one was granted to him by those who have known him the longest. His hometown celebrated Friday as “Jason Witten Day.”
Mayor Curt Alexander read the proclamation and presented Witten with a key to the city. Witten was also presented with a portrait of the Covered Bridge and new street signs that will be erected at all the entrances to the city. The signs announce that Elizabethton is “the home of Jason Witten, the 2012 Walter Payton Man of the Year.”
Despite temperatures in the upper 80s and a bright sun, a large crowd was on hand to honor Witten. Many, like Fair, had relationships with Witten that go back many years.
Fair, who is president of Carter County Bank, former mayor of Carter County and, like Witten, a former Elizabethton High School and University of Tennessee football player, said he has known Witten since he first moved to Elizabethton in the sixth grade. Fair said his son, Justin Fair, was also in the sixth grade at the time and quickly became close friends with Witten. The boys took turns spending the nights at each other’s home.
Fair said his son now is a State Department employee working in Croatia. He said the two longtime friends still maintain daily contact even though they live on different continents.
In his acceptance speech, Witten admitted that when he moved to Elizabethton he wondered what the future held for him. He said he learned a lot in Elizabethton, including an understanding of the importance of hard work. He said the greatest thing he found in Elizabethton was his wife, Michelle. She works as a trauma nurse in the emergency room of Parkland Hospital in Dallas. They have two sons, C.J. and Cooper, and a daughter, Landry.
Several members of Witten’s family were also present and spoke about him. Oldest brother Ryan said “I am blessed to have a great brother.”
Brother Shawn, the head football coach at Elizabethton High School, said his brother is “the ultimate professional.”
The Wittens’ grandfather, Dave Rider, who was also the coach at Elizabethton when the Wittens played, was overcome by emotion at the community’s outpouring of thanks for Jason. “The best decision I ever made was to come to Elizabethton,” Rider said.
It was appropriate that as the city was giving its accolades to Witten, he was giving back. He was already scheduled to be in town today for his annual football camp. It is one of the largest free football camps in the nation, with more than 1,200 children expected to attend. Witten also revealed that he started his well-known SCORE charitable foundation to fund free admissions when he found out some children could not afford to attend his first camp.
SCORE has launched numerous charitable projects in both Texas and Tennessee, including Jason Witten Learning Centers at Boys and Girls Clubs in Dallas, Knoxville and Elizabethton, and SCORE Keepers, a program to combat domestic violence. Jason and Michelle funded the construction of the Jason Witten Emergency Waiting Room at Niswonger Children’s Hospital in Johnson City.
Witten closed Friday’s ceremonies by presenting one of his $5,000 Jason Witten Scholarships usually awarded at the football camp. This year’s award went to Christina Hardin, a placekicker and soccer player at Elizabethton. He said she had 100 goals in soccer and 100 points in football and holds the record for the longest field goal in the state by a female. She will continue her education at Milligan College.