Jason Witten with kids at his annual camp in Elizabethton (Dave Boyd/Johnson City Press)
Jason Witten’s award-winning concern for others never rings hollow, but he’ll be the first to tell you that only a Super Bowl ring can fill a particular hole in his big, hungry heart.
Last season was the Dallas Cowboy All-Pro tight end’s 10th in the NFL, and from a personal standpoint, his most gratifying. Witten’s excellence on and off the field enabled him to become the first NFL player to win the Walter Payton and Bart Starr awards in the same season. His 110 catches were a season record for tight ends. His wife, Michelle, gave birth to their third child in October, which was their first daughter (Landry).
The special year essentially culminated this weekend. Jason Witten Day was held in conjunction with the Covered Bridge Festival on Friday and Witten’s 11th annual camp featured well in excess of 1,000 campers on Saturday at Dave Rider Field, which is named for Witten’s grandfather.
“It’s been special,” Witten said Saturday morning. “I mean, going back to last season – the spleen injury and bouncing back when people were counting me out to catch 110 passes, and to have a baby – a little girl – and then to go on and have the Bart Starr and Walter Payton – just been an amazing year for me. … You know, never in a million years thought that maybe one day I’d have a thousand catches in the National Football League. …
“More than anything, I just think it kind of topped my career off being able to accomplish a lot of things, but you know, holding that Lombardi Trophy – that’s the only thing remaining. And every day I wake up, that’s what I’m focused on trying to achieve.”
The Cowboys haven’t finished above .500 in each of the three seasons since winning their first playoff game in 13 years during the 2009 season. They went 8-8 each of the past two seasons, and could’ve clinched a playoff berth in the final game both seasons. But Eli Manning’s New York Giants and Robert Griffin’s Washington Redskins had other ideas.
“I mean look, two years at 8-8 … and play for the division championship in Week 17, you feel like you’re close in a lot of ways,” Witten said. “Having said that, it’s not enough. We worked really hard this offseason. When we’re in those tight-situation games two years in a row with the Giants and Redskins we’ve gotta somehow find a way to win those games. And Eli and RG3 and those guys have done that; we haven’t.
“I think our football team understands we’re close, but we’ve gotta do more. I thought we had a good draft and signing Tony to a long deal helped, but we’ve gotta stay healthy more than anything. I think we’ve got a good chance.”
Witten, who turned 31 last month, has more time on his side than fellow star tight end Tony Gonzalez, who decided to delay retirement one more season because he thinks the Atlanta Falcons can win the next Super Bowl. But Witten’s desire makes his quest seem just as pressing.
“I’ve been able to change some of my training habits that’s allowed me to, you know, be faster and stronger and leaner,” he said, “and I take a lot of pride in doing all those things and playing in a lot of games and only missing one game. … I love playing, so I’m gonna continue to do it. I think we’ve got a core group of guys that, you know, that window’s right now and we need to capture it. …
“Demarcus Ware, myself, Jay Ratliff, Tony (Romo), Miles Austin, Dez Bryant – I mean, we’ve got some key guys. We’ve gotta keep them healthy and see how it falls. So I think we’ve got a good team. We’ve got a long training camp with that extra game up in Canton. I think that’ll be good work for us.”
It surely won’t be Witten’s last trip to Canton. He has Hall of Fame credentials, as former NFL All-Pro quarterback Brad Johnson pointed out Saturday. Johnson, who threw two touchdown passes while leading Tampa Bay to a 48-21 victory against the Oakland Raiders in Super Bowl XXXVII in January of 2003, was one of the instructors at Witten’s camp this year.
Johnson played for Dallas in 2007-08. He said Witten’s a complete player, which isn’t common in an era of specialization.
“He’s not just a pass catcher; he’s not just a blocker,” Johnson said. “He can play out of the backfield … at H-back. He can run all the pass routes, can run out wide, can run the tight end stuff, obviously, and can run routes from the backfield. But also he can protect.”
Johnson, who played in high school nearby in Black Mountain, N.C., had heard about the popularity of Witten’s camp.
“When he called me to come up here he was just excited for the coaches (camp instructors) to be a part of this and how exciting the day was,” Johnson said. “I was like, ‘Yeah, yeah, yeah, yeah, yeah.’ And now, being a part of it, I see how special it is. And the long line of people waiting to come in the camp …
“He’s just got that something about him that makes you want to gravitate to him. Obviously, he’ll probably be in the (Dallas) Ring of Fame one day, and hopefully and probably in the Hall of Fame, too.”
Among the instructors were Tennessee players Antonio “Tiny” Richardson, Curt Maggitt, Mack Crowder and Brendan Downs, and Clemson’s Wes Forbush, a Science Hill alum.
Maggitt and Richardson said they were eager to assist Witten for a second straight year. In fact, their enthusiasm was similar to what’s evidently been generated at UT by new Volunteers coach Butch Jones.
“There’s a different vibe,” Maggitt said. “I told coach Jones … a couple of weeks after he came in, just the whole vibe, like, it felt like Florida week. The excitement … you could just feel it in the air.”
Jones’ predecessor at Tennessee, Derek Dooley, is now the Dallas Cowboys receivers coach.
“I’ve known Derek for a long time,” Witten said. “Unfortunately it didn’t work out for him at Tennessee. You know, college football and NFL, it’s a cutthroat business, a bottom-line business. … But I was glad to see him come to Dallas. I think he’s a good coach … and he’ll bounce back. So he’ll be an asset for us and help Dez and Miles Austin take their game to even a better level.”
Dooley began his full-time coaching career in Dallas when he arrived there in 1997 as part of Mike Cavan’s first staff after Cavan led East Tennessee State to the FCS quarterfinals in ’96. Witten’s coach at Tennessee, College Football Hall of Famer Phillip Fulmer, is helping the ETSU football program’s reboot, which included naming Carl Torbush as the Buccaneers’ head coach on Friday.
“I got to have lunch with Coach Fulmer yesterday,” Witten said. “He had a huge impact on my life. I was excited to see him have a role at ETSU. I think just bringing football back to this area, you know, for ETSU is just so important, and I think he’ll do a great job. I’m excited for them and this community to have East Tennessee State football.”
Among the autographed helmets that were sold to raise money for Witten’s SCORE Foundation were ones signed by Roger Staubach, Joe Montana and Robert Griffin, III. The RG3 was said to have sold for $500, although Witten was surprised to learn such a helmet was even in a Cowboys camp. Had he known, he joked, he might’ve had throw it in the trash.