ELIZABETHTON — Jason Witten is edging into the twilight of his career with his Dallas Cowboys stardom shining brightly.
Witten hosted hundreds of children and teenagers during his 12th annual football camp Saturday at the field named after his grandfather, Dave Rider, and current Tennessee players such as A.J. Johnson, Curt Maggitt, Pig Howard and Mack Crowder appeared as eager to absorb advice as the youthful campers they were instructing.
“He’s done been through the process,” Johnson said. “He’s where I’m trying to get and having a great career and a great guy. So I’m most definitely gonna have some words with him.”
Witten stressed an ever-growing hunger for a championship, but memories and milestones were also on his mind as he stood in the grass where his legend began to take root with the Elizabethton Cyclones.
“I can think back of many years sitting on this field and a lot of great memories,” Witten said, “not just as a player, but growing up as a ballboy and everything that took place before I even started playing here. ... So it’s always humbling to see this many kids.”
Witten, a 6-foot-6, 260-pound six-time All-Pro tight end, has 879 career receptions for 9,799 yards. Nine-hundred catches and 10,000 receiving yards sound like a wide-open route to the NFL Hall of Fame.
“Obvioulsy, I try not to think about that now, just because you’re so focused on helping your team win a championship and I think it’d almost be selfish to think what’s gonna happen,” Witten said. “But that’ll work itself out. Obviously, I’ve got a lot of respect for this game and the men that made this game great over the years.
“I’ve been fortunate to go to the Hall of Fame in the last few years. I got to go last year and see coach (Bill) Parcells inducted. Man, what an honor that’d be if that ever happened one day.”
Witten obviously wants a championship more than catches, but his substantial stat sheet has exceeded what even he could have expected when drafted by the tight end-friendly Parcells in 2003.
“To think maybe there’s a chance you can get a 1,000 catches and go over the 10,000 mark is, I mean, who would’ve ever thought, you know, 15 years ago,” Witten said. “So I’m honored by it. I just keep pushing myself. I learned this from Parcells early on: the bar gets raised more and more and more. You can have 73 catches, ‘Ah, Witten had a down year.’ That’s good, though. You want to set the standard ... high for yourself. ... That’d be obviously a huge honor to be able to join that group, because there are so few that have 900 catches.”
The Cowboys have sputtered to 8-8 records each of the past three seasons. The last winning season (11-5) was 2009.
“Our seasons the last three years (were) 8-8,” Witten said. “So you’re on the verge of winning the division and a home playoff game and you come up short. It’s challenging. And as a leader of that team, you look yourself in the mirror and say, ‘I’ve gotta do a better job.’ I believe we’re gonna have a great group and we’re gonna be better, and that’s what’s gonna make this journey even so much more special. ... I’ve been able to have a good career and make good money, and it’s about leading my team to compete for a Super Bowl.”
Witten is excited about playing the Tennessee Titans in Nashville this season.
“It’ll probably be my last trip to Tennessee ... so I’m looking forward to coming back and playing in front of that crowd,” he said.
Titans defensive back Coty Sensabaugh is a cousin of Witten’s former Dallas teammate, Gerald Sensabaugh. Witten is impressed with the Sensabaugh camp in Kingsport. Coty has raised a lot of money for leukemia research. His brother, Jamaar, died with the disease at age 16 when Coty was 11.
“Coty and a lot of others are fine young men,” Witten said, “that understand we have a huge platform and an opportunity to give back. ... Obviously, I’m a big fan of Coty and what he stands for.”
The Witten camp mantra from the get-go has been about pursuing dreams, and Mack Crowder is glad he has. The Tennessee High alum is atop the UT depth chart at center.
“Dreams do come true, and for me it has so far,” Crowder said. “And you know, hopefully these kids will get to experience something similar to what I have. ... It’s pretty neat, but I try not to look at it too much. I try to stay humble and just continue to work ... like I’m still a backup. I feel like if I keep that mindset then I’ll never get complacent; I’ll always have a hard edge about me.”
Crowder worked out with another future Hall of Famer when Peyton Manning visited UT this week. Manning even took snaps from Crowder.
“That was pretty cool,” Crowder said. “I got a little nervous though when he was underneath. I didn’t want to break his hand or anything, you know, a couple of multi-million dollar hands.”
Crowder said Manning stressed how high nearly any excellent NFL player’s football IQ is.
“He’s obviously one of the smartest guys that plays the game,” Crowder said, “and you know, that’s something we can all improve on.”
Redshirt junior defensive lineman Curt Maggitt is impressed with rising sophomore Devaun Swafford, and that’s nothing against Swafford’s former Dobyns-Bennett teammate, Malik Foreman.
“I haven’t been around Foreman as much just because of class schedule and workout schedule,” Maggitt said. “But Swafford, he’s somebody I like a lot. I like his work ethic. Anything I ask him to do he’s doing it a hundred percent. He’s gonna help us win. He’s gonna be a great one or us in the future to come.”
Pig Howard is just happy to say he has a future with Tennessee. He missed spring camp for personal reasons after leading UT with 44 receptions last season.
“You’ll see me on the field in the fall,” Howard said with a smile. “I’m doing everything right. ... I’m just happy to be back.”
Howard noted the recruiting job Butch Jones has done while bringing in players such as Josh Malone, Jalen Hurd, Von Pearson, Emmanuel Moseley and Evan and Elliott Berry. Malone’s mother, Becky, went to David Crockett, and her father, Columbus Williams, played on the Johnson City-Langston Golden Tigers team that beat Elizabethton-Douglas 134-0 in 1957.
Witten’s brother Shawn, whose daughter was born Saturday, has a Division I recruit in Ethan Thomas at Elizabethton.
“Encourage him to set the bar even higher,” Witten said. “I know just being there that people will often times tell you you’re doing a great job and the real good ones are ones that can say, ‘I can do it again and do it better.’ Great kid. I’m sure Shawn’s done a really good job with him and I’m pulling for him. Obviously, he’s got a lot of talent.”
Anything remotely resembling Witten’s career is an obvious stretch at this point. But as Witten said, who would’ve thought he’d done what he has 15 years ago?
And 15 years from now Witten will likely still be helping dreams and giving back to communities continue to catch on.comments powered by Disqus