Toughness, class have defined Witten's career

Jeff Birchfield • Updated Apr 29, 2018 at 3:00 PM

One play defines Jason Witten's 15-year NFL career more than any other.

It came in the Dallas Cowboys' Sunday Night Football game against the Philadelphia Eagles in 2007. Witten catches a pass from quarterback Tony Romo and is hit by two Eagles defenders, who rip off his helmet.

Witten keeps going, running downfield on a 53-yard play before being tackled at the 5-yard line.

Legendary coach and analyst John Madden comments, "When you can do that, then you're a tough football player."

Indeed, he has been.

It was reported Friday that Witten will be leaving his No. 82 jersey and the playing field behind, although Dallas Cowboys owner Jerry Jones, speaking on behalf of Witten, said the decisions aren't definite at this time.

But it's hard to see the former Elizabethton High School and University of Tennessee star turning down one of the most prestigious jobs in football, and also one of the marquee jobs in television as the new color analyst of Monday Night Football.

While Witten should be a first-ballot Hall of Famer as a player, he will likely become much more famous through the new television role.

But to look back at his football career, it has been nothing short of spectacular. Romo created somewhat of a controversy a couple of years ago by saying that Witten was the best Cowboys player ever. Some argued the title should go to either Emmitt Smith, the NFL's all-time leading rusher, or legendary quarterback Roger Staubach — with each having multiple Super Bowl wins.

One thing for sure is that Witten belongs in the conversation.

While a Super Bowl win is the one major omission from his resume, Witten has played in 11 Pro Bowls, tied with Hall of Fame defensive lineman Bob Lilly for the most appearances by a Cowboys player.

Witten holds Cowboys records for most career receptions (1,152), most career receiving yards (12,448), and most receptions (18) in a single game. As a true measure of toughness, he has the franchise records for most games played (239) and most consecutive starts (178). Those include playing just weeks after suffering a lacerated spleen in the 2012 preseason.

He holds the NFL single-season record (110) for most catches by a tight end and ranks second behind only Tony Gonzalez among tight ends in both catches and yards. However, Witten is considered by many the better all-around player, a noted blocker on run plays, pass protection and even blocking on special teams for field goals and extra points.

"You cannot tell me there's a better tight end to ever play the game," ESPN analyst Darren Woodson said. "This guy, not only he is a great pass catcher, but he'll do everything. He lines up on the edge. He'll reach block you. He'll motion in the backfield. He'll lead-draw you as a fullback. He's a complete tight end."

Even more than his toughness, Witten has represented the Cowboys, the University of Tennessee and his home area in the Tri-Cities region and his hometown of Elizabethton with class, winning the NFL's prestigious Walter Payton Man of the Year Award in 2012. Fittingly, the college football version of the honor is now called the Jason Witten Man of the Year Award.

Witten has certainly earned the respect of his peers as legendary quarterback Peyton Manning talked about his impact.

"Jason is certainly one of the top players and top guys in the league," Manning said. "I can remember like it was yesterday going back to Knoxville and working out with him when he was in college. He's been a great player, a great friend and someone great for his community."

Steve Johnson, the Bristol developer who played tight end for the New England Patriots, added, "It's phenomenal what he's done, but if you only know Jason from his football, you don't know the best part of him. He's an unbelievable human being."

His work to help victims of domestic abuse and his annual football camp for kids are prime examples of Witten's willingness to give to others. You hear the respect from those he played for, or has played with.

Witten was an All-SEC selection who caught the winning pass to end a six-overtime game against Arkansas, and his 64-yard touchdown catch against Michigan was the defining play in the 2002 Citrus Bowl.

Former Vols coach Phil Fulmer said about Witten, "No question, he's one of the greatest football players of all-time. He's a Hall of Famer for sure."

Romo, the quarterback who was his teammate for 14 years, said: "Literally, his career has been exceptional. He's hit every mark you could ever have and he's going down as the first or second greatest tight end of all-time."

Michael Morrell, his high school sports teammate at Elizabethton and recently named the head basketball coach at UNC Asheville, said much of Witten's success comes from the influence of his grandfather, former Cyclones football coach Dave Rider, and the rest of his family.

"At the core of Jason, he's just a good guy," Morrell said. "A lot of it has to do with Coach (Dave) Rider, his family and his upbringing. No matter what obstacle was thrown his way, he overcame and persevered and worked to achieve what he wanted. What he's meant to the area and to the people who really love him is second to none.

"We've had so many conversations that have had nothing to do with football or basketball. I remember in the fifth grade when he moved here and we've been close, close friends ever since. Just watching him how he's grown as a father and a person, what he's done for our area the last 20 years, it speaks volumes. He's just a great guy."

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