The Dallas Cowboys are America's Team, and they have fans all over the country -- even in enemy territory. Still, growing up a Cowboys fan when you live in central New Jersey can be a bit lonely at times. Most of my childhood friends were fans of the New York Giants, and those that weren't mostly favored the Jets.
I never really had a choice when it came to my Cowboys fandom, though. My father was going to make damn sure that both of his sons were Cowboys fans if it was the last thing he ever did. (We are, but it wasn't.) I was wearing Troy Aikman and Emmitt Smith jerseys before I really knew what football was. Of course, if my father's prodding didn't seal my allegiance to the team with the star on the side of its helmet, the team's massive run of success during the early part of my childhood likely would have done it anyway. The Cowboys won three Super Bowl before I turned 8 years old, and I'm sure back then I felt like they would never stop winning.
We know that's not how things turned out. The Cowboys did in fact stop winning Super Bowls after 1995, and for a while during my early teen years, they stopped winning much of anything. They cycled through coaches and quarterbacks on a seemingly annual basis, bouncing from Barry Switzer to Chan Gailey to Dave Campo and from the end of the Troy Aikman era to the short-lived reigns of Quincy Carter and Anthony Wright and Ryan Leaf and Clint Stoerner and Chad Hutchinson.
When the 'Boys responded to their third consecutive 5-11 season under Campo by firing him and replacing him with the legendary Bill Parcells during the 2003 offseason, I couldn't have been more psyched. The first draft pick of the Parcells Era was Terence Newman, who I had just watched dominate college football alongside Ell Roberson and Darren Sproles at Kansas State. Things were looking way, way up, I told myself at the time. And then my 'Boys started rattling off boring prospects. A center I'd never heard of. A goofy looking tight end. A linebacker who seemingly spelled Brady wrong. A guy whose name was seriously Zuriel.
I hated the tight end pick the most. I was still scarred by early-round tight end selections of the recent past, like Kendall Watkins and Eric Bjornson and worst of all, David LaFleur, who this newest tight end looked strangely similar to in size and body type. As you no doubt know by now, I have never been more wrong about anything than I was about that goofy tight end; because that guy was Jason Witten, one of the best Cowboys of all time and a likely Hall of Famer.
Witten has been in my life for longer than most people I know, and he has spent most of that time boggling the minds of opposing defenses and fanbases alike. Witten was never what we'd think of as a superior athlete and he has had precisely zero flash to his game from Day 1. The most athletic thing he ever did was merely have good enough balance to absorb a colossal hit, lose his helmet, and stay off the ground so that he could run an additional 30 or so yards down the field.
Mostly, what Witten did was execute everything with picture-perfect technique, which he had to do in order to get himself open. How this dude, who has been one of the slowest players in the league seemingly forever, continued to find himself open 8-to-10 yards downfield as the league got bigger and faster and quicker and stronger while he stayed exactly the same size and got slower and slower and slower and slower will never cease to amaze me. But he did it, because he was just that crafty. Always.
And when I say always, boy, do I mean always. Witten missed just a single game during his illustrious 15-year career, all the way back in Week 5 of his rookie season. He played 235 consecutive games after that, and he started every single time the Cowboys played from 2004 on. He played with his jaw wired shut in 2003 and with a lacerated spleen in 2012. He played with a fractured rib in 2008 and a sprained MCL in 2010 and with sprains in both his ankles and his knee, all at the same time, in 2015. And he just kept getting open.
Witten isat some point on Friday. He'll head to ESPN to call games on "Monday Night Football," joining his best friend and longtime teammate Tony Romo, as well as other franchise legends like Troy Aikman and Daryl Johnston and Deion Sanders and (my all-time favorite player) Michael Irvin as famous Cowboys on TV. Witten seems likely to shine in the role because he's amiable and friendly, and he loves football, and he's so damn smart. He's long been what reporters call a "great quote," which basically just means he gives real answers as opposed to the rote robotic type of stuff players are now trained to deliver. And of course, he can lean on his wealth of experience and success.
From his NFL debut through the end of his time in the league, only one player in the NFL caught more passes than Jason Witten (Larry Fitzgerald, natch). Only five racked up more receiving yards (Fitzgerald, Andre Johnson, Anquan Boldin, Steve Smith and Reggie Wayne). Witten ranks fourth in league history with his 1,152 catches, and 21st all-time with his 12,448 yards. Only one tight end ever made more Pro Bowls (Tony Gonzalez) and only two (Gonzalez and Antonio Gates) accumulated more value from the beginning of their career to the end, according to Pro-Football-Reference's Approximate Value. He was one of the very rare opposing players to draw praise from Bill Belichick.
During that span of time I graduated from high school and college and law school. I started and ended my own football "career," and admitted to my father that no, I will not actually be trying to walk onto to the University of Miami football team because I am very much aware that I am actually not very good at all. I've had three different careers and I've written for countless websites. I've called nine different physical locations home. I've made new friends and kept old ones, and lost some of both as well. I've lost my childhood dog to old age and I've grown old and responsible and financially stable enough to adopt another dog of my own. I've seen friends and relatives pass away and I've seen friends get married and have children of their own. I've had my heart broken and I've broken some hearts myself. I've had great triumphs and great struggles. I've spent far more time injured than Jason Witten (two knee tears and two hip tears and much, much more), and as mentioned, I stopped playing football altogether just two years into Witten's career.
Through it all, Witten has just gone out there every single Sunday and done what he does. That's over now.
Jason Witten was born five years and two days before me, and he was drafted into the NFL a week and a half before I turned 16 years old. He's retiring from the game exactly 15 years to the day after he was drafted, which means I'm now a week and a half away from turning 31. I've lived almost exactly half a lifetime with Jason Witten as a regular presence in my life, and I've been invested in his success. Given his new job, it seems likely I'll be spending a lot more time with him (on my TV) in the future.
But it won't be the same. He won't be wearing No. 82 or a star on his helmet. He won't be wearing a helmet at all. And he won't be open 8-to-10 yards downfield. He'll be in a suit and wearing an earpiece and holding a microphone. And I'll be wondering where it is my youth went.